Sometimes pictures aren’t enough. A day with Helen Mills in Bloomington, IN.

The saying goes that a picture is worth a thousand words and with the photos I took after my most recent shoot, you would think I wouldn’t have much left to say. If you spent a day with the absolutely confounding Helen Mills, you’d agree that 24 pictures just aren’t enough.

So, why is Ms. Mills confounding? Her combination of intelligence, humbleness, beauty and joy was just a treat to be around and left me, as a mere mortal, contemplating if I was the result of a failed branch of the evolutionary tree. No one human should have so many positive characteristics.

To top it off, she was not the only stunning woman I would spend time with that day. It was the first time working with the fabulous Abby Prather. Abby provided an amazing hair and makeup session, skillfully applied to last the entire day of 90 degree heat Helen and I encountered as we explored the lesser known parts of Bloomington, IN.

It may be surprising but I have never sat and watched a professional hair and makeup session from start to end and I can honestly say, it was miraculous. Watching Abby take Helen, an already beautiful canvas, and transform her into an honest-to-goodness work of art was spectacular. Men, we are missing out on something here. I can honestly say I was jealous. Here was an amazing craft and experience that half of the world would likely never experience.

The three of us immediately connected and a great vibe filled the air while getting prepared for the day. I hoped this would yield positive results later as I generally have a bit of apprehension before starting a shoot. This time in particular I felt the butterflies, as I knew I had to step my game up when working with these two superstars that I didn’t want to let down.

Driving a little over an hour from Indianapolis, we found ourselves surrounded by the beautiful rolling hills of Monroe County. As someone who has spent the majority of his life in Northern Indiana, it’s easy to forget the natural splendor the rest of Indiana has to offer.

Upon arriving in Bloomington, we stopped for a quick bite. I only mention this because our server pulled Helen aside to comment on how beautiful she was. I had no clue things like this actually happened in real life and I assumed that management would come by at any moment, think I didn’t belong at the table and ask me to leave and stop bothering their guests.

First stop, the Zoom Flume.

Our first location to shoot at was the Zoom Flume. This abandoned water slide operated in the late 1970s and early 1980s near Lake Monroe. This is a relatively well known spot to explore, is frequented by locals and easy to find. My intent was to use it as a warm-up to get comfortable, pass some time and wait for better lighting to be utilized at locations later in the day. Little did I know that some of my favorite shots I would ever take would come from here.

Being a popular spot, we had people respectfully coming through our photoshoot. Some would be intrigued, watch for a moment, offer a few nice words and then carry-on with their own exploration. A few brought spray paint to add to the ever-changing graffiti landscape but one particular couple struck us as odd.

A guy and gal, perhaps in their late-twenties to early-thirties and looking as though they had ventured from the safety of the suburbs, were spraying their own messages. Helen and I paid them no mind until we saw a previously positive message now covered with hate speech. The paint seemed fresh. We weren’t positive they were the ones that had written over the art but as we were wrapping up, we saw the perpetrators using the same color paint to write other, racist messages.

Needless to say, we were shocked and saddened that “normal adults” would feel the need to venture out into the woods to spread a message of hate. Luckily, Helen is an artist herself (again, too many positive traits for one human to have) and we found spray cans that had just enough paint to cover up the negativity that was just applied. Consider yourself thwarted Becky and Chad.

A quick aside.

On our way to the next photo location we stopped at the Knightridge Space Observatory. This now abandoned observatory was constructed in the mid 1930s and utilized as an alternative to the still in use, Kirkwood Observatory. The telescope was removed in the 1960s as Indiana University started to encroach on the site and the additional light pollution hampered its effectiveness. While cool to explore from the outside, it was really falling apart and I wouldn’t suggest getting too close as the combination of gravity and decay was starting to create a dangerous situation.

Quarries, quarries everywhere.

Made famous by the coming of age flick, Breaking Away, Bloomington’s quarries are a site to behold. An earlier trip to a location next to the well-known Empire Quarry was the inspiration for this photoshoot. Bloomington seems to have a love-hate relationship with their unique lagoons. IU students and locals regularly swim at the “Rooftop” and “Beach” quarries but exact locations are hard to find and no one will really help point you in the right direction. Additionally, locals that live near the quarries are frustrated by all the traffic and people they attract. You know you’re in the right place when you see “no parking” signs up and down the street.

