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Robert Coomer Photography random header image

This image is one of my favorites, and it really helped rekindle my love for B+W printing. Getting the photo was not so easy though, and ended up costing the sole of one of my crew members.

The story begins with a rush to put together a last minute photo trip. Me and Eric (my guide and model this trip) had talked about doing a photo trip in the main stream passage of Grayson Gunnar Cave (GGC), but we had no concrete plans. We were at Karst-O-Rama, which is a caving festival at the Great Saltpetre Cave Preserve (GSP). I wandered over to Eric’s tent about mid morning, which is late on festival time, and asked what we were doing that day.

Within a few minutes a bleary eyed Eric, burst to life and plans were made, but we had no crew to help with the lights and to carry gear. Eric started searching the grounds for victims, err. . . helpers to sherpa gear and lights. Within a few minutes, Eric returned with Kevin, and his unsuspecting friend who were up for a photo trip.

A half hour later we had gathered our equipment and started the 2.5 hour drive to GGC. Once there we divided up the photo gear and cases and put on our caving equipment.

The first problem we bumped into was that there wasn’t enough wet suits. Eric, who had been exploring / mapping this cave for the previous year gave up his wet suit for Kevin’s friend. At 59 degrees, emersed in water much of the time, it was going to be a chilly trip. Standing around, waiting for lights to be set, compositions framed, and “just one more” photo a dozen times, would make it a really cold trip. Eric had loaned me a 5 mil wet suit too, so the photographer was going to be pretty toasty, not necessarily a good thing when everyone else is freezing.

It was a hot summer day, so the wet suits were pretty uncomfortable until we entered the stream and cold air that exits the cave. The cold water washing over us would feel refreshing, if not a little cold, but after about 6 hours it would feel very cold, even life threatening, and the hot, humid air of summer would be welcomed on our exit from the cave.

We entered the cave entrance which is a low crawl through the stream. At first you try to stay dry, but then you realize that it is pointless and just dive in. It took about and hour to reach an area that Eric wanted to show me. The water was moving pretty fast, and we were going up stream. My photo gear is all packed in Pelican cases and double bagged for extra protection. They just float along beside us on a tether most of the trip. We fought the water the whole way in, going from walking and wading, to swimming and climbing over waterfalls.

When we reached the main waterfall, which is about 5 feet above the waterline at that point, the roar is almost deafening. The water below the falls is about 15 feet deep, which make climbing it that much harder. You have to work your way around the wall, and then using upper body strength pull yourself up on a small ledge and work your way over the falls. In process of climbing, Eric got caught on something. He reached behind him and freed himself and then continued over the falls. Kevin shouted out, “I think you lost something?” We surveyed Eric’s pack and then realized my tripod had come unclipped and had fallen into the rushing water beneath the falls. Eric dropped his pack and dove in searching for it. For several seconds all you could see was his headlamp glowing eerily from beneath the fast moving water. After about 15 minutes of searching we gave up and continued on without it.

Eventually we reached the area and setup for the shot. Eric and Kevin each took a tilt-a-mite armed with m2 and m3 flashbulbs and proceeded down the passage. I setup my camera. Since we had lost my tripod, I had to work with a small Bogen table top tripod that I pushed against the wall with my hand. it was fairly stable, but a little too small for my camera. My camera was wrapped in ziplock baggies and duct tape to protect it from my wet hands, splashes and cave grit.

I guided Eric into a position between me and the flowstone formation. Kevin went around the corner and pointed his flash gun back towards Eric. Eric held his at chest level and fired it forward. I have a system using open shutter techniques. When everyone is in position, and composition is set, everyone turns their lights off. I count down the shot, opening the
shutter on 1 and then shout fire. The shutter stays open for about 5 seconds, giving Kevin and Eric a few seconds to fire the flashes manually. Because they don’t sync automatically and the longer duration of a flashbulb, there is a chance of blurry images if the model moves between flashes or even more of a problem now, if my tripod shifts or wiggles against the rough cave wall. Eric has had quite a bit of practice and is pretty good at holding a pose and I managed to hold the camera stable enough to capture the image.

After spending about 45 minutes setting up and taking shots in that area, I started reviewing the shots more closely, and knew instantly I have a great shot, one well worth the effort.

About that time I hear rumblings about the cold. Everyone was starting to get chilled from sitting still for so long. Kevin’s friend was really getting cold so they started towards the entrance, moving to get warm again. Hypothermia is a real danger on long photo trips. Your body temperature starts to drop rapidly when standing still in wet gear. Me and Eric packed up and caught up with them in a low crawl about a 1/4 of the way out. It was an interesting area when lit by their lights, so I setup a few more shots and then we were moving again.

Kevin said his friend was having a hard time. I looked over at his boot and realized part of it was missing! Somewhere along the trip, the sole of his boot had come off and had been washed away. He was walking on the rocky stream with only the thin leather or felt and his sock. They wrapped his boot in duct tape to try to make it more bearable, but it was pretty rough going. At that point we decided it was time to get out and moved towards the exit as fast as we could. Everyone was tired and cold, ready for the warmth of the sun, and some dinner. We returned late to the GSP that evening, just barely getting back in time to get some dinner.

It turned out to be about a 6 hour trip plus about 5 hours of traveling, but I had a couple of really nice images with lots of potential.

Later that week, I converted the image to B+W and did some dodge and burn to tone down the hot spots and pull out some of the details. The image was printed and metered into the National Speleological Society’s 2004 B+W Photo Print salon. It took the first place medal!

I love the intimate setting that this shot portrays. I was able to manage the lighting so that it is not obvious that there are multiple sources. It appears to be a lone caver exploring the darkness to find the hidden beauty that awaits him. It has a sense of exploration and a search into the unknown. For that reason, I called it “Caught Between the Dark and Light.”

My tripod was recovered on a survey trip by Eric and Janeen an couple of weeks later. It was quite a ways down stream, and in pretty sad shape. The sole has never been found. . .