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Best of 2010 - James Cowlin


A decade ago, while scanning maps for a new project, James Cowlin noticed seven national parks forming a path through the West from Canada to Mexico, connected by a common thread — U.S. Route 89. After realizing that a focus on landscape and travel photography made business sense, Cowlin and his wife made three border-to-border road trips, the latest covering 6,000 miles during 32 days and netting 2,000 images. Their project goals now encompass the broadest of terms, including an extensive fund-raising strategy and a public relations campaign geared to finding out, “What makes life so fine on Route 89?”

James Cowlin, Oracle, AZ

Web sites: us89society.org and www.panoramicnaturephotography.com

Project: US Route 89 Project, complete with extensive Web site, blog, exhibition prints, various publications, corporate sponsor, plus new video interviews from the most recent trip.


All images in this article © James Cowlin.

ASMP: How long have you been in business?
JC:
Since 1972.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?
JC:
Since 1979.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
JC:
Landscape, travel and tourism and fine art.

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.
JC:
When I first started the project, I was shooting film. Landscape photos were shot with a Hasselblad and panoramics with a Fuji 617. Documentary photos were shot with Nikon 35mm. I began to make the transition to digital when I substituted a Canon 20D for the Nikons but continued to shoot film for landscapes until 2009, when I switched to all digital with a Canon 5D Mark II.

The Canon 5D gives me the best of both worlds. I will use a tripod and work carefully and deliberately for a landscape photo. Or I can work with more spontaneously if the situation calls for it. On this project, which is largely self-funded, not having the expense of film frees me up to make as many images as I need.

 © James Cowlin

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?
JC:
I don’t mean to sound flippant but I’d have say it is my eye. By this, I mean the visual aesthetic that I have developed in a lifetime of making photographs.

ASMP: What is unique about your style and approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?
JC:
My landscape photographs have been called “painterly” and are sometimes mistaken for paintings. I believe this is because my photographs are about color and texture rather than line. Early in my career, I was challenged by a black and white photographer who maintained that landscape could only be conveyed by light and shadow. Since then I have looked for images that are dependent on color and texture for their meaning.

 © James Cowlin

ASMP: When and how did you first discover the relevance of U.S. Route 89? At that time had you spent much time driving this route?
JC:
In 1999 I had just finished a portfolio and exhibition of landscape photographs of Arizona and was beginning to look for my next project. Whenever I am stumped for ideas, I pull out a map and start looking for someplace interesting and challenging. What caught my attention was the string of seven national parks between Mexico and Canada in a more-or-less straight line. When I realized that they were connected by one federal highway, I was intrigued by the narrative possibilities of constructing a photography project around U.S. Route 89. At the time I was familiar with pieces of the highway in Arizona and southern Utah but had not been north of Bryce Canyon National Park.

 © James Cowlin

ASMP: Please talk about the first trip you made for this project, the photos you took and your initial vision and goals. Have these changed or evolved over the course of your documentation?
JC:
The first trip that I made specifically for the project was in July 2004. The purpose of the trip was to drive the highway from Phoenix to Kanab in southern Utah. The photographs that I made were a combination of landscape, interesting places along the road and the road itself. My initial goal for the project was to create a collection of fine art landscape photographs to be published as a book and a traveling exhibition. It was on this trip and subsequent trips over the next year that I began to see the project in broader terms. I recognized that along U.S. Route 89 a traveler can experience not only the diverse landscape of the interior western United States, but also the history and culture of the west.

U.S. Route 89 is a living highway that connects 154 towns and small cities with three major cities, twenty national parks and monuments and numerous state parks and historic sites. Tourists hurrying from destination to destination often bypass the places in between the parks and big cities. I began to think in terms of promoting a different kind of tourism which I call the slow road movement that encourages travelers to get off the interstate and enjoy the journey as much as the destination. Ultimately I want U.S. Route 89 to be recognized as the most scenic road in America and a destination in and of itself.

