Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The photograph: A lie that masquerades as truth

It is a difficult concept to get across, that a photograph is not equivalent to reality, despite the long history of visual art down through the centuries that has presented ideas dressed in visual form. There is something so mind bending about the product of the camera, that supposedly truthful, unbiased, machine-produced reportage of the reality of the world.

If we see an old painting of Napoleon, atop his rearing white horse, nobly pointing toward the foe, we can, from our present place in history, recognise a piece of propaganda. We 'know' he was a 'nasty dictator' and that the image was painted to influence the French people to follow his lead. We do not know however, the mindset of the artist: whether he was consciously making propaganda or if he believed in the cause and the person; his personal point of view. The wartime posters of the past century that said in pictures and words that your country needed YOU, were images intended to influence how we thought and how we acted: consciously propaganda.

We are presented nightly on the television with photographic images of the atrocities committed during the present struggles in Syria. There is the evidence, the photos show us, and this is used to control how we feel and could be influenced to act as individuals and as nations. The 'story' is massaged by interested parties to promote a point of view. Even those images from other wars of injured children, sad soldiers, and blasted cities were created by human minds controlling what the camera recorded and ultimately what the publisher wanted to put across to the public. Truth is the first casualty of war, that has long been established, but every photograph is subject to individual control and the individual swims within the mind set of his times. Our point of view creates the reality we see and photograph. The photograph is no more truthful in an ultimate sense than that painting of Napoleon.

It is not just what we choose to take a photograph of that is subject to manipulation, but how we design it in the viewfinder, what is in and what is left out, the proportions of the various elements, the amount of exposure; in fact all the elements of design, - colour, line, texture, rhythm and so on -, are orchestrated to deliver a specific message. Every designer in advertising knows this. The photographer, of even a gentle landscape scene, has a point of view and is composing his image, consciously or otherwise, to put it across. If we think about it, this is the common knowledge of our consumer society but one that many people do not think about when they press the camera to their faces for that snapshot of 'reality'.

This image of Katie at the beach is a companion piece, in terms of the point of view of the photographer, with the earlier image of her within the bars of the playground. Here though, I have manipulated the design to place her in a low corner of the frame, overshadowed by the black tree. She stands on the rock by the sea, a small, off center part of the overall image and yet the point of interest. A psychological composition, this is a real scene but I have shot it in such a way as to convey a particular point of view of mine about her place in the world. Almost, you could say I am creating a piece of propaganda designed to influence others to see my point of view about childhood development and the isolation that individuals of all ages feel within the larger society. It is real from my point of view, but only that; it is also a crafted image that is presented as a truth. It is also integral to the tradition of art down through the ages.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life`s star, hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God which is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Natures priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
From, 'Intimations of Immortality', by William Wordsworth.

I thought of this poem while taking photographs of Katie, my granddaughter, the other day in a playground on Vancouver Island. Active children are always tricky to catch in a photo, especially when they are expecting one to play 'catch me' at the same time. One photo, taken on the fly, had more to say about childhood and specifically about her reaction this year to all-day kindergarten. She found it too much; too many people, too much confusion and at the same time regimentation; a tightening of the bindings that will all too soon form the child into the adult. By chance my photo had caught her caged in by brightly coloured but obvious bars. She pauses on her path; glancing down. She sees the bright attractive colours but feels the bars; it is a defining moment.

Images are creations of course, and I cropped this down from a somewhat larger raw capture to emphasis the cage and I sliced off any conflicting or irrelevant information. "Look at this one message", I am saying, thereby moving the image from a stray piece of reality to a visual commentary. It was there, contained within the photo and in Katie`s life, in my awareness of her situation and of the more universal process of acculturation of children:  I simply drew out this one subject and emphasised it.

It is this difference between the capture of reality and the completed image that becomes a new reality in itself that is difficult for many photographers to grasp and yet is the key to a good photograph.

If we write or tell a story about a personal experience , the bare reality that we tell about will contain many parts, but we prune out that which does not relate to what we think is the central issue or theme. We have made a new thing, a story, whatever the raw material may have been (and many other stories could be constructed from different perspectives on the same event.)

When we take a photo, the medium itself is intractable and we must be very careful how we select the key elements. A drawing or painting is much easier to manipulate; what to include or leave out, colours, tone and so on, even to complete abstraction. The camera is a different instrument from a brush though; it captures all that is before it, or at least within its field of view, in detail. At the moment of pressing the shutter we have a lot of considerations to take care of. What is the central 'story' here? What in the viewfinder is a distraction and what parts support the central theme? What lens, how near or far away is our point of view, depth of field, degree of exposure…. There is a lot to think about in a single moment compared to the artist with sketchbook in hand progressively developing his visual thought into a statement. So much information, obtained so quickly, requires a trained and sensitive eye prepared for that moment when the shutter opens and closes.

