Life As an Itinerant Artist - Redux

A Brookside Story

May 02, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

My first show of the month is in Kansas City, MO. A favorite in KC, and a favorite of mine, the Brookside Art Annual takes place on Brookside Plaza just south of 63rd in Kansas City. The last time my wife Karyn and I were there, it was cold. And snowy. We tried to setup on Friday morning to be ready for the evening show, but heavy snow hampered our efforts. The big tent, which many artists are under, collapsed during the afternoon, and forced the cancellation of the Friday evening show. We all came back on Saturday, set up in record time, and had a great show despite the cold. And the best part of this particular show was meeting one particular person. 

Splendor in the GrassSplendor in the GrassMercedes on abandoned homestead, Ardmore, South Dakota.


We had a corner booth outside the main tent, on a soggy plot of grass. It was so wet that show volunteers brought hay bales to soak up the excess snow melt. We constructed a back room as sort of a warming hut, and fired up a portable propane heater to stay warm. On my outside wall, we had this large image of Ardmore, South Dakota. Ardmore is one of those towns that I come back to again and again, to document its decay, and to keep an eye out for changes. [image Splendor]. During the show, a woman and her husband came to the booth, and spent some time standing in front if this picture, admiring it, thinking. Finally, she approached me, and said/asked,"That's Ardmore, isn't it?"

I replied, yes, and gave her some background on how I came to make the shot. She replied," I believed my sister-in-law lived in that house." I was taken aback. We meet lots of people during the course of a show, and often, we share common friends, or geography. But I'd never met someone who had lived in one of the abandoned towns I photograph. Not even a relative. Teresa introduced herself, and her husband Cyrus. We exchanged information, and later that week, she forwarded these images of her sister-in-law, Estelle and her husband Paul Allen, in front of the house. The distance between the vibrant town in the sixties, and an abandoned Mercedes in the 21st century is wide. Note the cut grass, and the sidewalks in the second picture. These two pictures are priceless to me, and I thank the family for letting me display them here.

Paul & Estelle Allen HomePaul & Estelle Allen HomeArdmore, South Dakota
April 1966
Used by permission of the family
Paul and Estelle AllenPaul and Estelle AllenArdmore, South Dakota
April 1966
Used by Permission of the family

One of the most rewarding aspects of my job as a visual historian is meeting folks whose history reflects our common experience. The stories in the photographs are often left to the imagination, and it's heartwarming to run across people who can provide details about the places I visit. In that way, a little bit of history is preserved, and passed down. Perhaps you have a story to tell. Many of my shots were the results of someone's reference or an offhand comment while shooting the bull at a show. Come visit me at this year's Brookside Art Annual, and share your stories. Booth 182, outside the big tent on the south end of the show.

Just One More

December 28, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

I've wanted to get a shot of the Red Door in snow for quite a while now. Got my chance after Christmas, when we had 10" of new snow and blizzard conditions on Christmas Day. The door has faded since the first shot I made of it some years ago. I wanted to capture the layers of snow piling up on the masonry work, so this image is not cropped as tight as Red Door, and Red Door II.

Red Door in WinterRed Door in WinterThird in the series -- shot after 12" of snow in December, 2016


The Year in Review

December 14, 2016  •  1 Comment

Reeds and Outlet RocksReeds and Outlet RocksSylvan Lake, Custer State Park, SD As 2016 draws near to the end, we often reflect on the things we accomplished and the tasks left undone. I spent a few hours this week, looking back on my photographic journey. It was a good year. Click here you'd like to see the full slideshow.

As usual, there was time spent in the Black Hills. I was on the road for art shows a good part of the spring, spending time in Florida, Texas and Mississippi. Spring and summer brought the usual warm temperatures, and two road trips. The big expedition of the year was to the Wind River Range, between three western art fairs in Denver, Park City and Evergreen, Colorado. I climbed my first fourteeners, thanks to Ed Dunne, who I met at the Park City show. Karyn and I reconnected with Tom & Randi Nigut in Evergreen, and their son Zach, who worked with me in another life in Chicago. 

A Winter's DreamA Winter's DreamBear Butte, SD I started the year with a week in South Dakota. For some reason, shooting in January always yields interesting images. Mom and I went looking for a barn out by Bear Butte. That drive proved fruitless, as Bear Butte was socked in. The next morning, I tried another approach, and was able to shoot "In the Shadow of the Bear" in sub-freezing temperatures. I also visited the famous Meeker Ranch near Custer, and made friends with some lonely ponies in the aspen grove in Palmer Gulch.

