Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Great American Total Solar Eclipse of 2107


 Eclipse sequence from partial to total - August 21, 2017

           Humans have accurately predicted solar eclipses since ancient Mesopotamian times.  Given that the occurrence of a total solar eclipse is about once per continent per human lifetime it is highly likely that during your lifetime an eclipse will happen over the landmass on which you live.  You should see the eclipse.  An eclipse is a unique astronomical event that you should witness one at least once, even if you must travel a great distance.  You’ll never see (or feel) anything comparable.  It cannot be overemphasized, each and every human being should see at least one total solar eclipse. 

             I traveled a great distance, 1100 miles, to witness and photograph the Great American Eclipse of 2017 and it was worth every highway mile, overpriced hotels, bad fast-food, a minor sunburn and even spending one night sleeping in the car.  I saw the eclipse from the automotive homage to England’s Stonehenge, Carhenge, which is located in Alliance, Nebraska.

             Last summer, when I first learned of the 2017 solar eclipse, I had a photo-shoot already in the planning stages.  I’d be photographing ‘land art’ installations featuring automobiles including Carhenge.  The August 21 total solar eclipse would span the entirety of the North America and I wondered, will the shadow fall over Nebraska?  A quick Google search and, yes!  The moon’s shadow would traverse the sky directly above Alliance, Nebraska.  I scheduled the photo-shoot in Nebraska for August 21 and would get two subjects –Carhenge and the eclipse.  How cool is that?

            Not as cool as I thought.  I taught myself about Solar Filters, protecting my eyes and my camera’s sensor, exposure data, and all that.  I read a lot of books and visited a lot of astronomy websites and many ‘experts’ were saying the same thing about optimum viewing locations –go to Alliance, Nebraska.  The highest probability of clear skies is in the middle of the continent, away from the coasts.  Since it was looking like I would have a lot of company on the Nebraska plains I tried to book a local hotel room a full ten months before the event.  Not cool.  All lodgings in Alliance and nearby Scottsbluff, Nebraska were totally booked!  And they were booked at the ‘special eclipse viewing’ rates of $400 - $900 per night instead of the usual $60.00!  Luckily I found a room at a less than extortionate price, thirty miles away in Bridgeport, Nebraska.  Then I read in the Scottsbluff newspaper that the Alliance Chamber of Commerce would be expecting 10,000 ‘eclipse visitors.’ (The population of Alliance is 8500.)  This is going to be a ‘Solar Woodstock’ event!

            During the ‘eclipse research’ phase I was reminded of all the mythology surrounding eclipses.  Primitive men did not understand eclipses and ascribed supernatural explanations for what they were witnessing.  Hopefully, and despite national anti-science sentiments, no one still believes that eclipses are caused by the sun being eaten by a frog, wolf or dragon; or the sun being stolen by dogs or bitten by a bear.  Despite our collective scientific knowledge of orbital dynamics there still is a lot of pseudoscience that comes from the New Age and Astrology communities.  Notions like a disruption of the Earth’s magnetic field and people’s own bodily systems may have some validity while other ideas such as evil omens, beginnings and endings, life-changing events and enhanced emotions have no scientific causation or correlation.

            Three weeks before the eclipse I ‘rehearsed’ photographing the sun using a timer set to two and a half minutes –the duration of totality; just how many photos can I shoot in one-hundred and fifty seconds?  There’s nothing quite like the pressure of photographing a thing that will fry your eyes if you look at it, only comes around every hundred years or so, lasts less than three minutes, and you really can’t practice or test for it.  This ain’t no wedding portrait!  Testing, practicing and rehearsing paid off.  I got the shot while I saw others struggle with equipment, not getting the shot or really observing the eclipse.  Luck favors the prepared.

 Solar filter test, pre-eclipse

            Driving north on highway 25 through Colorado I saw signs on the highway warning of ‘heavy eclipse traffic’ but saw none of it.  On the road between Sterling, Colorado and Alliance, Nebraska I prepared myself for traffic like I’d seen on TV from Oregon, but encountered none.  I rolled into the Carhenge parking lot at 10:30AM the day before the eclipse without incident or delay.  There was no overnight parking or camping allowed at Carhenge but one tenth of a mile up the highway a farmer made his bean field available to campers for forty-five dollars a day.  I happily paid the fee (happy that it wasn’t a hundred bucks – which I would have paid) and claimed a spot on high ground.  

