Saturday, March 27, 2021


When I taught photography, in order to emphasize the importance of the individual point of view, I gave one assignment that was a vague concept that would have to be interpreted by the students. One semester it was "Power." I don't remember much about the photographs they turned in. On my bicycle rides around the city I occasionally see some bit of infrastructure of the electrical grid and think of that assignment.

I specifically chose this overcast weather to pursue this exercise. I knew the locations where I wanted to take the photographs but I didn't want to be limited by the direction of the sun. The clouds also provide some relief from a plain sky.

I left the house with the 35mm front mounted on The Variable Cuboid. My first destination was the Bowen Street Substation on the east side of town. When I got there and looked at it, I had to include those two dominating vertical poles. It was too close to the busy street so I needed to photograph it from the other side. I discovered that I had left the 60mm front at home and the 100mm was too long, so I used the 45mm front.

It wasn't that out of my way, so I stopped at home, found the 60mm front and headed to my next subject, the historically named Oshkosh Substation downtown next to the river. I put on the 100mm, held it right up against the fence and aimed through a link.

The Pearl Avenue Substation at the University. I had scouted around it in the past so I already knew which side I was going to photograph. There's a telephone pole roughly in the way in this direction and I thought it might limit my options. I put the 35mm on. I was surprised that the picture as I wanted it was well in front of the obstacle.

The Sunset Point Substation. It's right next to an overpass on the highway so I could get a bit above it and use the axial pinhole. I switched to the 60mm.

A 138 kV transmission line along the Highway 41 causeway. It's part of a major north/south route connecting The Fox Cities and Fond du Lac. I had already figured out that the most dramatic way to illustrate a line of power towers was to concentrate on the closest one and make sure you get at least one other behind it. Also my position on the overpass gave me an advantageous angle. I was a little concerned because I had to point the camera directly into the sun. It seems to have worked in a day-for-night kind of way.

A 345 kV line runs north and south about 10 miles west of town and is connected to the city by this 138 kV line. It goes through the part of the city known as Westhaven. The city limit was at Highway 41 in the 50s when the highway was routed that way. Now the city limit is over a mile and a half west. This is about the west edge of town. The line goes over Fox Fire Drive through a rather broad right of way with suburbia on either side.

A lot of the route takes advantage of the parkland of the flood plain of Sawyer Creek to stay out of anyone's back yard.

In the earliest west side neighborhoods, the towers can seem quite close and menacing overhead. The 60mm was too wide for this so I changed to the 100mm sitting on the curb at the intersection of two quiet residential streets. No sooner did I get my arms in the changing bag when people started appearing. As I was lining up the camera, a woman, probably about my age, came from behind me and asked me what I was doing. I told her I was taking a pinhole photograph.

"Of what?”

"Of the transmission tower among the houses." I said.

She said she just asked because it was her house and it seemed strange. I explained I usually avoid people's homes but thought just the roofline would be OK. I gave her my card. I agreed it was strange. 

She repeated that she thought it was strange.

The line eventually reaches the Ellinwood Substation next to the Highway. There’s a clear view and a big lawn next to the road, but the angle that I thought best was behind a line of dried cattails that I had to squeeze through. It's surrounded by a little ditch. I changed to the 45mm.

A 69 kV line connects to it from the east side of the highway on Osborn Avenue. I was taking advantage of another high viewpoint at the top of the berm around the Viking Quarry. I had the 100mm front on and was backed right up against the fence on a steep slope so I couldn’t see what I was doing very well. I was also afraid of falling in view of what was moderate traffic. I neglected to pull the shutter out all the way and obscured the top half of the negative. I first got this idea of power distribution looking at this scene while doing the Truck post with the Manic Expression Cube, so to honor that moment, here’s a 24mm detail from the of the bottom of this negative.

The line goes to the 12th Street Substation, surrounded by another nice little neighborhood from the 30s and 40s. I had a clear view from across the street with the 100mm, but it just looked more interesting with a wide angle of view. I sat down on the curb in front of a line of pines across from it and changed to the 45mm. This time, just as I had popped off the front, a guy about my age and his little dog came up behind me from the left. I couldn’t pull my hands out. He asked me if I was OK. I had to explain myself. I joked that he probably hadn’t seen someone use a changing bag before. I was a photographer and the way I did it, I had to sometimes prepare in the dark, hence the changing bag. At about that point I got the new front on and pulled my hands out. I said I was a crazy photographer who liked to take pictures of Oshkosh and maybe tell a story.  

“And today it’s substations” he said. “I just asked because this is my house.”

This is a regular city distribution line across the river at the location of one of my eight little bridges from January. 

Before I left the house, I had made a list of what I was going to photograph and the most efficient path to get from one to the other, although slightly out of order. It was about a 20 mile ride. I followed the plan until almost the end. When I had gone by it on the other side of the river earlier, I decided my last idea wasn’t that interesting and had seen a couple better prospects as I rode down the shore. This alternative last photo also cut a few miles off the path home.

Kind of odd, after years of cursing powerlines, that I'm going out of my way to preserve them in these images.

Done with the 6x6cm format Variable Cuboid with Ilford Delta 100 semi-stand developed in Rodinal 1:100


  1. Well done, Nick. Ain't it always the way it goes with your arms in a changing bag.

  2. Maybe you should build a changing box on your bike and paint it white like a cooler. Then, when someone asks what you're doing, tell them you're "just trying to get a dang beer". Probably nod and walk away then...