Singin' the BluesSingin' the BluesGround Zero Cafe, Clarksdale, MS Other highlights of the year: a driving in a torrential downpour in Memphis, with dime-sized hail so fierce I had to pull off the road, on the way to the Ridgeland show near Jackson, Mississippi. After the Ridgeland show, the trailer burned out a wheel bearing and had to be driven 25 miles on a smokin' axle to have it repaired. More rain on the way home, through Vicksburg, and on to Clarksdale, where I made some interesting pictures of the Delta Blues Cafe and almost broke my wrist falling backwards off of a curb.

Souls of the Dear DepartedSouls of the Dear DepartedChickamauga Battlefield, GA From Clarksdale to Chattanooga, and an unremarkable show at 4 Bridges. The highlight of Chattanooga was a visit to Lookout Mountain and the Chickamauga Battlefield. The stillness on these hallowed grounds never fails to impress me. The view from the top of Lookout Mountain shows the strategic importance of the Tennessee River. After Chattanooga, spring was upon us. A quick flight to Rapid City, and a late spring snow storm gave me an interesting view of Sylvan Lake and a beautiful shot of Harney Peak and Elkhorn Mountain snow-covered with green fields (below). Another visit to Owanka to see if the elevator had collapsed yet. It hadn't.

Lazy SundayLazy SundayPalmer Gulch, South Dakota

More shows in Springfield, Illinois; Birmingham, Michigan; and St. Joseph's Krasl Art Fair. In between, I again drove the truck out the Black Hills, where I was able to do some hiking. Rediscovered the Golden Slipper mine, where we rode horseback as kids. Mom and I drove out to Dewey, at the edge of the Black Hills. Dewey is an old railroad town, with a few residents still hanging on. One rancher stopped by in his pickup as we were lunching on the grass. He seemed surprised and amused that we'd come all the way out to Dewey to sit under a scrawny cottonwood and picnic, until I explained our historic mission.

New LifeNew LifeSagebrush Pals Clubhouse (former Presbyterian Church) Dewey, SD Back in Michigan, Kozo and I drove to St. Joseph for the Krasl Art Fair on the Bluff. We skipped Ann Arbor this year, and thankful, because it was beastly hot. At the end of July, I wanted to spend more time out west. This time I hauled the trailer out to Denver for a three-show tour. First up, in Denver, the Cheesman Park show. Kozo and I spent time with my niece, Noyes Combs, which turned out to be the highlight of that show. From Denver, I took the trailer up past Cheyenne and across the prairies to the Hills for another week in Palmer Gulch. 

I hung out with family, and then went out to the Badlands for an extended day trip over to Midland to shoot rural scenes and the elevator for some folks I met at Krasl. (Kathy's grandfather built one of the elevators in Midland, and she gave me some great locations to scout.) I spent an evening camped in the Sage Creek Natural Area, and hiked up on the bluffs overlooking Sage Creek. 

Midland ElevatorMidland ElevatorDakota Grain, Midland SD After Midland, I went through Capa, where I almost stumbled on the last remaining resident. I was photographing the abandoned school and the collapsed church, when I inadvertently walked into his backyard. I noticed the the electric meter was running, on what appeared to be an abandoned house. The front door was open, and I could hear his fan whirring. Too shy to make his acquaintance, I did get some interesting images from Capa, including one of the outhouses behind the schoolhouse. Further down the road, near Van Meter, I came across this flag and cow remains. Driving south to pick up the interstate, I headed for home. There were a lot of miles covered that day.

What Once Was...What Once Was...St. Barbara's Church, Miniature church near cemetery, Imlay SD Later that week, my brother Dave and I went looking for St. Barbara's church again, and this time we found it. It wasn't the church I was looking for, but the expedition was worth it. (See previous blog post). St. Barbara's sits in an incredibly remote, incredibly beautiful spot along the White River in the Badlands. All that's left now is the miniature church and the graveyard, with the remains of the church foundation up on the hill.

Wild HorsesWild HorsesPilot Butte, Rock Springs, WY Back on the road with the art show trailer, on the way to Park City, I hiked up to the top of Pilot Butte, near Rock Springs, Wyoming. There's a Masonic plaque bolted to the rock at the foot of the cliff. Wild horses roam the plateau of White Mountain, and I was lucky enough to get close to one of the bands before they quietly moved out of range onto the prairie.

