Burning ring of fire
By Jim Urquhart
“Jim Urquhart; lowering expectations since 1977″
That is something that kept popping in my head as I drove home from southern Utah after covering the annual eclipse for Reuters the day before. That, and also regretting not purchasing a bumper sticker from a small gas station in the town of Beaver, Utah.
It wasn’t that my pics were bad – several had run in some the most respected online photo galleries of the event – but I knew I didn’t hit a home run.
I had spent weeks planning how to cover the unique annular eclipse that was last visible over the United States in 1994. I researched time tables, discussion boards on how to shoot the eclipse, talked with other photojournalists on how they planned to cover it to make certain I was in the right place for the eclipse. I spent hours working with neutral density and solar filter combinations. I even researched the meaning of Johnny Cash’s 1963 hit “Burning Ring of Fire.” Some say the song is about “transformative love.” After covering the eclipse I subscribe to the belief it has more to do with the transformation of one’s bowels after too many habaneros and tequila than it does with love.
Myself and our reporter ventured to the small town of Kanarraville, Utah. NASA scientists had deemed it the world’s “sweet spot” to view the eclipse. I heard many people (over and over again) say they expected 5,000 to 15,000 people to venture to the town of about 300 for the event. I was dead certain this was the right place to watch the eclipse and also make images of the crush of on-lookers.
When I had arrived there early on Sunday at about 10 in the morning to secure my shooting position a whole ten hours earlier than the event, I was one of the first there. I felt good about this but as the day went on I began to really question my choice. Yes, I would have a great view of the eclipse, but I wouldn’t have a distinct landmark in front of the eclipse to really show where I was.
The weather forecast of clear skies was also holding true and this was actually kind of upsetting me. I thought clouds would make a more compelling frame. The day before, I spent rock climbing elsewhere in southern Utah and had found several unique rock formations that would make for interesting photos. But I was going to the small town to focus more on the people watching the eclipse and not the eclipse itself.
As the eclipse neared I really began to question my decision to be where I was. Thousands did show up, but not the crowd crush I had envisioned. There were a lot of people where I was, but we weren’t crushed in shoulder to shoulder. A nine mile section of road leading to the town was lined with cars parked on both sides but I was now quite a distance away from this road and wouldn’t have enough time to go there and come back. So I opted to stay.
I made images I felt told the story of what was happening in front of me, but I wished there was something more amazing. The eclipse itself was beautiful but I didn’t spend a lot of time focusing on it.
During the eclipse I spent my time making photos of it, shooting pics of people watching it and also editing and attempting to transmit the photos from my location. Earlier in the day I had tested my broadband internet connection and had no problem sending pics but now that thousands of people had descended on this small town, the cell phone towers were bogged down by everyone’s smart phones. It was almost impossible to even make a phone call. I was now waiting in excess of 20 minutes to just upload one photo.
This beautiful event was taking place right over my shoulder and I was sitting there cussing and swearing to myself (and to anyone else that dared listen) about such issues like connectivity and trying to get the pictures out in the U.S. before east coast deadlines had expired. Luckily, no one cared to listen.
I kept making images but none were jumping out at me. I have tried to tell myself over and over again that I did the best I could. I covered what happened in front of me but I am not convinced that is fully true. Yes, I was there. I shot what was taking place in front of me. But it was not anything close to what I had expected of myself. As the eclipse began to set behind a mountain the crowd began to sing “Burning Ring of Fire.” To them I guess this was a happy moment.
However, in my mind, I was shaking my fist in the general direction of the sun and moon and mumbling to myself about even more offensive theories to which that song is really about.