As a documentary photographer in the St. Louis area, I was excited about the eclipse of 2017 especially since we were right in the path of totality. To be totally honest, however, I was more intimidated than excited. I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t know if my photography gear I currently have would do the trick to catch the marvel of the eclipse. I knew I would have all three of my kids and I didn’t know where I would be viewing it. I read some things leading up to the eclipse and made the decision to be a spectator for the actual eclipse itself. I didn’t want to invest serious dough on an appropriate filter for my camera, and I don’t have a telephoto lens that would appropriately capture the magnitude of this event. It’s a possible once in a lifetime event to witness and I didn’t want to be behind my lens stressing out about whether I was going to capture it how I wanted to and then deal with my disappointment if I hadn’t caught it how I imagined I would.
A couple weeks prior to the event, I was invited by my sister, Erica, to my brother-in-law’s sister’s (Helen) house. Helen and her family live in Hillsboro and we would be able to see the eclipse for the longest amount of time in that spot. I grew more excited as the day approached, and knew I’d be bringing my camera if only to document some of the day. Erica asked if I might be able to take a casual family photo of her husband’s (Rob’s) family. Rob is the second to last born in their family of 14. The extended family total is somewhere in the realm of 75 or so (is anyone in the Niemira family sure of the count?! ha!). The whole Niemira family (which also includes the Conway, Sheley, Steinmetz, and Lawlor families now that some of the 14 are married) was in town as one of the 14, Joe, got married on Saturday to his now wife, Lisa. I immediately agreed. The Niemira family reminds me of my own — tons of people, lots of fun, laughter, and down to Earth welcoming people.
The morning of the Eclipse - Monday August 21, 2017, I met up with my parents and then Erica, Rob and their kids so we could carpool to Helens house. Considering I have a newborn who hates the car, I was more than happy to have extra hands on deck to help calm her in the car! We were nervous about traffic projections, so we started our drive just after 7am and wound up hitting absolutely zero traffic. We arrived just after 8:30. Helen was making breakfast for over 100 people and there was an assembly line making sandwiches. I wish I had taken more photos of that since it was quite the sight to see but alas, I had a nursing newborn, a 5 and 3 year old to keep track of and chase down in a new environment (translation: can’t let my hooligans run amuck in someone else’s house!). Like a well oiled machine, lunch was pre-made in the assembly line, breakfast was served, lawn chairs were placed outside, glasses were handed out, and the family poured in, and poured in, and surprisingly, it didn’t feel chaotic at all. This was clearly not Helen and Bill’s first rodeo!
As the time of eclipse approached, we wanted to be sure to get the family photos taken care of. One of all 14 adult siblings, and then one whole family photo. They had t-shirts made for the eclipse day for the entire family. How freakin cool is that, you guys?! Surprisingly, photos took a very short time and then we were all off to witness the main event.
Rob and Erica had done their fair share of research prior to the Eclipse Day regarding the things we would be able to witness during the Eclipse. They had downloaded an app on their phones for this and were able to announce and relay to the entire crowd what would be coming next. With every passing milestone, Rob would shout out what was happening. I was so thankful because I had totally slacked in that department. I’m going to continue using the “newborn” slacker card here as my excuse ha ha! Rob and Erica had bought special filter paper to allow for viewing the sun during the partial eclipse phases. It was attached to a giant piece of cardboard so there was no risk of damaging your eyes by viewing the sun through it. Such a fantastic idea that I know a ton of people appreciated!!
The first noticeable event (besides of course being able to see the partially covered sun through the glasses and makeshift filter viewing device Rob and Erica made) was the partial eclipse reflected in the trees. We saw it cast shadows on the tables very well, on a white board set out, and on a giant white sheet they had laid out on the hill in Helen and Bill’s backyard. We used colanders to feel the full effect of the crescent shaped shadows.
The next difference we noticed was the temperature drop. It was a sweltering August day with the temperature somewhere in the 90s and then dropping some 10 degrees approaching the eclipse. Moments later the sky and all around us changed to an eerie grayish color. When I was in third grade, there was a storm system that blew through — it was suspected that it would turn into a tornado. Thankfully, it never did, but I will NEVER forget the color of the sky that day — deep dark green, blue, and gray. The color of the sky was like the beginning of that day. Thankfully, this was expected and not nearly as terrifying. Next we noticed the strange behaviors of the birds, cicadas, and crickets. Birds stopped singing, cicadas quit their familiar summer sounds, and the crickets started their chirping.
Just before totality, the majority of our group gathered on the hill in the backyard where the massive white sheet was laid out for us to see the effects easily. Rob called out the cues to look for and sure enough we saw the ever elusive, “shadow bands” upon the white sheet. Definitely one of the coolest effects I was looking forward to witnessing.
And then Rob called out a countdown to be able to safely remove our glasses and I watched on the hill with my kids as totality set in. Of course, Zoe and Finn weren’t entirely prepared for the effect of it becoming a very strange sunset and nightfall type of event mid-day and therefore started telling me we needed to go inside. Thankfully I had my sister, Melissa, there who was able to swoop in and help me wrangle the older kids while I kept Emma, my 5 week old, on me as I watched the total eclipse. I kept my camera on me and took photos of my surroundings, the skyline, and last but not least, the total eclipse.
Guys. Girls. Readers. I TOTALLY underestimated the phenomenon that I was going to witness prior to seeing it. It was one of the most badass things I’ve ever seen and felt. I say felt because it wasn’t just a change in celestial forces. It was almost that feeling of the calm before the storm when everything goes quiet. The countdown provided was better than any countdown to New Years I’ve ever experienced. It was like you could feel the breath taken out of the entire crowd. It was the feeling you hold in your body before something profound happens. And then all at once when totality hit, the crowd erupted in audible gasps, nervous laughter, and clapping. It was the shortest and craziest 2 minutes and 39 seconds I’ve been a part of (with the exception of the births of my children…especially our third who made sure she would not be outdone by anyone or anything her entire life by entering this world in the front seat of our van in record timing ha ha). We saw the light “fall” and the skyline became a dusk like setting with a 360 degree view and just like that, it was morning, the temperature rose again and then it was afternoon all over again in the same day. It was truly a spectacular life event I’m so glad I was able to witness surrounded by one badass group of people.
Thank you, Niemira family (and more specifically, Conway family), for allowing us to crash your party and be a part of something so incredible. Looking forward to the next eclipse in 2024 and I sure hope to see you all there (in Carbondale)!
As a St. Louis Documentary photographer, I love to document unique life stories. If *you* have an awesome story unfolding in your life, let’s chat. I want to be there to capture it for you!