Mt. Helen,  Mt. Sacajawea, Fremont PeakMt. Helen, Mt. Sacajawea, Fremont PeakIsland Lake approach to Titcomb Basin, Wind River Range, WY After Park City, I headed up to the Wind River Range in Wyoming, to clear my head and do some backpacking. Overnighting in Pinedale, I left the Elkhart Park trailhead early in the morning, and walked up to Titcomb Basin. A three day trip all-told, with two overnights between Little Seneca Lake and Seneca Lake. Island Lake was busy with backpackers as it's a popular base for those seeking to bag peaks  up in the Basin, or head over Indian Pass or Dinwoodie Pass.

Titcomb Basin TarnTitcomb Basin TarnWind River Range, Wyoming The light was beautiful, with the threat of thunderstorms almost constant. Rain only came in the last five miles on the way back to the parking lot, with pea-sized hail for a few minutes. More Winds pictures, here.

Open RangeOpen RangeNewcastle, WY From Pinedale, I went back to our ranch in the Black Hills to do some maintenance around the place. I didn't do a ton of shooting, but I did head out towards Wyoming for this shot of the stove sittin' in a field. On the way home, I discovered an old round barn that had been converted to a dance-hall, and a deserted gas station. Later in the fall, Mom and I went down to Buckhorn, and talked to the folks who owned the bar there. They said they knew somebody who'd gotten married in the bar there, but didn't know any of the history behind it.

Kelso RidgeKelso RidgeRocky Mountains, Clear Creek County, CO Back in Denver for the Evergreen show, Ed Dunne and I hiked up Grays and Torrey Peak. One of the first snows of the fall left almost 6" of snow on the trail and added to the challenge. The shot of Kelso Ridge with a snow storm fast approaching is my favorite image from that walk.

September saw us back in Michigan for three shows in a row, and a trip to Peoria for the final show of the season. The axle that burned out a bearing in Jackson, MS burned out again coming into Peoria at 10PM Thursday night. It was bad enough to force me to rent a trailer for show set-up. I was able to tow the trailer to a repair shop and park it. Hauling the show material home in the U-haul, I drove back to Peoria via Indiana to pick up a new axle for the trailer. Got the trailer fixed and towed it home.

Stay AwhileStay AwhileFairburn Hotel, Fairburn SD In October, I caught the last of the fall color in the rocks in the Upper Pine Creek Natural Area. Visiting the ranch town of Fairburn later that week, I met the new owner of the Fairburn Hotel. He was gracious enough to give me a tour of the interior and share his plans for the building. I drove by Dan O'Brien's buffalo ranch and watched the bison grazing on the way home, and that was it for the Black Hills in October.

The Garden GateThe Garden GateGreen's Plantation, North Caicos, Turks & Caicos Islands Karyn and I took our annual vacation to Grace Bay in the Turks, where we went exploring for the first time. North Caicos and Middle Caicos Islands are accessible by ferry. We went over with friends, and visited an old plantation, and walked the secret beach on Mudjin Bay. We also visited some caves and hung out with bats. A key takeaway from this trip? Bring lots of bug spray. The no-see-ums are fierce while waiting at the ferry dock.

Bottle Creek DaydreamsBottle Creek DaydreamsNorth Caicos, Turks & Caicos Islands And that's the year in pictures. View the whole slide show, or view more pictures in the gallery. Things left undone? I'd like to go back to the Winds and spend a little more time. I felt rushed in three days, and didn't get to the head of Titcomb Basin. I still need to find the church in the Badlands. And I'm starting to work on a new project that will take photographs of mine and match them to shots that Dad and my mentor, Hugh Lambert used for their ghost town research in the 60's and 70's. 

If you'd like more information about any of the images, please call or email. Have a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year!

In Search of St. Barbara's Catholic Church

August 08, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

A couple of years ago, I ran across an old photograph taken by my father of a church across a wide chasm in the Badlands. As part of an ongoing project to ​revisit some of the spaces in "Black Hills Ghost Towns", I went looking for this church.

From "Black Hills Ghost Towns", © Watson Parker & Hugh LambertAn unidentified church sits on the edge of the Badlands desolation. Repeated searches have failed to turn up the location of this church.

