Chasing Combines

These last posts feature one of my favorite summertime subjects—combines cutting fields of golden wheat. I stumbled onto this in 1994 on a blustery June afternoon in northeastern Oregon. I was traveling with a friend and we’d been chased up from John Day by lightning and vicious rainstorms, all the way to Pilot Rock, where the sun was hanging out. We made a right turn in Pendleton and shortly thereafter, on a spur of the moment (this is Western country, after all), a left at a sign pointing towards Helix.

It’s one of several small tiny communities in the area—Athena and Adams are others—where commerce hangs on tentatively (a small grocery store is a luxury) and if you live there you’re either a farmer or a retired farmer. The high school on the eastern edge of town, grain elevators on the west, and the cemetery nearby on a gentle hillside, can fairly trace the arc of a man’s life here.

On that particular day I met a bartender who’d lived near Eugene for a while, and as conversations inevitably wander we came around to discussing wheat harvesting, and a month later I received a letter from a farmer inviting me to come over and photograph. It was that simple.

I continued chasing combines—a mix of John Deere, Case, New Hollands, and Gleaners—over the next fifteen summers, expanding my reach to the Palouse in eastern Washington, along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front near Choteau, and into the prairie country of southern Saskatchewan. I like all of these landscapes, for different reasons. But one place I hadn’t gone to to photograph wheat harvesting was right here in my back yard, up the valley a short twenty miles away.

Why did I ignore my own turf? Until the last few years wheat was (from a photographer’s standpoint) an invisible crop—the scattered fields you could see were either inaccessible or too small in scale to merit any effort. And, truthfully, this part of the Willamette Valley is known as grass seed country—wheat is an alternative that allows farmers to rotate crops and add something new (and hopefully profitable) to their business.

The fields I’ve been shooting at this week, in Linn County near Harrisburg, totaled less than a hundred acres. They’d be lost on the vast wheat tracts in northeastern Oregon, in the Palouse, and most notably in Saskatchewan, and yet…they’re every bit the same, evinced by rustling wheat stalks in a breeze, the storms of chaff and dust kicked up by lumbering-but-graceful combines, and the good-natured friendliness of the farmers, who’ve always welcomed me onto the fields and, for a precious short time, into their lives.

Last Friday evening I stayed in the field after sunset, hoping to photograph the combine as it cut with its lights on. The night closed around me soothingly—geese returned at intervals to nighttime roosts along the Willamette River, the nearly-full moon rose over the Coburg Hills, and only a few mosquitos were about. The air was cool and would soon be too damp for cutting, so my opportunities, if they came, would be brief.

Focusing my camera was the trickiest part. I used a 35mm lens, and after I’d set up the framing I waited for the combine to enter the picture, then tracked it using the Live View function until it was where I desired. CLICK. After two passes around the field they shut down for the day, and I believe we were satisfied with our respective harvests.


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