            Relieved that I’d staked out my special spot on Earth today to photograph the sun tomorrow I had a full day to kill before the big astronomical alignment.  With ten thousand-plus boneheads with cel-phones coming in from all over, we were happily surprised to have free wi-fi in the bean field!  Verizon even trucked in portable cel-phone towers so we could all update social media, real-time.  There were souvenir sellers, t-shirt sales, food vendors, and ice and water was for sale.  Plenty of Porta-Cans too.  Ten miles down the road, in Alliance itself, there was an Indian Pow-Wow, softball games, rock bands playing and all the churches put out food for the weary eclipse-travelers.  All in all, the city of Alliance, had a well-organized plan and there were no incidents of theft or violence of any kind.  I felt confident that after the eclipse nobody would burn things or overturn cars the way they do when some sports team wins a championship.  Everyone was nice, friendly and well-behaved.  One old guy passed out from the heat and the EMTs took him away and that was it. 

            I had a tasty BBQ sandwich from one of the vendors for lunch and watched a steady stream of eclipse-viewers fill the bean field the rest of the day.  By late afternoon Sunday the field was nearly full of RVs, tents, teardrops, and various kinds of shades and shelters.  I watched City Dads struggle with brand-new tents.  A parade of white legs walked by.  There must have been a hundred million dollars of Canon, Nikon and Celestron glass pointed skyward.  On Sunday the Alliance airport had a fly-in breakfast and was overwhelmed by 250 private planes ---a certain famous actor/pilot was allegedly there but I didn’t see Han Solo or the Millennium Falcon anywhere.  In the afternoon I wandered around the bean field and down the hill to Carhenge and talked to people:  Camping next to me was Alex and Austin, a couple of guys from Bismark, North Dakota, fully prepped with beer and eclipse glasses.  Janice and her two daughters were nearby, setting up multiple telescopes and cameras.  There was Halter-Top Hanna, the unwashed New Age-Hippie chick laying out crystals to be ‘charged’ under the special ‘eclipse light.’  Shaman-Sam looked ready for a photon-bath, whoa dude put on a shirt!  I met Sonny (real name!) an ‘eclipse-chaser’ who proudly told me, “This is my tenth eclipse!”  I didn’t meet any flat-Earthers or climate change-deniers.  Everyone was happy to be here, after all, for some reason they’d been compelled to come here, like me.

            They came in large numbers from all over.  Most people I spoke to traveled between 250 and 500 miles to see totality.  After the eclipse I spoke to the proprietor of the Meadowlark Hotel in Bridgeport where I stayed two nights; the Sunday before the eclipse she had reservations for people from China, Japan, Australia, France, England and Austria.  Crowd size estimates had about 5000 people in the immediate area of Carhenge, 10,000 when the surrounding areas were included.  For the entire Alliance area the estimate was 20,000 eclipse-viewers!

            On Monday August 21, 2017 millions of people temporarily migrated to the path of totality that stretched from Portland, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina.  They all did this to see the moon’s seventy-mile-wide shadow, traveling at 1800 miles per hour pass over them for about two minutes!

 Quite a fright with the morning fog, fortunately it did not last to obscure the eclipse.

            On eclipse day we woke up to a fright, it was completely fogged-in!  Well, if I don’t get the shot it’s not my fault.  Janice, my camper-neighbor came over, tablet in hand and said, “I’ve got a NOAA weather app here that says the temps dropped last night, we hit the dew point and this is just ground fog that ought to burn-off in an hour.”  She was right!  And thanks again to the farmer for the free wi-fi!

               Actually, the scare with the fog just made seeing the eclipse even more precious.

            While the fog dissipated the Bismark boys made a coffee run and we began our day fully caffeinated.  Another guy wandered through the campground selling cinnamon rolls.  Eclipse excitement grew as thousands of tripods, cameras, telescopes and binoculars were set-up.  My set-up included a main camera, a full-frame Canon DSLR with a 400mm lens (which is an 8x magnification); a Lumix micro four-thirds camera as back-up for the main camera; and Canon G7 which was a back-up for the back-up.  I also ran a Kodak HD video camera and took a few photos with my Android phone.  I was well rehearsed and ready for the show to start.

