Each month a prize-winning photograph from the archives of the Crozet Calendar will be published together with a story from the photographer of how the image was made and commentary by Sam Abell about the merits of the photograph.
The phrase ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ took on new meaning during the cold winter months of 2020-21. That’s when the pandemic’s shutdown of ordinary life truly took hold. Collectively we entered a tunnel of narrowing days that gradually dimmed, then darkened. People asked, “Is there light ahead?” The answer was no.
It was in this deeply subdued social atmosphere that Nathan Ostheimer made the compelling photograph of his family leaving the eastern opening of the majestic 4,273- foot-long Blue Ridge Tunnel.
As Nathan recalls, “This was taken the day after Thanksgiving, 2020. It was the first major holiday since the pandemic settled over society and ended almost everything normal—including holiday travel.
“Like many others, we typically got together with our extended family for Thanksgiving out of town. This was the first occasion we weren’t elsewhere with family. We were home. And though we tried our best to combat it, our spirits were less than jovial due to the isolation from family brought on by the pandemic.
“The Blue Ridge Tunnel had just opened to the public. To raise our spirits the four of us decided to check it out. I brought my camera along for the experience. But I had minimal expectations of making a good photo because I do not consider myself a skilled low-light photographer. But it was worth a shot.
“We arrived early at the west end of the Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel Trail parking lot at the top of Afton Mountain. We were one of the only groups there. It was chilly and overcast which added to the melancholy undertones of the holiday weekend.
“Throughout the walk, I attempted to capture pictures of my wife and boys in front of me. But without a tripod and with my subjects moving, it was impossible to get a crisp, non-blurred image at the shutter speed I was having to use.
“But as we headed from west to east the literal ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ became brighter and brighter. I was then able to adjust my shutter to 1/80 sec. This permitted me to freeze my family’s walking and capture an in-focus image. I got it just right when my older son held up his arms exultantly in a gesture of defiance of our melancholy spirits. The perfectly placed opening of the tunnel surrounded and framed him.”
Nathan is an ardent amateur photographer with a record three photographs, and the cover, in this year’s calendar. I asked him how he continues to grow as a photographer..
“The calendar contest in and of itself has helped me grow. It keeps me alert throughout the year to our beautiful surroundings. Oftentimes, as I’m in and around town, my mind ‘pins’ places to come back to and explore at different times of the day and year.
“As far as staying creatively renewed, the quarterly change in seasons here in Virginia helps a lot. When the atmosphere changes, it provides a fresh opportunity to see our surroundings differently. Each season has its own beauty and spark. It makes it easy to keep trying to capture the unique qualities of the changing environment.
“On some outings, it almost feels like a brief mindfulness retreat. There are times when taking a photograph in the morning on the way to work sets my day on the right course. Or at dusk finding a beautiful scene on the way home from a stressful day can frameshift how I’m feeling.”
Inspired by Nathan’s photograph, my wife and I recently walked the tunnel for the first time. It was an experience made memorable by choosing to walk the length of the tunnel without supplementary light. We wanted to deeply experience the cave-like darkness of the tunnel and let the tiny gleam of light at the far end guide us as it grew in size.
It grew very slowly!
By the one third mark darkness had fully enveloped us. We slowed our already slow steps. Inching forward it was hard to stay on a centerline that we couldn’t see and could barely sense. But it was impossible not to sense the forbidding atmosphere that Irishmen and enslaved laborers endured for eight years to create, almost entirely by hand, the one-time longest tunnel in America.
You don’t have to walk the tunnel in darkness to experience its immense physical power. Every walker feels that. But if you follow that gleam and finish the trail, you also feel the stirring emotional power of the experience. That comes from leaving the tunnel and exulting once again in the open air and sunshine.
The gift of Nathan’s photograph is that it catches both forces—the powerful tunnel and the equally intense emotion it elicits.
Find Nathan on Instagram @nateo-graphy or at nateostheimerphotography.com
Please note: The Crozet Gazette will not hold its annual calendar photo contest this year. Thank you to all who have participated over the last twelve years! The 2023 calendar will be a final “best of” edition of the project, curated by Sam Abell. Look for it on sale locally and online in November.