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The Story Behind the Photo: Clicking This IFAJ Star Prize Photo Proved A Steep Challenge

Martha Mintz
Winner of the 2021 Star Prize for Photography

An assignment in the famed Palouse region of Washington had long been a dream of mine. As a member of the 1997 winning team of the Montana state FFA agronomy competition, our award was a trip west following the grain trail from Montana to the coast.

Along the path I caught my first glimpse of the Palouse. Endless grain fields spanned the tops of looming hills. Crops were drilled to the edge of worrisome precipices. It was fascinating and lit the imagination. I pictured what the fields must be like humming with the activity of planting or harvest. As I grew as a photographer and writer over the years, the Palouse still called.

It took 23 years, but I finally got the chance. Beyond my main assignment I rounded up more leads and headed to the hills. I was going to ride in a combine clinging to a hillside, its header twisted to follow the steep grade. I was going to peer over the edge of a cliff as wheat was pulled from the brink into the hopper. I did and it was thrilling. Diving off the point of a hill at a 45-degree angle with a full load and a driver narrating how the back wheels sometimes come off the ground really is worthy of a theme park attraction.

The landscape was stunning, but I soon realized capturing photos that demonstrated the sheer scale and the crazy pitches of the fields to be a difficult task. I worked the problem for multiple days. I used telephoto lenses to flatten the landscape. I laid on the ground with wide angle lenses to build drama from ground to sky. I shot from hilltops and valley bottoms. I had people in the field to try and gain scale. I got some great images, but nothing sang.

The last day had me at the farm that initially brought me to the Palouse. I was supposed to capture the experience of wheat harvest on this terrain. Unfortunately, this harvest story involved the frustrations of rare late summer rain impeding the task. I drove for hours chasing combines in various communities the rain showers missed.

My target farm called and reported they were back in the field. I arrived two hours later. Clouds were looming. The grain cart relayed me to the hilltop to flag down the combine operator for a quick ride along. We made it 15 minutes before humidity spiked, a few rain drops splashed and the combine ground to a halt with damp wheat stems forming ropes in the header.

I jumped out to see if I could get just a few more images as the driver worked to unplug the header. A few paces out I turned back to see the light, the incoming storm and the equipment juxtaposed in such a way it captured everything. There was scale, elevation, pitch, foreground and background elements, and the drama of the weather providing brilliant contrast. I snapped several photos as the grain cart moved across the field, careful to wipe rain droplets from my lens. It was my shortest photo shoot of the week at just minutes, but it proved being stubborn and looking for one last shot sometimes pays.

In the end, I was beyond pleased with the experience and the images. Now I must move onto a new dream terrain to capture. Since a story I did on Montana beef producers sending cattle and cowboys there, the vast emptiness of the Russian Steppe certainly appeals. It may take me another 20 years to get there, but I can’t wait for the adventure and the challenge.

See more photos from this trip at:

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