Behind the lens at Letchworth

Photo by Lisa Wright. Text by Chris Mackowski.

The flat top of the stone wall clearly said, in orange spray-painted letters, “Do not climb on wall.” So, of course, Lisa climbed on top. She was angling for a better picture of the footbridge that spanned the gorge beneath Letchworth State Park’s “lower falls.” A rebel and an artist—who knew?

The day was a perfect mixture of forty-degree temperatures and battleship-gray mud. We’d come to the park to spend the day hiking. As a matter of course, she would talk about her photography, I would talk about my writing, and together we’d talk about how nice it was to be spending a late-fall afternoon with Mother Nature.

Letchworth State Park, located thirty-five miles south of Rochester, NY, runs on either side of a seventeen-mile stretch of the north/south-flowing Genesee River. Over the millennia, the Genesee has cut a deep winding gorge through the shale, highlighted by a trio of waterfalls. Some fifty other waterfalls spill into the gorge from smaller streams that empty into the river.

Along the Genesee, the middle falls are perhaps the most spectacular of the three because the water there tumbles the farthest—107 feet. The upper falls, which tumble 70 feet, are lorded over by a train trestle that stands 240 feet high on spindle legs like an H.G. Wellsian Martian war machine.

But we have come to the lower falls, where the footpath beside the river takes us deep down past layers and layers of sedimentary rock—millions of years of geological history that I can’t read but can certainly marvel at. Moss, ferns, and other small plants grow from a thousand small crevices. They present little specks of green amidst the shale grays and treetrunk browns. Evergreens stand sentinel along the top of the gorge, adding another edge of color.

The canyon walls rise a couple hundred feet above the river, and they press in close—perhaps only forty feet across. The footpath, as a series of stone steps, comes down the west side of the gorge, crosses the narrow bridge, and then hugs the eastern wall. “It looks like a scene out of the Lord of the Rings,” Lisa says.

Underfoot, the shale is slippery from the mud and the spray kicked up by the falls just upriver from us. Lisa doesn’t care. She hops up on a low stone wall and starts shooting. She wants her picture.

Later, we get closer to the falls. Lisa puts her camera away and stands on the edge of the gorge and closes her eyes and feels the spray. It’s so cold that, nearby, the mist has crystallized as a glaze of ice on some bare tree branches. But where Lisa and I stand, the spray feels like renewal.

It’s the only time all day that I’ll see her with her eyes closed. The rest of the time, she’s looking for pictures. Always. She sees the world in photographs.

“You know why they put up those ‘keep off’ signs?” she asks me.

“Because some idiot hopped up there and fell,” I replied. “At least, if that happens to you, it’ll be in pursuit of your art.”

She laughs. “If that happens to me,” she says, snapping another picture, “at least know that I died really, really happy.”

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