            When the show did start it was hard to tell.  Someone in the crowd yelled out, “First contact,” and we peered sunward through our eclipse-glasses to see a tiny notch taken out of the sun by the moon.  I shot photos about every fifteen minutes to document the progression of moon occluding the sun.  Without looking at the sun through eclipse-glasses, you really didn’t know there was an eclipse happening until the moment of totality, yes, Sol is that bright.  During the first phase of the eclipse everyone was shooting photos or looking through telescopes.  Janice was struggling with camera alignment and I assisted her from time to time.  No one was competitive and everyone helped each other to get the best photos and have the best experience.  A few minutes before totality a panicked man came by asking for tape, duct tape, anything!  He had a homemade, 3D-printed holder for his solar filter that had broken at just the wrong moment.  I handed him a roll of duct tape, the second most important thing in my camera bag, and told him, “Take it, make your repair and get the shot, bring the roll back later.”  He thanked me profusely and was off.

            Only at the moment right before totality did the light change enough to be noticed, and it only darkened like a cloud had passed over the sun.  Solar filters came off the cameras and everybody got ready…


 Totality over Carhenge (Composite)

            And then it was dark.  Sunset all around.  Birds quiet and crickets chirping.  It had gone from midday to twilight in an instant and it was weird…  And it was indescribably spectacular.  Through my telephoto lens I could see the diamond ring, the sun’s photosphere, the solar flares and prominences and everything!  I got the shot!  And I got the shot again!  Totality was magic, an incredible sight.  I will not use a tired, clich├ęd sex metaphor here, but it was over way too quick!  Two and a half minutes later, third contact and totality was over, the landscape brightened and the moon began to uncover the sun.  The crowd cheered.  Wow!  Just wow!

            The air temperature had dropped about ten degrees during totality but we only noticed afterwards, when it began to warm up again.  I continued photographing the waxing eclipse but many were already taking down tents and packing up to leave like it was the eighth inning of the ballgame and they’re going to beat the traffic (they didn’t).  The guy with the broken solar filter holder returned my duct tape and gave me a big hug, “Oh man, you saved the shot, thank you, thank you, thank you!”  I was happy to help out and I’m happy he got the shot.  Never travel without duct tape.

            I can completely understand how a total solar eclipse would scare the living crap out of Neanderthal Man.  He knew (unlike a certain Cheeto-toned ‘world leader’) not to look at the sun so he wouldn’t see it coming.  He’d be going about his day, hunting and gathering or whatever, and then suddenly day would turn to night.  Without understanding the science behind what had happened he’d better sacrifice a virgin, you know, to appease the gods.

President Cheeto stares at the sun with unprotected eyes.

            By about 1 pm it was just a regular day again --except I was standing in a hot bean field with 10,000 new friends, the sun high in the sky.  I packed up, bade farewell to my eclipse friends and bugged-out.  Ten miles later I found that traffic I’d missed the day before and spent the next three hours driving thirty miles to Bridgeport.  Oh well, I’m glad I didn’t catch this traffic on the way in.

            After check-in and a much needed shower all of the memory cards from the eclipse cameras went into secure case and into my shirt pocket, never to be away from my person until I returned to my studio in Prescott.  The images on those cards were more precious than gold!  Then it was off to the bar and dinner.  The restaurant was nearly full and everyone was still buzzing about the eclipse earlier in the day.  Even the waitresses stopped serving long enough to go out in the parking lot and see the eclipse.

            I spent the next day in Bridgeport as well.  I drove back to Carhenge, picked up a few extra photos minus the crowd and shot a few more photos of the (relatively clean) aftermath.  I had a second photo-shoot in Utah and it took me a few extra days to get home.  Driving alone across Colorado and Utah gave me a lot of time to think and ‘process’ what I’d witnessed:

            An eclipse can be called a ‘fixed astronomical event.’  The solar eclipse that just happened was going to happen exactly as it did no matter what.  If there were no humans or any other conscious entities on Earth to witness the eclipse, it would have occurred exactly the same way unseen.  And this is where I think it gets interesting, not to be a nihilist, but nothing has any intrinsic meaning of its own and all ‘meaning’ ascribed to the eclipse-event is applied by human observers.  So, in terms of ‘meaning,’ we get out of it what we bring to it.  The New-Ager-types got their crystals charged or chakras cleansed or whatever, the scientific-types gathered data and perhaps greater understanding of the universe’s clockwork.  Others were merely curious, satiated by a new experience.  For some it was an excuse for a party, for kids, a day off from school.  Everyone got something positive out of it and with those good feelings multiplied by ten or twenty thousand souls, well that’s palpable positivity –a shared experience, good for everyone.  

