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“Haven, Maine” by Bruce Dale © Nat Geo Mag

This photograph, titled "Haven, Maine," is a view out the frost coated bedroom window of the cottage where John Wesley Powell spent the last years of his life and where he died. It was taken while on assignment to illustrate the life of John Wesley Powell and was published in the April 1994 National Geographic magazine.

Powell, best known for his exploration of the Colorado River in the late 1800's, later became the first chief of the U.S. Geological Survey and helped start the National Geographic Magazine. This particular photo evolved from a visit to the Powell Museum in Page Arizona where I discovered an iron bed, identified as the bed in which he died. I knew from my earlier research that Powell had died on the coast of Maine where he spent the last years of his life writing poetry. The museum was able to trace back the donor of the bed who I eventually contacted and got the address of the current owner who in turn gave me permission to make this picture.

 

I wanted to illustrate this final episode of his life and timed a visit to the area to coincide with a Maine snowstorm. At first I thought I might convey this sense of emptiness by photographing the cottage from a short distance with only a lamp on in the house (left photo). As often happens, I wasn't happy with my preconceived idea.

I looked at it again from the reciprocal angle -- looking out from inside the house (2nd down on left). Still, it lacked that something special.

Not satisfied, I came back at dawn the next morning. It snowed during the night and the 4-wheel drive vehicle I rented didn't work in 4 wheel drive -- twice I got stuck on the way. I beat my way through some snow drifts surrounding the cottage and looked at the scene from on the porch looking out to sea (3rd down on left).

I went inside and studied the view from the bedroom window (4th and 5th down on left). It began to coalesce as I moved closer and the final image (bottom left and top) was shot with a 20 mm lense almost touching the window. I actually squared the scene by adjusting my tripod mounted camera so that the lens was pressed against the glass. Then I was able to slide the tripod back and carefully compose the scene.All the elements seemed to come into place and I felt I had something special (bottom left and top).

This photograph stands on its own, but the fact that it represents the view through the window of Powell's bedroom makes it specially significant. He died in this room overlooking the sea - a contrast to the man who spent much of his life in the arid southwest. With a view like this, it's no wonder he turned to poetry.

What makes this picture work? Maybe it's the fact that the viewer is inside looking out that draws one into the picture. There is a strong graphic foreground with nearly black window stiles that look like crosses, the frost adds a bit of romance and the window screen itself is aligned perfectly with the sides of the image. The middle ground of the scene is the porch itself and it echoes the lines of the window stiles. On the horizon, you have the sea itself with the solitary, leafless tree near the center. The picture itself is almost monochromatic with only a hint of warmth in the sky. But, none of this went through my mind when I shot the picture. To me, it just felt good.