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The Polar Vortex

Jan 15

In Rambling, Thoughts at 10:33am

We tend to come up with new, slick names for stuff all the time now, given our buzzword laced world. The phrase “Polar Vortex” got a lot of play lately when a chunk of really cold air that should’ve behaved better and hovered nicely over the North Pole pushed south in unruly fashion over Canada and the US. I’ve encountered the polar vortex before on assignment, but wasn’t smart enough to call it by its proper name. I think I just used the term, “f*%#ing cold.”

I mean, that descriptor wouldn’t cut it on the nightly news of course. But when you have to listen to the sound of the motor drive to know your camera is firing because you’ve lost all sensation in your fingers and can’t actually tell if you are in fact pushing the shutter button, and icicles on your eyelashes are obscuring your vision, but you realize that’s the least of the problem ’cause your glasses are a sheet of ice and you can’t see anything anyway, and numbness has taken your toes, your ankles, your knees from you and you are praying that sensation doesn’t continue north and hit your testicles, well, something more colorful than “polar vortex” is called for, don’t you think?

During the PV, there were lots of pictures of a frozen Niagara Falls, and speculation that the thing had turned entirely solid. Not true, according to authorities. There’s always water moving underneath there somewhere. I can attest to this, as I went to Niagara once, during extreme cold, on an assignment for Nat Geo called the power of light. I had this lunatic notion that when they play the night lights on the falls, with all the mist in the air, I could photograph….a rainbow at night!

Now, my editor at NGS is the gullible sort, and I’ve sold him the photographic equivalent of swamp land in Florida numerous times over the years, so he let me go. Which led to me climbing down a series of ice strewn staircases to a vantage point where I actually did see a rainbow. And I produced a photo Nat Geo did not publish.

I’m kidding about Bill, my editor at Nat Geo. He is my dear friend, and very smart, and knows how to handle a looney tune of a photog who is so gobsmacked by the idea of the photo they are in pursuit of that they show up in his office speaking in tongues. While he has in fact kept the faith and said yes to numerous harebrained photo schemes of mine over time, he has also had the good sense to chuckle, roll his eyes and say, “No,” when it is required. And when Bill says no, he says so with great finality. It’s the equivalent of an editorial anchor being dropped on the heaving bosom of my fevered photographic ambitions.

But, considering it was a short hop to upper New York, and perhaps in the hope I might slip on those steps, tumble into the polar vortex and he wouldn’t ever hear from me again, ┬áhe let me go and find a rainbow.

More tk….





Harald H says:

on January 15, 2014 at 11:08 am

Great pic. Great text. Great humor. Living in cold Norway (at the moment) i have no problem understanding your description how the cold is creeping up, even more up…
But then I like so say: “A cold photographer is a pretty bad photographer”, so I have invested in The Very Best cold outfit there is: An expensive snow scooter dress. And I have managed to ceep my test… in good shape – after all these years.

Jim Lepard says:

on January 15, 2014 at 12:14 pm


I went to Niagara Falls last Friday for work and then walked over the Rainbow Bridge to the Canadian side to take pictures and Niagara Falls is not frozen over it looks like a typical winter on the Niagara Frontier. The ice is about 3/4 up the falls but the ice bridge that forms in the Niagara Gorge solid it looks like it could be 50 to 100 feet thick and it extends as fall as the eye can see, except between the falls and the Rainbow Bridge there are some open areas.

Bob Kelly says:

on January 15, 2014 at 12:26 pm

Joe, this is one of your most beautiful stories, not that I do not like the others, for most of them are excellent as well, but this one flowed in such a way that I could feel your challenge to capture the ice rainbow, and I loved it. You are such an inspiration to anyone who clicks their shutter, and I and I hope they appreciate you as a photographer, and more importantly as a person with grit, tenacity, and of course talent to make it all come together. When your shutter finger no longer can work, you surely can write about your thoughts and adventures for your words flow for me, and capture me as I visualize your thoughts. Thanks much.