            For me it was a range of feelings.  Immediately after totality I felt profoundly exhausted.  Was my fatigue caused by a sudden change in gravity or energy?  Did the eclipse itself cause my sudden tiredness?  Possibly.  But more likely the culmination of planning, preparation, travel, discomfort, and the anxiety of only having two and a half minutes to get a photo and actually getting the photo suddenly being fulfilled might be a more realistic cause for fatigue.  As a photographer I successfully met a unique technical challenge and as an artist I’d generated new imagery for future works.  I’d witnessed a beautiful temporary ‘light event’ more incredible than a Pink Floyd concert!  I met a whole lot of interesting folk in the bean field and shared a communal experience.  But moreover, as a human, I felt my place in the universe.  Seeing the eclipse in its full totality glory underscored my humanity.  I am here!  I am alive!  I have perceived this rare and fleeting thing and have made it permanent in my memory.  It is significant because I have seen it and it is real because others saw it too.  I see, therefore I am!  The eclipse would have occurred just as it did even if no one saw it, but without witnesses there is no Wow Factor.

              Wow!  Wow times millions of witnesses!

              To conclude, here’s the opening paragraph again.  I really mean it.

           Given that the occurrence of a total solar eclipse is about once per continent per human lifetime it is highly likely that during your lifetime an eclipse will happen over the landmass on which you live.  You should see the eclipse.  An eclipse is a unique astronomical event and you should witness one at least once, even if you must travel a great distance.  You’ll never see (or feel) anything comparable.  It cannot be overemphasized, each and every human being should see at least one total solar eclipse.  

 Me (center) and the 'Bismark Boys' tripod at the ready, pre-eclipse

            Exactly one week after the positivity of the eclipse negativity reigned supreme again as hurricane Harvey flooded Texas.  It seemed as if, for only one day, everyone forgot about their troubles, ignored the daily depression of the Donald Trump shitshow, and collectively enjoyed a rare, and joyous, astronomical event.  Sadly some people didn’t believe the warnings not to look at the sun and injured their eyes.  Google reported a significant increase in the number of searches using the words ‘my-eyes-hurt.’  Ophthalmologists reported newly blind patients with eclipse-shaped crescents burned into their retinas.  And on TV we saw president not-a-role-model staring at the sun, eyes unprotected, until someone told him not to.  It’s sad, but it’s hard to feel bad for people who willfully injure themselves because they think the warnings are ‘fake news’ just to sell more eclipse glasses.

            Even though I’ve been working professionally for 35 years I still learned one important photographic lesson –sandbags!  Right after totality, when the temps began to rise again the winds increased.  The winds were so strong they blew over my main camera and tripod.  Oops, there goes six grand of camera and lens crashing to the Earth!  Fortunately the soft grass and the lens’ filter-holder took the impact and nothing was damaged except the solar filter (I took the last couple of shots with my back-up camera).  This will not happen again as I now own two, twenty pound sandbags that I will use to stabilize the tripod in the future.

            This was the first ‘digital photography’ eclipse in America and millions of photos were shot of the event.  For those that got the shot, they all look pretty much the same.  A few photographers set up and shot that one ‘hero’ photo.  For me, adding the partial and totality shots to my library will make for some very cool composite images.

            The next total solar eclipse that will be seen in the USA will occur on April 8, 2024 and the path of totality will go through central Texas.  Totality should last a little over three minutes.  As much as I despise the state of Texas I may have to go there and shoot another eclipse now that I have some experience.


For the solar photography I used a Canon 5D MkIII with a cable-release mounted on a tripod.  The lens was a Canon 100-400mm zoom at 400mm.  A hydrogen-blocking solar filter from Thousand Oaks Optical was used for all the solar photographs.  (No filter was necessary during totality.)  I used eclipse viewers and glasses also from Thousand Oaks Optical.

I set up a second camera as back-up.  It was a Panasonic Lumix G-1 with a Lumix 45-200mm lens at 200mm (400mm equivalent).  Also equipped with the same solar filter.  The Canon camera didn’t fail so I didn’t need this camera and only shot a few photos with it.

For the editorial photography I used a Panasonic Lumix GX-1 with Lumix lenses of 7-14mm, 14-45mm, 45-200mm and a 20mm lens.