The Things We Do For Money...

posted 11/12/03

It was a cold, blustery winter day in Minnesota. I was out with a guy I'd never met in person before, who was, if it can be believed, paying me to photograph a flowstone formation he'd found in a remote storm drain tunnel. (Yes, I've sold out and become a UE whore, move on.) He'd warned me it was difficult to get to, which proved to be an understatement of sorts.
We walked from the car to a manhole just off the street, nestled in among a bunch of trees. The lid was already removed. I adjusted both my bags of camera gear, slung the tripod over my back, and began yet another descent down a set of manhole rungs. As I was going down the other guy warned me to watch out for the third rung; apparently it was in bad shape. So I get to the third rung, and, yes, it's pretty bad. I'm just thinking how nice it is to have someone looking out for me like that when I hit rung number five, which is easily three times as bad as the third rung. Go figure.
Having completed the descent, we stand in a seven-foot oval concrete tunnel with a flat floor. I shine my light, a 2AA maglite, around, and even by it's feeble light I can see both ends of the tunnel. No flowstone in sight. No real features in sight, for that matter, except a hole in the floor with a board over it as a walkway. Looking down from the edge, it's a 30-foot vertical shaft with water at the bottom. Oh, and there's a rope tied to the board. This, presumably, is where we have to go.
My suspicions confirmed, we prepare for the descent. This might not seem like a problem for most people... but I'm not especially athletic. I made it down without too much difficulty; the less said the better, really. Thankfully I'd brought a rope along, and lowered all our gear down after the other explorer descended before me.
So, here I am, standing in a five-foot storm drain. It's an old one, probably from the 1930's, and it's reasonably pretty, being a mix of limestone, sandstone, and (crumbling) concrete. It is, however, still a five-footer, and I'm just under six feet tall. Not real fun.
Thankfully, the flowstone I'm here for isn't too far away, and it's upstream, so to speak. I shoulder my gear, grab my tripod, and off we go into the darkness, our trusty flashlights guiding us through the mist. Well, this drain had very little mist, but you get the picture.
After a couple repetitions of "It's just up ahead here... I think" from my guide, we reach the flowstone, and it is, indeed, everything it was advertised to be. Where a side tunnel intersects the one we're in at waist height, a beautiful growth of mineral deposits has formed from the flowing water. Geologists have pretty, and confusing, names for flowstone formations, and a lot would argue that this wasn't real flowstone anyway. Bah to them. It was big, it was pretty, it had many surprisingly delicate features. It half-blocked the tunnel! I began unpacking and setting up to photograph it.
A lot of people bandy about the term 'low-light photography'. Well, we're taking about NO-light photography here. Ambient light? None. Zip, zilch, nada. This presents some unique challenges, especially where focussing is concerned.
If you've never been around a UE photographer in action, you'd probably be surprised by how long we take to do everything. It's very easy to get bored. I set up for the first shots with a 6x9 Zeiss-Ikon Nettar, loaded with Portra 160 NC. For depth of field, I wanted f/11. That turned out to be four pops of the portable strobe... though I did an insurance shot at f/8 and two pops. Because I was concerned about glare off the wet flowstone, and the water, I then did a couple shots at f/11 with M2B flashbulbs aimed at the ceiling of the tunnel to produce a really soft bounce-flash effect.
I then unpacked a Zenit-EM, a 35mm SLR, and took a number of shots on Provia 100, with a 50/2 and a 28/2.8, all at f/8 or f/11. The 28/2.8 was almost comical in the small tunnel... from a few feet away I had the entire flowstone formation, the floor, ceiling, and both walls of the tunnel in frame... and you have to love the depth-of-field with that lens at f/11. Focus? We don't need no stinking focus!
That taken care of, I went over and repeated everything from the other side. It was debatable which side of the flowstone was most photogenic, and since I really don't like climbing ropes, I didn't want to have to come back and re-shoot, so I was very, very thorough.
All that taken care of, I busted out a bag of tea candles, lit them (no easy feat in a tunnel with a very strong draft), and placed them around, above, and, yes, inside a hollow of the flowstone. Candle-light pictures take forever at f/11, so I set up for some shots and the two of us wandered off to explore the rest of the tunnel... then came back, advanced the film, took another shot, went looked at some more of the tunnel... and did it one more time, to get shots on both Portra and Provia.
All that taken care of, we packed our stuff up and headed back to the rope.
I know I've said it before, but let me say it once more: I'm not athletic. I like stairs, and ladders. I was really not looking forward to attempting the rope. The other fellow went up the rope, and had difficulty, but made it safely. He passed down a second rope and pulled our bags and the tripod up, then it was time for me to ascend.
The rope had loops tied into it every three feet or so for foot and hand-holds. It had worked fine coming down, but going up proved to be bad, as the loops were spaced inconveniently far apart. I'd brought along several prusiks, and with them was barely, barely able to manage the ascent in about ten minutes by putting my foot in a loop, standing on it, grabbing hold of the rope with one hand and attaching a prusik with the other, then repeating. Because of the loops tied into the rope I had to keep removing the prusiks and reattaching them instead of just sliding them up; they wouldn't go over the large knots, of course.
I was left laying on the floor of the upper tunnel, out of breath and shaking from fear/exertion. At the very end of the climb I'd been forced to pull myself up over the edge of the shaft by my arms, without being attached to the rope in any way. It was a bitch, make no mistake.
I hope the pictures were worth it.


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