 © James Cowlin

ASMP: Describe the general scope of this work at present, in terms of research time spent, time on the road, miles traveled, numbers of trips, images made, external outreach and so on.
JC:
In keeping with the idea for using my photography to promote tourism on U.S. Route 89, I have created an extensive website http://us89society.org. The heart of the site is the 19 Road Trip Guides. Each guide features a map, road description and lists of special attractions, towns, public lands and landmarks. Many of the locations in the guides are illustrated with galleries of photographs. The subjects of the galleries range from walking tours of towns to landscape photos of the national parks. Updating and expanding the website is a constant and on-going activity.

Since July 2006 I have published an e-mail newsletter called Along 89. The newsletter keeps subscribers informed about places and events on the highway and more personal information about our travels. I started with a list of 100 interested people that has grown to over 400. I try to keep to a monthly schedule, but it is more like every six weeks.

Last year we launched a public relations campaign, writing and distributing releases through an online PR company. The final result was two articles in major newspapers in Utah.

The latest outreach is a blog that my wife, Barbara, and I started for the 2010 Spring Road Trip. We made nearly daily updates to the blog and will continue to post to the blog in the future.

I have made three continuous border-to-border trips on U.S. Route 89 in 2007, 2009 and 2010. For the latest trip we were on the road for 32 days, drove 6,000 miles and I shot over 2,000 images and a few video sequences. In addition to the longer trips, I make five or six short trips each year ranging from a couple of days to a week. From Mexico to Canada, Highway 89 is 2,000 miles long, which means our total of miles driven is close to 20,000. I’ve never counted it up but, if I had to guess, I’d say I have more than 10,000 photographs relating to U.S. Route 89.

 © James Cowlin

ASMP: Please tell us about the financing of this project. Approximately what percentage of the project is self financed? At what point did you land corporate sponsorship and how did you enlist the sponsor’s participation?
JC:
I developed several funding mechanisms for the project. At the top end is a corporate sponsorship program. In exchange for corporate financial support, the company receives a portfolio of photographs and recognition on the website and all publications. Our first corporate sponsor signed on in 2006 (I’ll give details below). We are continuing to contact potential sponsors, but the economic downtown has severely restricted available funding.

I created the U.S. Route 89 Appreciation Society as a way for individuals and small businesses to contribute to the project. To date we have had 82 people, business, civic and cultural organizations sign up as members. I am particularly pleased by the response from civic and cultural organizations. Details of these two programs and a list of sponsors can be found on the Web site under the Support the 89 Project tab.

I have also published the Road Trip Guides as downloadable PDF and a print-on-demand magazine. I will be publishing more material in these formats such as a guide to the national parks and monuments.

In March 2010, my project was designated as an official Arizona Centennial Legacy Project. Arizona’s birthday as a state will take place in 2012. We are in the process of seeking funding for a couple of projects that relate to Arizona’s history. One that I am particularly excited about is a rephotographic project. We have found a collection of photographs from the 1930’s and 1940’s taken by Norman Wallace, a highway engineer working for the Arizona Department of Transportation. We are going to select 24 of the images from U.S. Route 89 to rephotograph. Our goal is to create an exhibition and a book that will illustrate the changes in the landscape and culture of Arizona as well as in the road itself.

Most of the hard costs, such as developing the website and travel expenses, have been covered by the funding sources. However, this project has been close to a full-time job for the last three years and my time has not been covered yet.

 © James Cowlin

ASMP: Your corporate sponsor is a law firm with offices in Arizona and Utah. What were the firm’s goals in sponsoring your project? What, if any, guidance or requirements does your corporate sponsor provide as to your project’s direction or goals?
JC:
The law firm of Snell & Wilmer has an extensive collection of fine art photographs by Arizona photographers including several of mine. When I approached them in 2006 about sponsoring the project, they saw it as an opportunity to add to their collection. The firm was a logical fit for sponsorship because they have offices in the three largest cities on 89 — Tucson, Phoenix and Salt Lake City. The only condition they put on their contribution was that I obtain enough funding to complete the project.

