Bend and snap

12 student photographers go on location at Big Bend National Park to build portfolios, make memories


Alice Scott

Junior Freja Ljungqvist and Austin High freshman Jameson Webster stand atop a rock at the end of the Grapevine Hills Trail.

Alice Scott, co-editor-in-chief

Seven hours away and 44 miles west of Austin lies the entrance to Big Bend National Park. Forty-five more minutes past the entrance, you’ll reach the Cottonwood Campground just adjacent to the Rio Grande River that separates the United States and Mexico. Travelers from across the country travel to this spot in search of peace and tranquility far away from the fast pace of the rest of the world.

Some of the kids were, of course, also just taking pictures for the reason that most people take pictures, which is to help remember a really wonderful experience.

— yearbook adviser and commercial photography teacher Frank Webster

And for four days last weekend, this spot hosted 12 McCallum photographers who went on location to practice landscape and portrait photography.

“I wanted to go on something that would give me unique images, and have dedicated time to focus on capturing something to be proud of,” junior Millie Ramsey said.

The trip, coordinated and chaperoned by yearbook adviser and commercial photography teacher Frank Webster was designed to create photo opportunities unavailable at school.

“There’s not a lot of opportunity to do landscape photography in a classroom,” Webster said. “As a photography teacher, I recognize that landscape photography is kind of one of the big genres of photography. The best way to learn photography is through hands-on practice, so if we want to do landscape photography, we have to get out of the building and go find some great landscapes. I don’t know of any place better to do that in the state of Texas than Big Bend.”

Webster, however, is biased toward the national park. Having taken 27 trips into Big Bend, he knows the area backward and forwards. Webster even helped chaperone the yearly Big Bend trip taken by the parks and recreation class while working at Kealing Middle School.

I’ve seen so many of my mom’s pictures from her trips to Big Bend when she was a teenager with all her friends, and this felt like a full circle moment.

— junior Freja Ljungqvist

“Very early in my teaching career, I was invited to help chaperone that trip,” Webster said. “I got to do it many, many times and found it to be very rewarding and became very familiar with the park. I have since taken my family there a few times and I just really love, love the park and that whole experience. Those teachers at Kealing really taught me how to lead a very purposeful, curriculum-oriented field trip.”

Despite his familiarity with visiting the park, Webster says he always experiences something new during each visit. This was made clear when the group arrived in Big Bend National Park on Thursday, March 30. The plan was to hike the Santa Elena Canyon, but upon arrival, the route appeared too treacherous to hike due to extreme wind and sandstorms.

“I think those are the kinds of surprises that happen every time I’m in Big Bend,” Webster said. “There’s always something that doesn’t go exactly according to plan. That’s the nature of a very harsh, unpredictable environment. You just kind of roll with it, and it becomes part of the adventure.”

The unexpected impasse called for quick thinking by Webster who rearranged the next day’s activities to ensure the group would get to see the canyon carved by the Rio Grande. Over the rest of the three-day weekend, the photographers hiked the Window Trail, the Grapevine Hills Trail, walked around Sam Nail Ranch, and took a day trip to Terlingua, just 12 miles from the Rio Grande, and the Mexican border

“I learned so much about my camera,” junior Freja Ljungqvist said. “I don’t think I have ever fully understood how to use the settings to get the results I wanted until this trip. I also learned a ton about composition and how to take a visually appealing picture. This trip helped me get a trained eye for photography.”

I wanted to go on something that would give me unique images, and have dedicated time to focus on capturing something to be proud of.

— junior Millie Ramsey

In addition to learning photographic skills, the students also learned valuable lessons about independence as they cooked and planned meals, set up tents and cleaned dishes.

“I learned how to cooperate with a group of people to make stuff happen like meals and supplies,” Ljungqvist said. “Collaboration was a huge part of this trip and I had to do it with people ranging from my best friend to virtual strangers.”

The trip turned out to be all about takeaways. Going on location for photography was just a taste of what it could be like to be a freelance or professional photographer.

“I also learned a lot about my limits and what parts of photography interest me more career-wise,” Ramsey said. “I enjoy the travel aspect, although I definitely have to be able to shower at the least.”

It was fun seeing everybody switching modes of the type of photography they were doing and the purposes behind it.

— Webster

For Webster, the big reward was getting to see his students at work, utilizing the skills he taught them while also implementing their own style.

“It was really cool how each person on the trip approached photography differently,” Webster said. “We had some people who were documenting the trip, just trying to record other students at work. We had some people who were very into art photography and landscape photography. We had a lot of people who were doing some really beautiful portraiture work out there. And then some of the kids were, of course, also just taking pictures for the reason that most people take pictures, which is to help remember a really wonderful experience. It was fun seeing everybody switching modes of the type of photography they were doing and the purposes behind it.”