At first, I thought it was St. Joseph's Catholic Church, on Cuny Table. I visited that church twice, and couldn't match the angle in the original photograph. It is a beautiful church, sitting atop a wide table overlooking the Badlands, but it isn't a match for the picture Dad took in 1957. Spirit Of the PrairieSpirit Of the PrairieSt. Joseph's Mission, Pine Ridge Reservation, SD I kept searching for the church. Another Catholic mission on the Pine Ridge reservation looked promising. The only problem was that it was difficult to access. St. Barbara's sits atop a table just south of the White River, miles from any main highway. From the north, maps showed it accessible from Bouquet Table Road, and indeed, Google Maps showed the most direct route crossing Cain Creek and the White River. Only problem was, there are no bridges. The first time I attempted this route, I went with Mom, and it was springtime. A wet year. We got five miles south of the highway, and were turned back because the area around Cain Creek was flooded, and there wasn't anyway to get across it in our little Subaru.

The Long Way HomeThe Long Way HomeBouquet Table Road, Badlands NP, SD This view is looking back north towards the Badlands, after Mom and I turned around and headed home. The clouds were breaking, and the patterns on the fields were beautiful. Even though we didn't get down to the church, we had a wonderful drive through the Badlands.

White River FordWhite River FordWhite River Ford near St. Barbara's Church, SD

My brother Dave and I took the Toyota down that direction just this past week, and took another road that branches off of SD 44. After some wrong turns, and a few very vague tracks, we managed to get down to the White River, where we tested the water for fordability. In August, the river is low, and the bottom firm. Dave walked across, and I brought the truck over with no real issues.

St. Barbara's ChurchSt. Barbara's ChurchMemorial church and cemetery

Just across the river, we found St. Barbara's cemetery. A miniature memorial church sits atop a small knoll overlooking the plot, where several families have lovingly tended to the graves of the departed. The church is a model of the real church, but it's only about 4 feet high. From a distance, it looks like the real thing.  St. Barbara's Church CemeterySt. Barbara's Church CemeteryCemetery plots and miniature memorial church St. Barbara's ChurchSt. Barbara's ChurchMiniature church near cemetery GravestoneGravestoneSt. Barbara's Church Cemetery

Up on the hill, we found the remains of the original church. Nothing was left but the foundation and a few scraps of tin from the roof. The concrete steps led up to where the door would have been. We walked the entire site, looking for the broad chasm shown in Dad's picture, but again, could not match the site to the photograph. There are other churches in the Badlands, but this was my prime candidate, until now. There is no deep gully anywhere within walking distance of the original church as in Dad's photo. There is a road that looked interesting, heading over toward Conata and another river crossing, but we did not explore that route.

RemainsRemainsSt. Barbara's Church foundation Badlands BluffsBluffs near St. Barbara'sThe road up to Conata crosses a wash here, and runs up the hill towards the White Rive. FoundationFoundationSt. Barbara's Church, all that remains.

River RoadRiver RoadKyle SD

We took the southerly route home, down River Rd. towards Kyle. This valley is remarkably green for August, and a beautiful part of the Badlands I had never seen. It's definitely a 4WD road, with several rough spots, and a couple of creek crossings, like this one, with a VERY dubious bridge. (An alternate route crosses the creek without a bridge, but has an extremely high exit angle that the truck might not have been able to negotiate.) Looking back, I might not have crossed this bridge, as the supports are eroding away from the bank on the entrance side. Note the wrecked car under the bridge in the stream.

A Bridge Too FarA Bridge Too FarWash crossing, RIver Road, Kyle SD The search for St. Barbara's is over, but the search for the mysterious church on the edge of the Badlands desolation continues... If you have an idea of where the church in the original picture might have been, please contact me, or comment below.


The first edition of the "Disappearing Agrarian Landscapes" book has arrived!

June 14, 2016  •  3 Comments

After many requests from friends and patrons, I've designed and printed a coffee table book of my "Disappearing Agrarian Landscape" photographs. It is hard-bound, and printed on high quality matte stock, with a dust cover and accompanying copy explaining how I got started making images of the American West. I have a few copies that are signed and numbered, and would be happy to send you one upon request. The books are expensive to produce, and I am only charging a bit more than they cost me to produce. If you'd like one, please drop me a line or call my studio line at 248-229-7900. They are $60 each, and that includes shipping.

A Disappearing Agrarian Landscape -- text and photographs by James W. Parker $60 with free shipping

January February March (4) April (1) May June July August (2) September October November December
January (1) February March (1) April May June (1) July August (1) September October November December (2)
January February March April May (1) June July August September October November December