After spending far too much time using Google Map’s satellite view I found what I believed to be a promising spot. Near “Rooftop” was a sea of limestone slab and my intent was to photograph in this alien landscape. I wasn’t exactly sure how to get there but we found a nice empty parking lot, behind a chain, to use as a starting point. More on that later. According to the satellite pictures, the walk to the field of stone had us going through a thick, wooded area and involved us walking over a small field of limestone before getting to our preferred location.

Upon arriving at the “small” limestone field we were greeted with ENORMOUS stone slabs. Each was about 10 feet long, 5 feet wide and 5 feet thick. They were all stacked on top of one another as if God was playing Jenga and toppled them down while going for a particularly risky move. We would have to scale this limestone mountain, perhaps 40 feet tall and hundreds upon hundreds of feet wide, to get where we wanted to go. Apologies in advance to Helen’s parents if they’re reading this now.

The great thing about working with Helen, who is about the same height I am, is that whatever I can do, she can do it better. While carrying all of the clothing, a changing tent and more, she scaled the rock with ease. This meant that I HAD to follow, along with the plethora of equipment I thought was wise to bring.

After getting over the limestone and walking through more dense brush and trees, we arrived at the second photo location. What we were greeted with was a STUNNINGLY beautiful body of water which I wasn’t aware existed. We had it all to ourselves and it truly felt like a gift for our short but treacherous voyage.

We started shooting at the water, then headed to what I thought was going to be a field of relatively small limestone slab but was actually made up of more titanic sized Lincoln Logs. Finally, with the 90 degree temperatures dictating our decisions, we returned to the water and jumped in for more shots. It’s a rough life, I tell ya.

The man, always trying to keep us down.

I had intended to save the best photo spot for last, utilizing the waning sun for the best lighting of the day. We left our secret pool to head back to the car and go to the original location next to “The Empire” quarry I had mentioned before. Side note, going back down the limestone mountain was much less fun than going up.

We arrived back at the big empty parking lot to find a disgruntled gentleman who informed us the sheriff and limestone company had been alerted of our presence but he graciously decided not to have our vehicle towed. Luckily, he was willing to chat and we understood his reasoning for being upset. He told us about people using the property for drug deals and rambunctious youths causing issues but seemed to be less upset upon seeing the innocence in our eyes. We humbly apologized for causing any issue and headed out… on our way to trespass at another quarry. Hey, we’re not perfect.

We headed to our final location, which was about 20 minutes south, only to find a sheriff’s vehicle cruising for troublemakers near our planned parking spot. We hadn’t yet done anything wrong, to his knowledge, so we drove passed, waved and found a spot to hangout and wait so we could go back and create our pièce de résistance. Fun fact, while we waited, we discovered we were infested with ticks after our jaunty stroll through the deep woods.

After an adequate amount of time had passed, we headed back to discover that the quarry wasn’t abandoned and actively in use with workers currently on site. This I hadn’t anticipated, particularly with it being so late in the day. Being the friendly soul she is, Helen waved at the employees, we explored a little bit and decided we had pushed our luck enough and should head back home.

We should have trusted our instincts.

On my previous trip to explore and plan for the photoshoot I noticed that Interstate 69 was under a large amount of construction. I later learned that that it is currently being widened and extended to connect Bloomington and Indianapolis. Because of this, numerous houses were boarded up and getting ready to be torn down.

As we headed back home, a little earlier than expected, the perfect golden hour light hit us about halfway back to Indianapolis. This is where I had the bright idea that we should use one of the abandoned houses as a quick little backdrop to make up for the lost quarry location. Unfortunately, most of the houses had already been removed and just as the sun went down, we spotted the perfect home, right off of the road and in plain view of everyone driving.

We hopped out of the car, quickly scoped the place out and Helen was on the roof in a matter of seconds. The lighting was perfect, we took a handful of shots and got back in the car, truly pleased with the results of the day. As we exited the driveway, our escape route was blocked by the fastest responding security guard I have ever laid eyes upon. That guy certainly deserved a raise.

He waited in his car for what seemed like hours and we assumed the sheriff was called, on their way and we would finally pay for all of our earlier misdeeds. Finally, the guard opened his door and he approached us. Again we apologized, acknowledged we read the sign that said do not enter and respectfully played the semantics card. “Sir, we didn’t enter the building. The sign said nothing about being on TOP of the build!” The stern, but fair, gentleman told us we could leave. As he headed back to his vehicle I noticed a rather large revolver tucked into his waistband.

This time, we decided we had truly pushed our luck as far as needed. Now we actually headed home, although I can’t get it out of my head that Helen said she wanted to get a shot at that final quarry location we missed out on…

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