The concept seemed simple — pick a specific place and explore it every day for thirty-six days, use only one camera and one lens, and take one photograph each day. One click of the shutter. With film. No second chances, no do-overs.
I’ve been fascinated by this notion ever since watching Jim Brandenburg’s Chased by the Light documentary in which he explores his native Boundary Waters Canoe Area outside of Ely, Minnesota to help reset his soul after decades of demanding work photographing for the National Geographic. The result, published in the November 1997 issue, was the most amount of photographs published in one article by the Geographic at the time and used the least amount of film*.
The autumn of 2017 was the perfect time to embark on this project. I was in the middle of a demanding school project and I simply needed a break; this was the perfect excuse to get outside and collect my thoughts. I settled on October 1 as the starting date.
Brandenburg explored hundreds of square miles of the Boundary Waters using a wide variety of lenses. I decided to give myself a different set of constraints. For this project, I came up with the following:
- One camera (Nikon F65)
- One lens (Nikon Nikkor 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6G)
- One roll of film (Kodak Portra 400)
- One nature area (Greensprings Nature Trail in Williamsburg, Virginia)
The Greensprings Nature Trail, a ten-minute drive from where I was living at the time, has 3.5 miles of wooded trails that traverse a beaver pond/wetland area, and I had explored and photographed it many times over the years, so I was looking forward to this new challenge with this simplified setup. Little did I know how memorable this project would become.
Day one proved to be the most challenging by far. Where to start? What should I photograph? What if I choose to photograph something only to discover something more interesting on the way out? After walking the entire trail I sat down on one of the benches along the trail’s main loop to take a break and think. Just to the side of the bench were two pine trees, and John Muir’s quote “Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world” came to mind and I thought it would be the perfect opening photograph for the project.
The park’s trails are arranged in a figure-eight fashion and each day I would wander through the trails differently, intensely observing what was around me, my senses becoming acutely more sensitive than they had in past photographic outings. I had a small notebook with me to record the day’s subject and exposure information and would also jot down notes about areas to return to or explore further.
Day twenty proved to be a memorable moment. Several days prior, the familiar swamp-like heat and humidity famous to south-eastern Virginia had returned which sapped my energy and enthusiasm. I woke up on October 20 to a crystal clear sky with cool and dry air and I headed down to my favorite area of the park, the northwest corner of the upper beaver pond to enjoy the morning. It was a Friday, the end of the school week, and I tried to arrange my schedule so that I had Fridays free from school assignments. I sat along the edge of the beaver pond and as the sun cleared the trees to the east, some beautiful sunbeams appeared and illuminated the pond. I titled this photo “Thinking of a Friend….” October 20 holds a special day in my heart since it is the anniversary of the day that my wife and I had to put down our beloved greyhound Buster, who had enriched our lives for five wonderful years.
The next two days turned out to be cool and dry as well that gifted me two of my favorite photographs — a sunburst through the forest, and three deer wading through the southern beaver pond, my only wildlife photograph of the project.
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I wanted something special for the last frame of film. As it was early November, autumn was well underway with lots of dramatic colors. Walking the boardwalk that connects the north and south beaver ponds, I came across a young tree that had lost all of its leaves except one, and I thought that it would make a fitting end to the project. I titled this photograph “Last leaf, last day”. An unknown author wrote: “Anyone can love a rose, but it takes a lot to love a leaf. It’s ordinary to love the beautiful, but it’s beautiful to love the ordinary.”
This project was the most memorable photographic experience and to this day I can remember each day vividly — what the weather was like, what was going on in my life, what other compositions I considered, and my thoughts leading up to the images. It truly allowed me to appreciate what was hidden in plain sight, and the daily miracles of nature’s quiet moments. I know that there are more of these moments out there, and I have three more rolls of Portra 400 just waiting to find out.
The rest of my frames follow below:
Technical notes: I sent my film to a well-known lab in the US and the technicians assured me that the color and contrast of the scans were consistent with the typical characteristics of Kodak Portra 400, so apart from some cropping, all of the photos are untouched.
I also created a PDF collection of the images if you’re interested in downloading them:
Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear about any similar experiences or projects you’ve tried yourself!
* As noted in the 2003 film Chased by the Light
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Lovely photos. In the hands of a good photographer the old gear can really shine.
Thanks Gary! Using the older gear brings me right back to high school photography class. I really value how much using film slows me down and consider each composition – something that I unfortunately often neglect with digital.
Love this project! Kind of Zen…thanks for sharing.
Thanks a bunch Susan! It was a wonderful experience and I look forward to pursuing more projects like this.