Just as the students meticulously captured images on their cameras, they also captured memories — memories that, according to Ljungqvist, will last a lifetime.

“I’ve seen so many of my mom’s pictures from her trips to Big Bend when she was a teenager with all her friends, and this felt like a full circle moment,” Ljungqvist said. “I know I’m going to look back on it when I’m older and feel the same nostalgia she does now.”

The following images highlight the work of the 12 photographers on the trip, displaying their favorite images captured.

FRONT: On the lookout for junior Natalie Bendes (left) stops along the Grapevine Hills trail to take a picture of the landscape, much different from the other areas of the park that the group had explored. Photo by Alice Scott.

BACK: As the group began to turn back from the Window, they decided to make a change in plans for their evening activities. Although the initially planned to go to Grapevine hills for sunset photography, Webster feared they might not make it to the trail all the way across the park. So instead, Webster decided to take the group on a trail that turned off from the main Window hike and took them up to see a view of the entire Basin. For junior Natalie Bendes, the hike was challenging but also very rewarding. “It was completely uphill, and we were all extremely tired but we went on,” Bendes said. “Then we made it about half way and the view was amazing. We still had about half to do but people started feeling very very tired. Me and a couple of others chose to keep going. When we finally got to the top the view was definitely worth it.” Photo by Bendes.

FRONT: Freshman Julia Copas takes a photo of the walls of the Santa Elena Canyon that reach up to 1,500 feet high. Photo by Alice Scott.

BACK: While there were many planned activities and hikes scheduled throughout the four-day trip, at times opportunities for photography just presented themselves. One such opportunity occurred during the drive to the Santa Elena Canyon on the morning of the group’s second day in the park. While the hike was supposed to be the main event, freshman Julia Copas found that her best image came from the side of the road on the way to the canyon. “I think that the photo shows the things in Big Bend that people wouldn’t necessarily take photos of,” Copas said. “I feel like everyone comes to Big Bend to see specific things like the Window or Balancing Rock, but there’s so much more to it. The little things themselves are really beautiful.” Photo by Copas.

FRONT: Juniors Tessa Davern and Freja Ljungqvist set their cameras before photographing the town cemetery in Terlingua. Photo by Alice Scott

BACK: After reaching the end of the Grapevine Hills Trail, juniors Tessa Davern and Freja Ljunqvist sought out some shade in a small cave formed by the rock formations surrounding them. They sat taking in the areas surrounding them, both taking in the vastness of the park below them and scanning for photo opportunities. As Davern turned to her friend, she realized the perfect photo was sitting right next to her. “Freja was squeezing between these two big rocks and the light was shining directly behind her and she looked beautiful,” Davern said. “I had to take a picture. I just like the position of how she was. It’s the way she was standing and the light coming in behind her that I really liked because it made her eyes look really pretty.” Photo by Davern.

FRONT: Leaning back to get the perfect shot, junior Sofia Hamlet snaps a picture of junior Millie Ramsey during the portraiture lesson at Sam Nail Ranch. Photo by Alice Scott.

BACK: After a 2.5 mile hike down into the Chisos Basin, McCallum photographers arrived at The Window, the most popular sight in Big Bend National Park. After trying their hand at capturing images at the most photographed location in the park, the students focused in on the smaller sights in the area. For junior Sofia Hamlet, this was the perfect opportunity to take a unique picture. “These two birds flew up and through the window,” Hamlet said. “The birds were very photogenic and posed for quite some time. I know some people got similar photos but I got it from the back where the bird is tilting its head slightly and you can only see one eye. I love the different angle.” Photo by Hamlet.

FRONT: Taking advantage of the wind storm that nature had whipped up, Junior Aspen Holder takes a few pictures in the unplanned event that occurred on the group’s first night in Big Bend. Photo by Alice Scott.

BACK: One thing that Webster impressed upon the group was that the best time for photography in Big Bend was sunrise and sunset. Oftentimes this would mean that when those few precious minutes of dawn or dusk came the photographers would drop whatever they were doing to get an image. On Friday evening after a long day of hiking at the Santa Elena Canyon and the Window Trail, senior Aspen Holder’s group pulled over on the way back to camp to capture the sun as it descended for the day. “The sunset in Big Bend stunned us every evening,” Holder said. “Whether we were driving, at camp, or hiking, a silence fell over the group, and the clicking of cameras accompanied the sounds of nature.” Photo by Holder.

FRONT: Junior Eliza Jensen and her fellow photographers continue along the Grapevine Hill Trail to reach their final destination: the balancing rock. Photo by Alice Scott.

