We Played with Sunlight and Shadow

I shot pictures at Coronado Heights the other day. I want you to see them here,  and on Facebook, to see how my wife Polly and I played with sunlight and shadows, and loved what we saw and photographed.

Like most people who live comfortably, I spent most of my life not noticing things.

Then I met photographers. Life got better.

Good photographers will tell you photography is not just about taking memorable photos, but about being more awake in life — noticing things.


Polly and I photograph our shadow near sunset.

Photographers notice everything. They taught me to love the low, mellow light near sundown (and sunrise), how it makes the world look softer. They taught me to see the beauty of action. Don’t just photograph a bird, my friend Travis Heying would say. Shoot a bird doing something. Travis, if he was shooting someone outdoors was always shooting them doing and being and acting. If he shot a rancher counting pasture cattle, he’d sit in the back seat of the pickup, hang his camera outside the back passenger window, and shoot the rancher’s face not only from behind, but with the face framed in the pickup’s side mirror.


View through a sandstone window at the top of the castle at Coronado Heights.

So when I took Polly to Coronado Heights on Sunday, I timed it so we’d arrive near sundown at the little 1930s-era WPA sandstone castle. We shot photos and played with light and shadows. Polly noticed how pretty it was to shoot a photo through the stone windows at the top, showing both the stone and hillside beyond framed in the stone.  We shot many photos of the stone windows as the sun crept downward and suffused Coronado’s old hillside in low, yellow light.

I’ve loved photographers since my days at Kansas State University, where they had an unusually good newspaper photo staff, run by kids so artistic that we print people mockingly called each of them “FA.” “Hey, FA, come shoot this story with me.” (The “A” stood for “artist.”) Unlike we print people, who thought of ourselves as fact-gatherers rather than writers, the FAs thought of themselves as artists, composers, creators. Tim Janicke and Bo Rader came out of that dingy little darkroom while I was there, and so, after I left, did Pete Souza, who went on to become the chief White House photographer to presidents Reagan and Obama.

Good photographers are good because they become more alive than the rest of us – because they notice everything, from how the low yellow sunlight plays upon a stone, to how the wall hangings in a man’s office tell much about who he might be.


Yellow light at sunset, softens everything.

I once wrote a news profile of Phil Ruffin, friend to Trump and billionaire owner of the Treasure Island casino in Las Vegas. For my final draft, I’d written what I thought was a decent story top, explaining why Ruffin was important.

Travis was the photographer on that story, and had gone to Vegas with me to meet Ruffin. When Travis read my story in draft, he emailed me a mocking note about how my story draft started: “Dumb,” he wrote. “Pedestrian. Dull.”

I wrote back, and mockingly said he could write the story if he wanted. I was joking. After all, photographers are not writers. Right?

Not long after, maybe an hour, Travis wrote back: “So now I’ve written your f-ing story. Do I have to do everything for you?”

I read the paragraphs he wrote –and I did not hesitate. I scooped them up, put them on top of my Ruffin Story, deleted my original story top – and put Travis’s byline on the story, along with mine.

Writing, as Mark Twain said, is not just about writing. It’s about noticing things, and while he was with me, Travis always noticed a lot.



April 25, 2010

LAS VEGAS — The wealth inside his casino office surrounds him like the scent of cologne: A photo of him with Mike Tyson. A Chinese carved mammoth tusk from the Ming Dynasty. A chess set made of gold.

But nothing evokes money more than the copy of a check hung on his wall.


It’s a personal check from his Wichita Bank of America account, written to pay his 2008 federal income taxes.

The man who wrote that check, Phil Ruffin, reclines in his office chair with a phone perched at his ear. On the line is America’s icon of wealth, Donald Trump, who tells Ruffin that his businesses are going well and that filming of the latest episodes of Trump’s show “The Apprentice” is going just fine.

“Good,” Ruffin tells him. “Maybe you should jack up your prices.”

I’d sat in the same office with Phil and Travis. And I had not noticed almost any of the things Travis noticed, until he’d pointed them out later.

But thanks to him and many other great FAs, I’ve learned to notice more, and live more vividly.


“Supermoon,” shot by Travis Heying last November. He shot the photo from a mile and a half away from the pictured castle at Coronado Heights. I’m the tall guy in the middle of the frame. I’ve got this one framed and signed, hanging on my wall at home.