Once the photo is in a computer photoshopping program there is the possibility of making adjustments that will fine-tune all that detail further. We can crop to zero in, or to clean-up distraction details. We ask how it may be adjusted in colour, tone and sharpness to bring out the best that is contained within the original photograph; the possibilities are endless, but central to every adjustment must be the communication that the completed image will make.

 'Katie in the playground' becomes a more universal statement about children in our society. A subject Wordsworth also tackled over two hundred years ago in his poem 'Intimations of Immortality'.

The Merit of building a temple: from, Agni Purana

The ancient text details how the act of building a temple to the Gods gains merit for an individual and his family through time. By building a golden temple one is freed from all sins, and so on. A poor man who builds a temple expending a large portion of his scant resources to build even a humble one gains as much merit as a rich man who builds a large temple, so there is actually some equity built into this ancient Sanskrit text.

I know this reminds me of Biblical parallels, or Buddhist precepts but where the thought lead me was a reaching through the literal meaning toward a way of understanding this within my own life and times. Why build a temple? What does that act really mean? Why gain merit? What are sins really?

Thoreau, on his death bed, was asked, conventionally, if he had made his peace with his Maker. He replied that he was not aware that they had ever quarreled. He was questioning, reframing, conventional ways of thinking. So if I reframe 'building a temple' in a like manner and ask of the universe what it is that I can do to gain merit, to be sinless, to build a temple to the Gods, what would that be? I mean, other than actually building a bricks and mortar structure. Are there things that I do, or could do, which would be equivalents? Would loving my fellow human beings be building a temple? Being compassionate? Caring for the whole natural world in practical ways? What about my central ability, my creativity; is that an important place for me in building a temple?

Now I have created a form of dialogue with Sanskrit text and in doing so have built a bridge of thought. By not taking the text literally I have freed a concreted idea and opened it to new life in the mind.

If an artist is lead to a deeper place through pouring himself into his work and new creative expression is produced could that be 'building a temple', or what about the long history of works of literature, philosophy, music? Was not Gauguin`s paintings of Pacific Island girls a way of building a temple, of opening a new door of perception at the very least.

I have a feeling that 'The Gods' ask us to build a temple as a way of affirming a relationship, of laying down a path and then following it. What that path is though, must be the business of every individual. If we blandly follow a road up the mountain to a glorious temple that someone else has built it will be an uplifting experience in the company of our fellow travelers and we will get the results commensurate with that particular journey. But we ourselves will not have built a temple, and that the scribe tells us we must do.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Ruckle days. Survival farming on Saltspring island.

 Once a year in the Spring, Islanders gather at the historic farmstead that forms the core of Ruckle Provincial Park at the south end of Saltspring Island. It is a celebration of, and a reminder about, the pioneer life that lie just back over the historical horizon. In fact, for people like us it is still contemporary; this week we have just finished a herculean task of replacing our deep well pump (all 200 feet down) and this was accomplished without calling in the specialists; the plumber and electrician that would have made this a very expensive operation.  Just my wife and I and Heather`s brother Colin, hard at work for a day. We are independent minded people who are quite convinced that there is very little we cannot learn and do. We get a lot of satisfaction from this kind of big project just as during these warm Spring days we are deeply involved in planting our big vegetable garden. Small wonder Ruckle Days seems up to date and perfectly normal.

The area near the barn, the milkhouse and the blacksmith shop, was full of folk demonstrating their skills; butter churning, rope making, blacksmithing, and various groups of musicians added to the ambiance. For the children there was 'go fish' and face painting. On the other side of the fence in a field was a lovely Swiss breed young ox that had been trained to pull a sled. All this would seem rather 'cute' to a professional agri-business farmer, so small scale and amateurish, more a version of hobby farmer and home gardener: from the kind of small acreage that would sport a few chickens (steadily being decimated once again by racoons, mink, eagles and hawks), a large vegetable garden (organic), with an orchard of heritage fruit and nut trees and perhaps milking goats, or a cow or two.  This is the kind of mixed survival farm that our pioneer ancestors of a hundred and fifty years or so ago would have had. And for much the same reasons in some cases: if money is scarce one can live well off one`s own produce or trade with neighbours and there is that secure feeling that these skills can be passed on and be the essential knowledge base for making a whole community self-reliant if that great economic mega-system that keeps our stores full of products should fail.

In places like Greece the unemployed young are returning to the inherited farms of their grandparents to learn old skills and this is happening in many other places around the world. What we see on this little patch of historic farm is an example of people who are hedging their bets, learning old skills and getting a lot of pleasure and satisfaction at the same time.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A misty visit to the summit of Mt Maxwell.

