Dear Smitty

Our authors write Smitty, our travel editor, about their journeys

Our Travel Editor, Smitty

Although British by birth like his namesake James Smithson, Smitty is a gadabout who is at home anywhere from a palace to a rain forest. He sends our writers and photographers around the planet—he'd much rather be sending himself, of course, but someone has to stay home and mind the store. Still, Smitty likes to be kept abreast of what's going on in far-flung places, and so our authors write him letters about their journeys.

Dear Smitty:

It was the Crystal Mine in Colorado that lured me from my home in Dortmund, Germany, to the American West to photograph ghost towns. Though my assistant and I would end up visiting dozens of ghost towns in six states, Crystal was the one that stole my heart. I like to think that the editors at Smithsonian are pretty fond of it too—they put it on the cover of the magazine. The ruins of the Sheep Mountain Tunnel Mill, perched on a crag over the Crystal River, seem to embody the essence of the Old West.

Located near Schofield Pass high up in the Rocky Mountains southwest of Aspen, Crystal has never been easy to get to. Maybe that's part of its charm. In its heyday in the 1880s and '90s, Crystal boasted a half-dozen mines, which produced silver, lead and zinc, and supported about 400 residents. There were two newspapers, a hotel, several stores, and the usual assortment of saloons and pool halls that filled these mining boomtowns. The road from Marble to Crystal climbs seven miles up the mountain. During the winter, snowdrifts as deep as 50 feet bury the road. Needless to say, getting supplies to the town proved a daunting feat even in good weather.

Pat Kimbrell. The best part proved to be their hearty Western breakfast, which you definitely need before tackling the mountain. Fortunately, friends of the Kimbrells, Doug and Julie Gray, were kind enough to take us and our camera equipment up by ATV. The weather was still very bad, and it continued to rain steadily.

We set up two cameras, an Italian Silvestri 4x5" and a Mamiya RZ 67, close to the river and built a shelter against the rain. You can understand my nervousness: if a single raindrop touched the lens of my camera, the whole picture would be ruined.

The photography I do is called Lichtmalerei, which means light painting. I open the shutter of the camera and leave it open for up to four hours. In the meantime, I use a single light source like a brush; I walk around in the dark with the light, selectively illuminating portions of the picture. By the time I get through and close the shutter, I've used that one light to illuminate the entire photograph. It's not easy because you must walk from one spot to another in total darkness. Imagine walking with a very heavy light in your hand and a heavy battery on your back—and not being able to see anything! Using a flashlight could ruin the effect you're trying to create, so you must work in complete darkness. Now imagine climbing over steep, slippery rocks and jumping over a river with equipment that you dare not drop because it's so expensive.

But luck visited me that night. Just as darkness fell, the rain stopped. I opened the shutter of the camera and started the illumination process. I prayed that it would stay dry until we finished. After three hours, when the shutter was closed for the last photograph, it started to rain again. By the time we finished loading the cameras, tripods and lights into the cases, my assistant and I were both totally wet but quite happy.

Lake Tahoe. There are so many buildings left in Bodie, and many of their interiors are in fantastic condition. The inside of a saloon looks as though all the patrons suddenly left 50 years ago and nobody has touched it ever since. You find playing cards, a roulette table and even a bottle of whiskey that someone left on a piano. Bodie is well known all over the country and is a must-see. I stayed four nights to get all the photographs done. I could have stayed there for many more nights, and would have, too, except that Rebecca Scott and Julia Hayen of Bodie State Park proved so helpful that I was able to get all my work done in four nights.

I first started light painting seven years ago, experimenting initially with small objects. I worked up to interiors, then finally tackled architecture and landscapes. It's fairly easy to begin to use the light painting technique. To use a single light as the main source of illumination of a landscape portrait, however, takes a great deal of practice, because you can't measure the amount of light getting to the camera. The first results can be disappointing. But it's worth giving the technique a try if you have the time and patience.

New Mexico, a railroad ghost town close to the Mexican border. Linda and Harry Link bought the place to preserve what is left of the town. I happened to tell some friends of the Links that I planned to take a photograph of one well-preserved bedroom. They looked at me with concern and asked if I was sure I wanted that particular bedroom. "Sure," I said, "why not?" They told me it was haunted. "A ghost will touch you, wrap his arms around you, and you will feel his touch on your skin. We have photographs with a ghostlike veil on it." OK, I figured, no problem. I had experience with ghosts, having spent several nights in the abbey ruins in Great Britain. But to be on the safe side I asked my assistant, Brigitte, to stay with me inside the bedroom that night, when we set up the light. Alas, we didn't make the acquaintance with that ghost, and no traces could be found on the photographs. Perhaps all my photographic equipment scared it away. To tell the truth, I was sort of relieved.

I can't wait to get back to the West and visit more ghost towns. Maybe I'll see you there.


Berthold Steinhilber

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