Photographer explores high-dynamic range panorama

Thursday, February 28, 2008 | 5:10 p.m. CST; updated 2:44 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
176-year-old Edgewood Farm. The experience of discovering this house still resonates as the Old Creepy House Explorers Club's favorite.

It was 8:15 on a Saturday morning when Kent Durk packed his Hyundai trunk full of equipment, grabbed his 20-ounce Red Bull and Camel Lights, hollered goodbye to his son and took off like a storm chaser into the wind.

But in place of tornadoes were abandoned houses.

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“All right,” Durk said. “Let’s go see what we find today.”

With nothing more than partial directions from a Glasgow cafe waitress and a road map, the “Old Creepy House Explorers Club” — the adventurous team that includes Durk, his wife, Cindy Durk, and longtime friend Laurie Shelhart — sets off on another getaway with hopes of finding an abandoned house.

After 28 years as creative director for a Columbia business, a job he still holds, Durk, 51, has finally been setting aside Saturdays to do something for himself: He calls it 360icon.

“With 360icon, it’s my own thing,” he said.

Here is his process:

Treating each decaying house as a movie, Durk takes his fisheye lens into as many rooms, or scenes as he calls them, as possible without falling through the floorboards. After bracketing multiple exposures for seven points of view in each room, he heads on to the next scene. Finishing his movie, Durk uses a wide zoom lens to shoot the exterior of the house.

Tedious editing and manipulation on his computer back home later in the night are what produce the sublime 50-by-90-inch spherical panorama, which depict a 360-by-180-degree view of the house.

To create that final print, Durk goes through about 2,000 images and selects his favorite shots and exposures and stitches 100 of them together to make the panorama.

It started last year when the True/False Film Festival asked him to do a 360-degree aerial shot. By April, Durk was off and running on his own adventures and eventually made abandoned houses his theme; after doing some shots of downtown, a car and a big tree, he had become tired of having to come up with a “what’s next.”

Then one afternoon, he found an old house.

“It’s almost like the house found him,” Cindy Durk said.

Durk was intrigued by everything about it.

“Something about the way everything goes with the house: the past, the way that it is now, the way that it is going to be, the way that it is getting pulled back into the earth,” he said. “After a while you’d think, ‘Oh, it’s just another empty room,’ but each one of these houses has its own unique characteristics. And stories. And crap lying around that make it interesting.”

Art isn’t a new development in Durk’s life. He’s been into drawing since he was a child and took photography classes in college.

“Even when he was at Columbia College, his teacher would use Kent’s photos to show the class what he was looking for,” Cindy Durk said. “He’s always had an eye for stuff like that, and he’s actually had some photographs at the Chicago Art Institute.”

Edward Collings, a professor in the art department at Columbia College, was surprised at the mention of Durk’s name.

“My gosh, that was 1,000 years ago,” Collings said. But after joking that every 30 years his memory bank goes blank, he said he remembered Durk well and recalled him as being into more advanced techniques.

“He was always inquisitive,” Collings said, “and was quite interested in the zone technique of Ansel Adams because of the range of tonality.”

Durk recalled: “I remember an art teacher of mine told me in 1969, my freshman year in high school, that I could do art for a living. It made me wonder ‘why do I have this gift? Why is this in me?’ That’s what I’m doing now, just finding out what that’s all about.”

Although the money isn’t there, Durk plugs away at it as if it’s his day job. Some Saturdays he’s up and off at 5:30 a.m. just to catch the right light. His wife thinks it’s nice for him to have something he’s so passionate about, even if he doesn’t get paid for it.

“I do it for the fun of it,” Durk said, “and I know two other girls who just live for the weekend now.”

“The girls,” as Durk calls his wife and Shelhart, began joining him after just a few weeks of his solo treks, after he kept going on about how cool it was and that they should come along.

“No offense, Kent,” Shelhart told him that Saturday in Glasgow, “but I think you wanted us to come along so you wouldn’t get scared.”

While the women laughed, Durk acknowledged it was true.

“Poor Kent,” Shelhart said. “We’re always making fun of him — especially his Hallsville accent.”

As much as they tease him for his accent, they’re glad he has it; it seems to make the few farmers and landowners they encounter more comfortable with him taking pictures.

“Once they know that you’re there because you’re interested, they’re stoked that ‘big city folks’ are there to take pictures of their town,” Cindy Durk said.

“They’ll always open up and just show you around,” Durk said, “like there’s nothing else they have to do.”

Getting out of the house each week to do what he’s passionate about — not to mention dodging his “honey-do” list — isn’t the only thing about 360icon that Durk loves. It’s about showing that in the end it all goes back into the ground; a Candyland game in the middle of a room was once a little girl’s prized possession, and now it’s disintegrating.

“Everything in this world is like that,” Durk said. “You, me, clothes. It’s all temporary. All else passes. Art alone endures, and art is what we’re doing here.”

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