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Through the Lens

Left: Carl on skis at the Shack, ca. 1945. / Right: The author taking photos while canoeing the Kickapoo River, October 2023.

By Maia Buschman

Ah, to peer into the viewfinder, frame a piece of the world, and press the shutter.

It started a little haphazardly, of course. Growing up, most electronics in my orbit had a camera feature - a Nokia flip phone, a handheld Nintendo, touchscreen mp3 players. Whether they took good-quality photos was beside the point; I was happy just to tinker, to freeze time in any way I could then play around with the results.

Left: Image taken on a Nintendo DS game console of a spadefoot toad, 2009. / Right: Light through the clouds, taken with a Samsung Galaxy Player, 2012.

Somewhere along the way, the curiosity grew a little more focused. The summer before high school, I endeavored to capture daily photos of myself as a diary of my vacation activities. Around that same time, I'd also become inspired by another blogger's "photo a day" practice, and as the weeks and months went by, I challenged myself to expand my view; to bring in location and context, the other people - or creatures - I was with, the things I was doing; to incorporate more of the little bit of world I inhabited.

Left: Pic a Day 4/5/14, stopping to admire flowers while dog-walking. / Right: Pic a Day 12/12/17, night walk through snow, Vermont.

My "pic a day" streak lasted six years. While I've since moved away from that disciplined daily practice, the camera is, as ever, a steadfast companion. The urge to document new life experiences and adventures, to frame the familiar in novel ways, is irrepressible. And why would I want to repress it? This means of learning and exploring has only ever opened the world up to me and encouraged me to keep seeing differently.

Early fellowship explorations, June 2023.

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Carl Leopold, the fourth child and youngest son of Aldo and Estella, seemed to have also arrived at photography rather opportunistically. Aldo had taken a trip to Germany in 1935 and returned with an unexpected memento: a Zeiss Ikon camera. Leopold intended to use it to capture images for his wildlife ecology classroom slides, but instead, a new passion was ignited in his teenage son. In an interview almost seventy years later, Carl said plainly that "I fell in love with that camera and there was no separating me from it, [ever] since."

Left: Carl Leopold practicing archery. / Right: Aldo Leopold holding the Zeiss Ikon camera. Both images ca. 1935.

Laying claim to the camera, Carl was bestowed with both the privilege and responsibility of being the family documentarian - to hear him tell it, he "captured that honor from the very beginning" as he snapped away on his family's weekend retreats to the Shack, recording renovations to the chicken coop, marking changes to the old farm landscape, and leaving hundreds of photos worth of history.

Clockwise from top left: Aldo at the Shack. / Carl's sister Nina inside the Shack with Gus. / Aldo looking over a prescribed prairie fire./ The interminable task of repairing the Shack chimney. Ca. 1930s-40s.

It's a little disorienting to uncover our commonalities. Chance encounters with cameras, of course, but just as I created (or, tried to create) a Photo Club in high school, so too did Carl. "I helped form a Camera Club," he said in a 2003 interview with Buddy Huffaker. "Everybody in the club was just crazy about taking photographs." He bragged that his camera "was probably the best one in the lot," which I could maybe agree with, a little - despite taking advantage of any available device, I did get compliments on the "fancy camera" I gifted myself with in my late teens; and I also had the chance to play around with my grandfather's old Olympus film cameras, which in and of themselves feel brag-worthy despite my inexperience with them.

Left: A replica of Carl's brag-worthy Zeiss Ikon camera, on display in the visitor center exhibit hall. / Right: Backyard still life, taken with an Olympus OM-2 SLR camera, 2019.

The impact of such extensive photo-taking can, of course, only be seen when looking back. In Carl's case, his documentation gave us a glimpse into the creation of a national historic landmark and an iconic conservation experiment. He reflected on this legacy toward the end of his life: "There is the opportunity to look at the ruination that was here when we started, and how it’s converted into this simply gorgeous product." The photographer's framing of the world is no small thing, then. Beyond revealing our own individual changes over time, it also showcases the way human and environmental systems evolve and shift.

Top: Shack landscape panorama, as seen by Carl ca. 1939 / Bottom: Shack landscape as seen by the author, 2023.

Peering into the Leopolds' past through Carl's lens not only lends an intimate view into history that's sparked my curiosity, it's created a deeper sense of connection with a place and people that were otherwise strangers. We're united by mirrors and shutters, by open-minded attention and wonder. And now, I can say I've trod the same earth as him, stood in the shade of trees that he and his family planted in barren sand and hoped would take root.

Left: Aldo and Carl work on Levee road fence, ca. 1939 /Right: Close-up of Levee fence gate, June 2023.

I've seen, through his camera as well as my own, this little bit of world come to life.

It’s a gift I’ll take with me wherever I go next.

The author and her camera(s) overlooking Frank’s Hill, 2023.