BACK: On the third day of the trip, students traveled out of the park to a small border town called Terlingua. The town is home to approximately 127 people according to the world population review is famously a ghost town. The abandoned structures and buildings proved to be the perfect change of pace for the students who had been exclusively photographing landscapes. “A small group of people and I went off to explore the ghost town and I saw a small little hotel that was somewhat separated from the rest of the buildings near it,” junior Eliza Jensen said. “I really liked the way the hotel was all alone and on a hill and the way the building mixed in the smooth and rough stone. I’ve always kept an eye out for interesting and unique buildings and something about this building really stuck out to me. I absolutely love small towns, especially ghost towns like Terlingua, where you can really feel the personality of the buildings and the town as a whole.” Photo by Jensen.

FRONT: While in Terlingua, junior Ame Jonrowe explored the ghost town, photographing many different artifacts and sights, like this car. Photo by Alice Scott.

BACK: During the group’s visit to Terlingua, they stopped at the porch outside the Terlingua Trading Company and the Starlight Theatre where a group of locals and travelers had stopped to listen to a circle of musicians outside of the shops. Webster, who brought his guitar on the trip, joined in on the entertainment that quickly turned into a photo opportunity. For photographers who had mostly been shooting landscapes, this event offered time to practice human life photography. “I was sitting on the porch outside with some of my friends and my camera,” junior Ame Jonrowe said. “A few dogs were walking around, so I framed my considering the rule of odds and aperture and got this photo. [I liked how] the movement of the dog along with the two men chatting in the background creates room for imagination. Personally, I wonder what they were talking about and what the dog was watching.” Photo by Jonrowe.

FRONT: Junior Eva Lafitte takes a photo of a family on the Santa Elena Canyon hike. Photo by Alice Scott.

BACK: Just as the sun began to set on the group’s final day in Big Bend, junior Eva Lafitte snapped this picture of Webster’s son, Austin High School freshman Jameson Webster. Lafitte took the photo during a portraiture lesson at Sam Nail Ranch that included information on utilizing flash for catchlight. “I wanted to use my portrait lens because I had not gotten a chance yet,” Lafitte said. “So I asked Jameson to stand in front of the mountain range. The lighting was really nice because it was like pre-golden hour where the sun isn’t too golden but still produces a nice glow.” Photo by Lafitte.

FRONT: Juniors Freja Ljungqvist and Tessa Davern admire some of the images they captured while doing a portraiture workshop at Sam Nail Ranch. Photo by Alice Scott.

BACK: After hiking the Grapevine Hills Trail junior Tessa Davern takes a rest in the shade below a balancing rock. The hike, that was almost completely flat until the final stretch that took a sharp steep turn, left the photographers in need of rest upon reaching their destination. It was in this moment of leisure that, using her photographer’s eye, junior Freja Ljungqvist noticed the shadows on her friend’s face and quickly snapped a photo. “Tessa heard the shutter go off and turned to look at me and I took this,” Ljungqvist said. “You get to see the texture and color of the rocks and also get a glimpse of the view behind.” Photo by Ljungqvist.

FRONT: Junior Liberty Mitchell (right) sits atop a rock formation at the end of the Gravevine Hills Trail, taking photos of the landscape from above. Photo by Alice Scott.

BACK: One of the major differences between the Grapvine Hills Trail and the other hikes the group went on was the landscape. Located much further away from Cottonwood Campground than elsewhere that the group had explored, this new location gave photographers new things to look out for. “The rock formations inspired me,” Mitchell said. “I like how the texture really shows up in all the rocks. I learned to really keep an eye out for any photo opportunities. Even though some may not work out it’s good to cover all your bases and get as many [photos] as you can.” Photo by Mitchell.

FRONT: About halfway through the hike of the Santa Elena Canyon, the group stopped to take photos of the way that carved the canyon walls. Junior Millie Ramsey (left) crouches down to get a shot of the water from a different angle. Photo by Alice Scott.

BACK: Atop one of the rock formations at the Grapevine Hills Trail, juniors Tessa Davern and Freja Ljungqvist embrace each other in a hug. Junior Millie Ramsey caught this moment out of the corner of her eye and decided to snap a picture which ended up becoming her favorite image from the trip. “I had perched myself on top of a large rock that oversaw a lot of the ground below me,” Ramsey said. “I had been looking at different people around to photograph when I saw my two buddies on top of another rock. When I took the photo, I didn’t initially realize it would be as grand, but after I took a glance at my camera, I gasped and went to show my buddies. I felt really happy to take a photo that the people in it could enjoy themselves.” Photo by Ramsey.

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