- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 28, 2014

DECATUR, Ala. (AP) - Tillman Crane sees the world upside down and backward. With headphones in his ears, Crane patiently waits on the coast of the Orkney Islands in Scotland, the banks of the Jordan River in Salt Lake City and the bustling streets of Beijing for the perfect light.

With a click, Crane, looking through a viewfinder, which reverses and upends images, captures a moment in time.

One of the nation’s best-known large format photographers, the Decatur native, now living in Maine, never planned on pursuing photography.

His first encounter with a camera, after all, failed.

“I was the designated photographer for our big elementary school class trip to Montgomery. It was third or fourth grade,” Crane said. “I came across those photos a while back. They were awful, truly awful.”

But when graduate schools passed on the religion major and a hometown newspaper sought out a part-time photographer to shoot bridal showers, Crane found what would become his job, hobby and passion.

Along with creating images selected for exhibit at the Salt Lake Art Center, Portland Museum of Art, San Francisco’s Vision Gallery and Brigham Young University Museum, Crane, known for playing with light and dark and finding beauty in unique places, leads photography workshops around the world.

In what Crane calls the “non-postcard tours,” the workshops lead hobbyist photographers to abandoned farms and one-room schoolhouses in North Dakota and the ghost towns of Montana.

Last week, 12 people visited Alabama for “Spirit of Structure.” For the second consecutive year, Crane challenged students to find images in Birmingham’s Sloss Furnace, Mooresville’s historic buildings and Decatur’s past. In Decatur, the photographers visited the Casa Grande Hotel, Archer Daniels Midland Cotton Warehouse, Woller’s Building on Bank Street and the train depot.

“These are amazingly beautiful slices of life. I don’t see decay. I see the beauty that has formed over time,” Crane said. “In Woller’s, there is a 1950 letter from an executive to a sales team stapled to the wall. Entering these places is like unearthing a time capsule.”

A cold wind blew through the drafty train depot in downtown Decatur as Hal Lichtin, a technical writer for computer software by trade and photographer at heart, positioned his digital camera. Surrounded by peeling paint, exposed wood and a crumbling ceiling, Lichtin searched for the beauty hidden in 100 years of dirt, grime and deterioration.

“It’s unfortunate this building is slated to be redeveloped,” said Lichtin, of Newton, Mass. “But you can’t keep it the way it is for a few photographers who love decay. This speaks to me. There is beauty in the old, run-down building you can’t get in modern buildings.”

Charlie Carson, shooting on the second story of the Woller’s building, agreed.

“All of us have an internal competition to look for images to tell a story. Each office here tells a story. Each room at the Casa Grande tells a story. And the train station, it tells what life was like for Southerners in the 1940s and 1950s,” said Carson, a retired U.S. Steel executive from Philadelphia.

Originally from Dothan, Carson, lured by the opportunity to photograph Sloss Furnace, attended both Alabama workshops.

“Yes, I came back. I felt like I left some images uncaptured last year and I wanted another chance,” Carson said. “Did I capture them this year? Sure. Will I be back? We’ll see.”

Along with Philadelphia and Newton, students, most retired executives, traveled from Alberta, Chicago and North Dakota for the love of photography.

“I may not love the process of standing here freezing,” Lichtin said Friday, when temperatures remained below freezing. “I do love the resulting images and the challenge of trying to visualize the beauty.”

While specializing in large-format photography, all of Crane’s workshop attendees used digital cameras. Many call Crane’s method of loading one sheet of film at a time into the 5x7 and 11x14 cameras and developing the images in a dark room “old school.”

For Crane, the process is cathartic.

“This is what I love,” Crane said. “I am an introvert by nature. This is the way I understand the world. Nothing replenishes my energy more than setting up the camera and waiting for that perfect moment.”

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