Night Light of the North Coast: The Tower

Written by David Wilson

The Tower standing at the end of V Street in Arcata, near the Marsh. Photographed in 1990.

The Tower standing at the end of V Street in Arcata, near the Marsh. Photographed in 1990.

The tower once stood silent sentinel in the quiet fields near the Marsh in Arcata, lonely and abandoned when I discovered it. Long disused, it rose above the tall grasses and blackberry brambles covering the broken concrete rubble of the bygone structures once surrounding it. Its floor was piled deep with broken chunks and slabs, sloughed like skin from the walls of its own insides.

I think what it once was must be apparent to many people, but I have never been sure, and I’ve avoided certainty. I have relished the mystery, for it allowed my imagination to run free when I photographed it, and in my thoughts of it since. It is The Tower, and inside it lives the Guardian. It’s no longer there for you to see, but for me it will always be available, one of my Avalons in the mists.

I made these images while a Photography student at Humboldt State University. I shot on film then, and printed and processed my images in the dark room. These were shot on Ektar 1000 color negative film. Now I do the processing digitally. I’m glad I got the experience in the dark room, but I would not go back. Many harbor a bias against digital adjustments, but if the same people appreciate Ansel Adams’ beautiful work, then they are appreciating a stylized image produced with a lot of dark room post-processing in the developing and printing to make it look the specific way he wanted — a process with which I find nothing wrong. Any creative photographer may carry his or her image-making beyond the camera, whether s/he uses special chemicals, papers or techniques in the darkroom, or utilizes special skills acquired through years of study and practice with digital tools. To criticize one creative process while supporting another seems odd to me. I recognize and support the creativity in both.

The Tower Exposure Notes

The Tower Exposure Notes

“The Tower” was the first of this pair of images that I photographed. I don’t recall how many nights elapsed between the two photographs. I had noticed in The Tower that I had captured the Celestial Equator, which is the division between the northern area of the sky in which the stars appear to revolve around the northern polar axis (which was above and behind me), and the southern part of the sky where the stars are revolving around the southern polar axis, which lies beneath our horizon. Upon observation one can clearly see that the arc of the stars is upward near the top of the photograph, and downward in the lower portion of the image. Capturing the Celestial Equator was purely unintentional, and it fascinated me. In fact, the idea of it had never occurred to me, and the phenomenon puzzled me at first. But after finding it through my photography and thinking about the processes behind it, I understood how it came about. Now I can reliably find the Celestial Equator in other parts of the sky.

The Celestial Equator is not something one can pick out with the naked eye. Our eyes see the stars as static points, but because of Earth’s rotation, they rise in the eastern skies and slowly make their way across the sky to toward the western region. Mostly they do that. Since we’re north of the Equator, we can see the north star, called Polaris, which sits very near the northern polar axis. Stars near the north star travel in a circle about it, never meeting the horizon. Far enough away from Polaris, they travel in larger circles, and the largest circles are so great that we only see the part of their paths between where they rise in the east and set in the west. The stars travel circular paths in the southern skies, of course, but because we are north of the equator we cannot see the southern polar axis. In “Guardian,” I aimed higher in the sky to accentuate the tighter circular paths of the northern stars.

Guardian. Photographed in 1990.

Guardian. Photographed in 1990.

The exposures for both photographs were each about 30 minutes long. The star trails you see show the distance that the stars moved during the 30 minutes that the camera shutter remained open. In photographing The Tower, I climbed inside to pop my flash toward the windows to give them their highlights, while the outside was softly illuminated by the lights of the city of Arcata. Eureka’s lights are brightly washed out in the distance at the lower right.

In the image called Guardian I was more experimental. My friend Klaus kindly volunteered to become the Guardian inside, and I painted him in with my flashlight, which was the source of nearly all of the light in the photograph. While the shutter was open for the thirty minutes, I had plenty of time to add light here and there. I had brought three filters with me for putting over the flashlight’s lens, each in one of light’s primary colors of red, blue, or green. I would paint with one color at a time, changing filters periodically as I went to continue with a new color. Overlapping the colors would blend them in those areas of the image; thus I made the yellow window sills by painting green over areas where I had already painted red, and I made other areas a little more magenta by painting blue onto surfaces where I had added the red. I went fairly heavy on the red for a hot overall feeling.

What stories do you find in these images?