Bill says:

on January 15, 2014 at 1:08 pm

“f*%#ing cold” is precisely the term necessary to describe these conditions. “Polar Vortex” is pretty wimpy.

Kika says:

on January 15, 2014 at 1:24 pm

Wow, wow WOW awesome photo! and if it hadn’t been for your creative description of the day it would have just, “cool!” What an adventure you had!

Paul Glover says:

on January 15, 2014 at 2:57 pm

Every time I heard “Polar Vortex” it made me think of some kind of floating shimmering light thing you could jump into and find yourself magically transported to the North Pole (sort of a “Polar Express” meets “Stargate” if you will).

Still, weather like that does make for some unique and beautiful photo opportunities like this one.

Simon Hopkinson says:

on January 15, 2014 at 3:27 pm

“Polar Vortex” sounds scary. Scary sells. It’s precisely the same meteorological event we used to hear referred to as an “Arctic blast”, but that name has run its course; it’s too “samey”.

Beautiful, beautiful photo, Joe.

Jim Herron says:

on January 15, 2014 at 3:32 pm

Super Cool!!! the picture too. 5 days of -30 weather…BRRR, Thanks for sharing!

Tammy says:

on January 15, 2014 at 7:33 pm

That is dedication, what one will do for their art… even if the extremities did get frost bitten.
Beautiful photo, just looking at it I want to go crank up the heat. Yes, here in Ga, we got a good taste of that cold express. Temps even went to 5 degrees.

Neil says:

on January 16, 2014 at 2:00 am

This is why you are the best! Spectacular photo Joe.

Antonio O says:

on January 16, 2014 at 11:21 am

When I attended your seminar in Los Angeles and met you for the first time, you made me laugh. When I literally jumped on stage I laughed as well. This one made me laugh out loud!

Greetings from Los Angeles (not even close to being F’n cold). Keep up the awesome work and look forward to another great seminar.

T Winter says:

on January 17, 2014 at 7:41 pm

Love your work; love your go get the shot attitude. I attended your excellent class at PW Orlando on using flash. Everyone loved your stories you shared with our group. They made us laugh many times, and I am no longer confused on using multiple flash units thanks to your class. Additionally, I was inspired by yours’ and the others work at the “The Art of Digital Photography” presentation. This is another really great and daring shot. The last one I remember seeing you were standing and shooting down from the top of the tallest building in the world in Dubai. Gave me chills. You were crazy brave then, and you are crazy brave for this shot too. I just love it. Thank you for sharing.

computer repair says:

on January 21, 2014 at 11:17 am

great work
i like national geographic very much and all creative one work in it
it’s my best channel

Rui Lopes says:

on January 21, 2014 at 4:31 pm

I have been a reader of yours for a few years now, while embracing your work and teaching abilities (first class). I have been living my dream of a career for National Geographic through your accounts and that is OK, I am glad that you existed and still do – unknowingly and more so with our vast web world, we touch other people in ways we can not imagine. We all make our own decisions and mine has taken me to a somewhat different path in the world of artistic expression as a photographer. I love where I am and I love what I do, so all is good :) … but it is time to say thanks. This story has broken my silence and I thank you for it.

Hedy Pardey says:

on January 30, 2014 at 8:31 am

Peggy Colman pointed out your site on Birding–Arizona and the Southwest. I happen to be the token Australian amongst the Americans. It has occurred to me, I may be like the cuckoo, or merely a ring-in. However, I have gained much from joining these twitchers and particularly Peggy, who creates some magnificent images herself. FB has provided a wonderful platform to investigate the artistic creativity of so many excellent photographers around the world. I hope my small input to the American site, may have educated or extended the knowledge of fauna and flora in Australia to others. I have enjoyed investigating your site so much. Words are inadequate to express how superb your images are. Thankyou for sharing.

Dave Packer says:

on February 6, 2014 at 2:12 am

Stunning light and composition

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