 © James Cowlin

ASMP: You also offer sponsorship options, such as $1 per mile or sponsorship of a monument or national park. How many people participate in your project at these levels? What kind of incentives do you offer for donations?
JC:
For our most recent road trip we set up a special sponsorship program. Sponsors could sign up to fund the trip at $1 per mile, or select a specific national park or monument for $100 or an entire state for $500. Twelve people signed up for between $10 and $500 which covered about half of the expenses of the trip. Sponsors who contributed $100 or more will receive a 5x7 print of their choice from a special portfolio of photographs made on the trip. We also sent everyone a postcard from the road.

 © James Cowlin

ASMP: Tell us about the US Route 89 Appreciation Society. What is this vehicle and how long has it been in existence?
JC:
I created The U.S. Route 89 Appreciation Society in 2006 to promote awareness of the highway and to bring together people, businesses and organizations along Route 89. It gives me a hook on which to hang my work and a way to communicate the importance of U.S. Route 89 to the history and culture of the west.

 © James Cowlin

ASMP: What sources, including books, media, professional/organizational contacts, local residents, social networking contacts, friends, and so on, have you tapped to identify sites to visit and photograph? Which of these sources have been most effective?
JC:
I started my research with maps ranging from AAA road maps to Google Earth. I then compiled a bookmark list of Web sites for every place along the road. I have a library of guidebooks that are a starting point for exploration. However, I mostly rely on contacts we make during our trips. We are often rewarded by something special when we just stop, walk around and engage people in conversation.

 © James Cowlin

ASMP: How do you keep track of all the sites you visit and photograph? In addition to your blog do you annotate maps, keep a journal or use additional note keeping methods?
JC:
I have always been compulsive about cataloging my photographs by location and date. I assign a code to every image that is keyed to an index. Now with digital files, I enter the metadata as soon as I can after downloading to the hard drive. I also save brochures, maps and other items that I pick up along the way and file them by location as a memory aid when I am trying to identify a specific image.

 © James Cowlin

ASMP: Have there been sites you had earmarked for photography that did not work out? Please talk about the most important criteria for you in shooting for this project.
JC:
Bad weather can put a damper on landscape photography, although I can almost always find good images even in bad weather. Fortunately, because this project is open ended I know I’ll get back to most locations sooner or later. The most important criteria are, first, beautiful light, and second, how the image will contribute to the overall story.

 © James Cowlin

ASMP: What role did luck or serendipity play during your most recent trip? After a decade of traveling along Route 89, were you surprised by a vista or site you hadn’t previously noticed?
JC:
We deliberately planned our last trip to be twice as long as previous trips so that we would create the opportunity for serendipity. We didn’t hesitate to stop when something caught our attention. A good example happened in White Sulphur Springs, Montana. We stopped for gas and noticed a sign in front of a junk shop that read “101 Needful Things Come In And See” so we decide to accept that invitation. It turned out to be not so interesting but across the street was a shop called Red Ants Pants. While waiting for the owner to return, we scouted places for lunch and found the Corner Stone Deli. After a delicious lunch we returned to Red Ants Pants and met Sarah Calhoun who told us about her business making workwear for women. She described how she started her business and why she located it in White Sulphur Springs. The result is a video on our blog and a new friend on the highway.

What usually surprises and delights me on these trips is seeing a familiar place in a new light. There are places we have gone by in the past that I knew I wanted to photograph, but the light was not very interesting. So I look for those spots and if luck is with me, I’ll be able to stop and make a photograph.

 © James Cowlin

ASMP: What technologies, such as wireless Internet access, or GPS mapping, have you found to be essential during the course of the project? Was there anything you did not have that you would consider a must for future projects of this type?
JC:
The biggest improvement on the last trip was my Palm Pre Plus phone which has a built in WiFi hotspot. We were able to connect both our computers at the same time from almost anywhere along the road. That way we were able to make frequent blog posts and keep up with our e-mail.

Before our next trip I need to learn sound recording techniques and get the equipment necessary to do a better job on the audio for our video clips.