To see previous entries of “Night Light of the North Coast,” click on my name above the article. If you’d like to keep abreast of my most current photography or peer into its past, you can follow me on Instagram at @david_wilson_mfx . I update my website less frequently, but you can contact me there.




  • Thank you David for the good morning read and photo.

  • What an interesting light painting technique

  • Thank you for sharing your beautiful photographs David. Have you ever tried to photograph fireflys at night? Try as I may I can’t get the correct exposure.

  • Awsome!

  • I see a story of a dairy farm, a house, a barn and a family, one in a row of four along the old road across the Bottom.

    By the time these pictures were taken, the house, the barn, and the family were gone, leaving only this concrete milk cooling tower to show that they’d ever been there.

    Two of the other three barns were down, last time I was out there, leaving just two houses and one barn to mark what were once thriving dairies.

  • A Decadent, Phalic symbol of colonialism in a town that seems to think it can escape its past by acting as if they’re above it, all the while bieng benefactors..
    Good stories for morbid comedy indeed.
    Let’s see a micro-dosed picture of the McKinley statue before the baby boomers take him down

    • There not baby boomers. There racist, neo-hippy, no job having, delusional, socialist drug addicts. Plain n simple.

      • Voted any delusional, science-denying criminal “conservative” traitors into office lately?

        • All of them are delusional, criminal traitors! How do think trump got put in office?? And the other choice was worse. This country is in a flushing toilet bowl, so grab a turd, and try n stay a float

          • But the biggest peabrains are Conservatives: always have been and always will be. This country sucks because of anachronistic, backwards loving right wing bass turds.

            • Conservatives dig in their heels to keep liberals from dragging them over every dangerous cliff that the emotional, irrational liberals don’t notice in their starry eyed pursuit of the fantasy on the horizon. A liberal sees a bright future, if only humans would stop screwing it up, without noticing that the attempt to force everyone to line up with their ideas always produces more misery than it is trying to solve.

              • Damn, can you explain the misery that child labor laws, 40 hour work weeks, Civil Rights in general–including those of people of color, women, and LGBT, etc. are causing?

                • Don’t fall for the false dichotomy. Two sides of the same coin. It doesn’t matter whether they have a D or an R behind their name there are people on both sides who work for the People and those who work against the People.

                  Certainly Robert Byrd (D) was less than enthusiastic about Civil Rights… until it became politically expedient.

                • There used to be both liberal and conservative members of both the Democrat and the Republican parties. I wouldn’t say that either liberal or conservative or Republican or Democrat have the lock on virtue. But I would say that Guest is wrong to characterize all liberal policies as causing misery.

  • When the words lose their meaning, people lose their freedom.

  • Hey, how about that Photo and article! Lol, bottom dwellers go to the bottom so quickly! Enjoy the images and the stories behind them. Wallow in your political quagmire elsewhere please.
    Great work David!
    I am curious about the purpose of that tower…
    I didn’t realize they grew grain in the Arcata bottoms in the past. I don’t know what a milk cooling tower is, but that did seem more likely to me due to the dairy biz.

  • Hey guys,

    -it’s not my intention to take away from this superb written article or art-photos, and plunge us
    a g a i n into the sacred sacrament plant. But –what can I say? It’s December 5th – a day of reckoning.

    As Wayne Dyer said, “Change the way you look at things, and the things you look at change”. Looking for info. on a milk cooling tower (I never heard of them), right there at the top of the www screen-view, is, a black on pea-green diagram of a cow w/the word Farm. Directly right is the same size rectangle in orange w/a white diagram of a bottle of milk, cream, butter-maybe, and the word Industry. Two separate states of thought.

    The word industry should be deleted from our perception. The ol vowel in front of two consonants rule, tells you that it’s a no-agreed-upon-value/no contract word.

    We’re exiting Egypt, and we ain’t gonna circle in the commercial desert for 40 years!

    You know this – in today’s wor(l)d, Agriculture can be crops or animals. Enter hemp crops = Farm. AFTER harvest is manufactured —into a myriad of choices to fill market demands–(from oils to clothing to building material, to lamp oil (cleanest), to plastic, to a bridge (100 year-old one in France still functioning) . . . —- it THEN, and NOT until then, becomes “Industry”.

    Hence, repeating the words “marijuana industry” or “cannabis industry” over and over does not change the fact. No matter how silly it may look, when fiction dissolves, what you’re left with is fact.

    Holding onto the old ways blocks the light.

    ~hold the applause 😛

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