When Mark Weller and friend and colleague John Rummel attempted to photograph the Milky Way in 2008, they had no idea the outcome would eventually generate $80,000 for the Friends of the Apostle Islands.
Today, their detailed shots of the Milky Way with the Apostle Islands lighthouses sell for $300, with all proceeds going to the nonprofit. On a more personal level, the photographs memorialize a dear friend.
Weller will be one of many exhibitors at the Nov. 3 Waunakee Imagination Celebration, where area residents can see the work firsthand.
Back in 2008, Weller and Rummel were looking to achieve what they had attempted since 2003 – to capture the brilliant lights against the dark sky. They set out on a quest for pitch, dark sky in Wisconsin, said Weller, of Waunakee.
“We realized even in rural Dane County, there is too much light pollution,” Weller said.
A good friend, Martin Hanson, had a cabin in the Chequamegon National Forest, so they headed there.
Each summer between 2005-08, they stayed in Hanson’s cabin for a few days as they attempted to photograph the Milky Way.
“Every summer we would go there, we never quite hit nirvana,” Weller said. “He (Hanson) had no idea what we were doing. We would be up most of the night with a truckload of equipment, searching for a perfect Milky Way shot.”
In 2008, Weller and Rummel hit the jackpot.
“We finally figured out how to do it, what the tricks were,” Weller said.
To capture the Milky Way’s brilliance, the magic lies in setting the camera on an equatorial mount and setting it to the speed of the Earth rotating, Weller said. If the camera is aligned correctly, the lens will lock onto the stars, he said.
“It’s a very unforgiving environment,” Weller said. “If you don’t set up everything just right, it’s not as crisp. We got incredible detail and saturated colors that the human eye will never see.”
The timing and weather also have to be just right. Cloudy skies ruin any chance of capturing the lights.
Weller said the ideal sky conditions are present when Sagittarius is on the treeline.
“We believe that is the most beautiful and dramatic view of the Milky Way,” Weller said.
The two always shoot on a the new moon following the summer solstice in June. The window for capturing the Milky Way is about 30 days.
“John (Rummel) is pretty good at this stuff. He’s kind of the scientist. I’m the artistic side,” Weller said.
In 2008, they finally hit that nirvana from Hanson’s land in the Chequamegon National Park. They framed the print and brought it to Hanson to thank him for allowing them the use of his cabin.
“Finally, he understood what we were doing,” Weller said.
That fall, Hanson passed away, and to this day, Weller said, continues to grieve the loss of a good friend.
Hanson was also a good friend to the Apostle Islands and to former Governor and Senator Gaylord Nelson, with whom he and several other legislators worked to create the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.
The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore was established in 1970 to preserve the naturally wild and beautiful islands just off the northwest shoreline of Wisconsin in Lake Superior. It includes 21 islands and 12 miles of mainland lakeshore.
“John and I felt the loss the our dear friend, Martin Hanson. We wanted to do something in his honor,” Weller said.
They contacted the Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and asked if they could, with the help of the parks service, take a photograph of a lighthouse with the Milky Way. They would sell the prints, and all proceeds would be donated to the Friends Group.
Their first expedition was to Outer Island. With Mark’s son, Ian Weller, they they captured that first lighthouse with Milky Way shot in 2009 and sold a limited edition of 100 prints for $500 each.
In 2010, they were invited back, this time to Sand Beach, with Rummel’s daughter Andrea Rummel.
In 2011, they photographed the Milky Way from Raspberry Island, and in 2012, they captured an even more unusual phenomenon at Devil’s Island. The green shimmer in the sky is actually air glow, the release of charged particles, Weller said.
“We were not aware of it,” he said, adding that the 3.5-minute exposure exaggerated the phenomenon.
With demand for the original shot from 2009, Rummel and Weller released a second shot they had taken that night for the 2013 installment in the series. Weller noted that Michigan Island was to be the next in the Lights of the Apostle Island National Lakeshore series but was under construction.
With $80,000 in sales going to the Friends of the Apostle Islands, funding is available to restore lighthouses, assist in endangered species management and host middle school student trips.
Weller said he and Rummel intend to visit Michigan Island in 2014 for the next installment.