 © James Cowlin

ASMP: Your wife Barbara is also an artist. As your traveling companion, what is her role in the project, and how did she help in achieving your artistic goals?
JC:
Barbara and I are partners in this project. We brainstorm ideas together and we each take responsibility for different aspects of the work. We respect each other abilities and strengths and combine our talents to work toward a common goal.

On our trips, Barbara notices things along the road that I miss. I have learned that if she suggests a stop, it is always worthwhile. Sometimes I will get too focused on a destination and Barbara is good at getting me back into the moment. She is also a good blogger and brings a different perspective to our journeys.

 © James Cowlin

ASMP: One of your specialties is panoramic landscape photography. What percentage of the images in this project are shot or conceived for this format?
JC:
It is not a large number but when the scene is right, panoramas are a powerful way to present the landscape.

ASMP: Please talk about your transition from shooting panoramics with film to constructing panoramics digitally. What kind of learning curve did this entail and what effect has this change had on the visual possibilities for creating distinctive images?
JC:
There are a few technical rules to follow to make stitched panoramics work and there are lots of sites on the Web in which to learn them. I have found that a good panoramic tripod head makes the process quicker and easier once you learn to set it up. In fact, one of the sponsors of the project is Nodal Ninja.

I like shooting digital panoramics because I have complete control over the focal length of the lens I use and the angle of view.

I have also been shooting multiple frame images with a tilt/shift lens. By shooting three frames horizontally I can stitch together a 1:2.25 frame or shooting vertically, I can stitch together a 4x5 image. These files are big enough to do very large prints with amazing detail.

 © James Cowlin

ASMP: Please describe your post-production workflow and printing process. What elements are most important to you in making an edit and in selecting the images that you print for this project?
JC:
I download files to my laptop as often as possible while we are on the road. I batch-rename them with my location code and add basic metadata. After the trip I review the files and make an initial selection of my favorites. At that point I may make adjustments to the images either in Camera Raw or Aperture. What I’m looking for are the photographs that reveal the landscape as I experienced it, those that convey my emotional response at the time I clicked the shutter. Later I will do edits for story telling purposes such as galleries on the Web site or articles in the newsletter.

 © James Cowlin

ASMP: Your wife handcrafted a book containing 24 prints from the project that was presented to your corporate sponsor. What thoughts or plans do you have for creating and marketing additional limited-edition books from this project?
JC:
Our corporate sponsor was so pleased with the handcrafted book that we have decided to market them to fine art collectors. We are making a sample book and working out the pricing and marketing strategy. The purchaser will select the images to be included making each book unique and personal.

These books are a collaborative effort between Barbara and me in which the sum is greater than the parts. Her design for the books encourages the viewer to slow down and contemplate each image. It is a very different experience from the usual photography book or from viewing prints on a wall. The books have a meditative quality to them that brings a new dimension to the photographs.

 © James Cowlin

ASMP: How did your work on this project impact the vision and quality of your other photography in general?
JC:
I’ve learned about patience and persistence by taking on a project that really could occupy me for the rest of my life.

More specifically, I think more in terms of telling stories. I have been taking sequences of photographs that can be used to illustrate articles and incorporated into multimedia presentations.

ASMP: Has your work on this project resulted in any new business opportunities or client contacts? What reaction to this work have you received from existing clients?
JC:
I closed my commercial photography business three years ago to concentrate on my fine art landscape photography. The U.S. Route 89 project is one vehicle for generating new business both for selling fine art prints and for working with organizations along Route 89 in tourism promotion.

 © James Cowlin

ASMP: You have also created video footage of people you’ve have met on your trips. How long have you been doing this and what role do you envision this playing in the project’s future mission and goals?
JC:
The 2010 Spring Road Trip was the first time I shot video for the project. Our slogan is “Life’s So Fine on Route 89”. We asked people along the road to tell us what makes life so fine on route 89 for them. The result was the four video clips on our blog. I also shot a couple of segments of places on the road, which I will edit and post to the blog.

Video and multimedia will play an important role in the project going forward. Recording the voices of people along the road is an effective way of telling the story of U.S. Route 89.