One of Nebraska’s most iconic landmarks is getting some daily attention from two Sandhills photographers and over 3,000 of their fans. Friends and photography partners Sharon Henderson of Scottsbluff and Rod Russell of Bayard are photographing every Chimney Rock sunset for a full calendar year. Their project, called “Chimney Rock 365,” has grown from a personal interest to a community history project. “One of the most surprising things has been the enthusiasm our project has received – and not just locally,” Russell said. “I walk into a bar or a restaurant now and people want to hear about how the project is going, and they tell me their story about Chimney Rock or their parent’s story.” “We have fans in from maybe ten different countries,” Henderson said. “It’s not just Nebraskans who should be able to relate to Chimney Rock but anyone interested in Oregon Trail or people moving westward to find a better life.” The idea for the project came from a rather casual encounter. “I drove by here once when the sun was setting, and I just thought how cool it would be to document it every day at sunset,” Russell said. “We got to talking about how different Chimney Rock can look in just a matter of minutes due to the light and the clouds throughout the day,” Henderson said. “I always say that a vision without determination is just a dream,” Russell said. “Sharon provided that determination and said ‘Let’s do it.’ So then we became partners in crime.” Henderson is a professional photographer with her own photography business called Sagebrush Junction. Russell is a foreman for a construction company and is starting an aquaponics business while also helping on the family ranch. He categorizes himself as an amateur photographer. Henderson said the project is stoking her creativity as a photographer. “Writers get writers block and photographers can get photography block,” Henderson said. “Doing a project like this is a way to give yourself a little bit of mojo.” Henderson and Russell practiced for two weeks late last year before starting the project officially on January 1. Sometimes they photograph together, but most of the time they take different cars. Other times, they take different nights. Russell also photographs sunrises.
Russell has been stuck in the mud once and stuck in the snow twice. Henderson had to leave work at around 3:15 to catch sunsets in late winter. “There have been close calls when we almost missed it,” Henderson said. “It gets pretty intense when we’re zooming around trying to catch the light,” Russell said. “I’ve chased a view and maybe in two minutes the light is gone.” Most of the photos have been shot from private land. Henderson and Russell gained access from speaking with landowners, and in the process have learned even more Chimney Rock lore. “One local guy told me a story about his grandfather who came here with the wagon train and the entire wagon train was wiped out with cholera,” Russell said. “His grandpa and his grandpa’s cousin were the only survivors. They started building fences for ranchers here because they were stranded, and they built their ranch and their success out of that.” Russell’s own grandfather arrived in Nebraska in a covered wagon. “Chimney Rock has always been a part of our heritage, a part of my heritage,” he said. “Even from the very, very beginning of the project it was learning about the history of it that made it more interesting,” Henderson said. “Chimney Rock was this beacon of hope for all of these pioneers who were traveling so far to find a better life.” Chimney Rock 365 aims to teach people about the contemporary Chimney Rock, but Henderson said she hopes it highlights the history as well. “I don’t think they teach kids nearly enough about Chimney Rock and teach them about where they live and what history there is in this place,” Henderson said. Even though they photograph the same subject every day, both Henderson’s and Russell’s enthusiasm for the project is undimmed.
“What’s surprising is how much we love this project,” Russell said. “I was afraid we’d burn out. Every. Single. Day. Taking a picture of the same rock. But it’s just beautiful. I’m not getting tired of it.” “We knew it would be a commitment but we didn’t know how big it would be,” Henderson said. “At first it was a commitment to the two of us and now it is a commitment to all of the people who are a part of it.” Henderson and Russell upload new photos to their Facebook page every day, and they’re working on a book proposal to preserve the photos along with more historical context. “I want to find the same perspectives from historical photographs and hold them up side-by-side and show the erosion and the way it changes over time,” Russell said. “A soon as you take a photograph, it’s part of history, so that’s what we’re doing is making history.”
Russell has incorporated old windmills and a threshing machine into his shots, and he often photographs the Rock from the cemetery nearby.
“The cemetery has been one of my favorite spots for years,” he said. “It kind of reminds me that my life isn’t so hard.” Henderson is hoping that the Facebook page and book project will give both Nebraskans and outsiders a new look on an old rock. “People say Nebraska is so flat, and, yeah, it is. You can see your dog run away until tomorrow, but there are places that are not flat,” Henderson said. “To me, I always I think Chimney Rock is kind of magical. There is a light there from the setting sun, the rising sun that is different than anything else out here.” Check out more photos on CR365’s Facebook page here.