Mt.Maxwell Summit

Imagine if, after gazing up the rocky slopes of a giant mountain in the Himalayas, one were to simply drive up the back way, park and walk the final few steps for that summit photo ( perhaps struggling into the correct clothing and oxygen mask, before exiting the van). Somehow the ecstasy of the moment would be severely lessened by the lack of agony involved in attaining that peak. A peak life experience indeed! 

The other day, after a year of photographing Mt. Maxwell , the highest hump on our island, from below, in all weathers and from many angles ( I am working on a version of Hokusai`s 'Thirty-six views of Mt. Fuji') I simply drove up the gently sloping north face to the provincial park at the summit: only a ten minute drive from the bottom, the gravel road in better shape than I had feared, tall firs, and, over the safety fence, a view of the Burgoyne valley and the mountains to the south. Ta Daa!

Fortunately this was not really such a let-down. My fascination for this mountain reaches back a long way to my Park Ranger days when it was my job to look after this eagle and raven haunted place and to visit it not only in the dry hot days of a busy summer but to check it out in the Fall and Spring when snow and gales were more likely and the great first- growth firs roared in the wind.
I remember one lunch break when I dangled my feet over the cliff and munched my sandwiches while a raven rose on the up draught, growing slowly from a dot in the misty trees far below until he hovered without a wing-beat beside my shoulder looked questioningly at my meal: a raised eyebrow, "quonk?" and then he was up and off into the clouds sifting softly through the trees. To be spoken to in such a place, in such a direct manner, by Raven, that quintessential spirit of the natural world, made my ranger job so much more rewarding  than my more mundane chores of cleaning up after the park`s human visitors could ever be.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The light of Spring

The daffodils are flares of yellow light in the spring, little flames set in mossy green, so it was a moment of creative lateral thinking that lead me to place a flower into one of our kerosene lamps that serve us well in the winter months when the powerlines are down. Photography, the arts in general, even life itself, requires a lot of careful concentration, of good technique, but all that can lead to stuffy rigidity without a good dose of non-conformity. The capacity to jump sideways and experiment endlessly, a kind of playfulness, is at the heart of the arts and of the sciences as well, and of daily living,  -  that blend of flashes of insight and the drive and skill to bring an idea to life.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Low tide at Indian Point. New perspective.

Spring is in full advance by late April and at Indian Point beside the warming sea it is two weeks ahead of our home which is shaded by forest and higher in elevation. These are almost too easy images to create with the camera, bright new leaves against a vivid blue sky, but I do work to record the aspects that would be easy to pass over: last year`s grassy seed heads, frail amid the new grass, the perfect sprays of new alder leaves set against the darker shadows.

 What is special today, as I climb carefully over the rugged shoreline outcrops, is a very low tide. I find that with great care I can slither over the sea-weedy rocks, around a point and below an overhanging cliff. Up above are the familiar little arbutus that I have photographed many times and the cliff edge from which I have pointed my camera down to the rippling sea. How useful a fresh perspective can be, and how this new viewpoint creates new possibilities for thought.  The weathered old stump, usually so difficult to access, has all sorts of possibilities, the rock face, the old fir I last photographed from above in a storm, all these familiar elements are now up close and personal and open new ways of experiencing this familiar world.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Yeo Point and the ‘wild’ parts of Ruckle Park.

Bear Point

This south island park is a place I worked at as a park ranger for several years and the populated parts I got to know very well. The glory of park rangering has much to do with being a public servant and much of that in the summer months is involved with pit toilets and garbage pick-up in the camping areas. The large back country part, hills and forests and a long rocky coastline were outside of my working duties. In fact, public access was discouraged by park administration. With no trails and no signage there was no patrolling or servicing to be done either and that saved money. Only after pressure from island hiking groups were trails finally established by volunteer labour. Now, many years later I am venturing out into the backcountry of my familiar park.

This spring-time season has rich greens of moss covered rocky ledges and trails that have become small rivers in the swampy parts. A mist of tiny leaves cover the oceanspray bushes and the salal leaves wetly reflect the sky light. My first walk down each trail is exciting; my eyes are lifted to each new vista; steep cliffs, gravel beaches, arbutus and oak topped points of land.  At Bear Point, I look around carefully as I edge down rocky slopes, and I find Yeo Point, absolutely beautiful, - only ever seen by me before from the deck of a yacht passing between the Channel Islands and this shore. To walk a place, to stumble and then remember to watch each step as well, is the story of my exploring new territory within a mile or two of my home. All those years, and here it is!

Yeo Point

Channel Islands off Yeo Point