Saturday, January 26, 2013

Fog: dangerous, but oh so beautiful

It cannot be that happiness, joy and death are so closely linked together.
Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner ( on climbing K2)

It is a tricky business driving south down Vancouver island on a foggy winter's day. Every driver seems bent on speeding and driving too close to the bumper of the car ahead. Do they have no imagination, can they not see that a sudden layer of thicker fog would have everyone tied up in a massive collision? I’m a little tense and feeling self righteous as I ease my VW van down the road. I’m also distracted by the sheer beauty of the mist shrouded landscape we are passing through. Tall grey trees, tail lights glowing in the mist, the occasional clear areas that speak in absolute clarity of what would have been taken for granted on any other day. 

Finally, in the early winter’s dusk we pull up at the Crofton dock to wait for the ferry to our home on Saltspring Island. I step out into the cool fog and begin to take photographs. There are a few technical problems in these conditions; the shutter speed is slow and I have to switch to manual focus because the camera cannot find anything definite to automatically focus on. I find myself propping the camera on things to get a 'clear' picture or boosting the ISO to obtain a faster shutter speed. Those are the background operational things, but it is the ethereal loom of lights, the soft blacks of wharf pilings and their reflections that pull me deeper into this experience. The fog has created new possibilities from a familiar setting. Images that would not attract my attention normally have a mysterious life of their own wrapped in the misty dark pierced by the glow of dock lights.

Once at Vesuvius on the island side, we follow a line of traffic to Ganges and then head on uphill into banks of fog. It is dark now and the headlights are of little use amid swirls of vapour. Soon we are crawling along with our eyes swivelled towards the side of the road. We follow the thin yellow line that marks the edge until it is time to branch off onto a smaller road beside a lake. Headlights come up from behind and blind me in the rear-view mirrors so I find a place to pull over and let two pick-up trucks roar past.

Onward slowly, looking for another turn off, and then up once more into denser stuff still. Practically, so slowly do I drive, Heather could be walking beside the van as we both try to keep us on the road. That abrupt turn at the summit, it must be here somewhere? “TURN NOW!!” says Heather and we are round and miraculously the fog thins and then we are driving through crystal clear moonlit woods. A few more foggy bits close to home and then I gratefully slide out of the drivers seat and carry an armload of firewood to our house. Home at last!

Its always good to have an adventure like this foggy day has provided, and I think I got some good photographs back there at the Crofton dock. Interesting how one's appreciation of beauty is so often associated with the elevated awareness experienced in dangerous times.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The song and the singer: creativity in the arts is not simply personal expression.

The singer says that she cannot afford to feel the emotion contained within the song while she is singing it. That her professional presentation of the music, the craft, must come first otherwise she will not fully be the medium, the carrier of the music. The audience feels the impact of the music because of her intermediary skill.

I reach for a parallel from photography, one that until now I have struggled to express to those who cannot understand that an emotional reaction to a subject, - to a child, or a sunset for example-, is not all that is necessary to make a good photograph.

Like the singer, the photographer has a responsibility to communicate as clearly as possible. At the point of communication the audience's reaction is the important part, not the emotions of the maker. How the image is composed is the equivalent to the musical skills of the singer. 'Oh, what a beautiful child, such a splendid sunset', can only be the very first reaction before the maker gets down to the technical aspects of his presentation. The photographers who feel only as they take and process their image are failing in their craft. They must know what ingredients will best express what they wish to communicate. Satisfaction must come from one's skill, not from an emotional pushing forward of a poorly thought through image. Our expression must be channelled through technical ability and knowledge.

Similarly, a writer has the difficult task of taking a raw subject, all bumps and flaws, and presenting it in a comprehensible way to his audience. A musical composer must find a form within which to present his ideas. No one can really afford to get stuck at that first reactive stage, everything must be passed through a refining process of creation. Creativity in the arts is not simply personal expression.

Colour is not just colour. Working with the Gods.

I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

From 'The world is too much with us' by William Wordsworth

When working with composition we 'deal' with colour, rhythm, tone, texture, form, light and so on: - the 'Elements of Design'. This is a way of thinking about the complexity of making a visual statement and generally we think of it as a set of tools with which to manipulate our imagery. This logical way of thinking is in line with a 'scientific' mindset that our culture has drifted into over the past five hundred years of human history. Before that, going back to the cave art of fifty thousand years ago and still alive today in many non-western cultures, the 'elements of design' were part of a much more dynamic and integrated way of understanding the world.

When we view 'art' from the distant past, on the walls of caves in southern France for example,or rock faces in Africa or Australia, we have to step into the mindset of those ancient people if we are to hear their true voice. In the process of attempting to do this, my own feeling for design has drifted away from a logical manipulation of materials and marks. It is a point of view that permits me to understand my expression, both drawn, carved, and photographic, from an enriched perspective.

The Chinese word for 'artist' is the same as 'magician', and it is within this way of thinking about the role of artist that I find resonance. Colour is not simply light waves, theories, logical manipulation. Colours are entities, powerful forces that are like little Gods. They lead vivid lives, speak a language of their own, form alliances, flow across the page, speak from the shadows or in the white heat of day. If I too think in this ancient way I have access to those powerful relationships.

 Similarly with the other elements: Line begins as I drag a brush or pencil across the page but instantly the line I am drawing begins to draw me into it. It has personality, opinions, is naturally supple or stiff, smooth or shaggy, We draw together. Rhythm beats the drum and dances across the paper, slow or rapid, in complex or simple patterns. Form pushes forward to fill the frame, or slips back into the haze, is dark and hairy or light and insubstantial. And all these work together in stunning variety and appear on the page as a new creation, almost, you might say, as a new being that can communicate with us. The artist and those archetypal forces, we, together, express....

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Dead Chickens. An eye for an eye

Heather jumps out of the van and says 'Where are the chickens?” She runs around behind the woodshed and gives a cry of despair. All our bantam chickens lie dead, all, it turns out, victims of a mink attack. We have had chickens several times in the past and it has always ended in some variation of the same theme. One by one or all at once; raccoon, hawk, mink, eagle. Keeping chickens is like setting up a free lunch cafe for the local wildlife. Even domestic cats have bagged our bantams in the past. Still, it is very upsetting even as we shrug our shoulders and prepare to clean up the next day.

Some have been killed within the fenced yard, others lie in corners of their house. Throats torn out, headless, little bundles of feathers. Just days ago they were practising crowing or clucking “An egg, an egg!” Now just lumps to be buried.

Our first instinct is to lie in wait for the killer to return and to then exact revenge; that quick human response so close beneath our civilized personalities; but later know that killing the mink will just involve us in more death. The mink was just fulfilling its mission in life. Let this thing be and move on.

I wonder though if I had been living within the civil war in Syria right now and that had been my family lying dead; throats cut, mutilated. How would I react then? I bet I would not pause for rational thought; to understand the pressure the other side was in. I would swear vengeance and run off howling. Perhaps in my righteous anger I might find someone else's family to balance up the score. Madness, but oh so human.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Flow: tracing a stream to the sea

Mossy slopes and fallen trees at Indian Point

At Indian Point during this wet time of year the land cannot contain all the rain that is falling upon the steep rocky hillside, the cedar and fir forest and the mossy Garry Oak meadows. Much seeps deep into the rock crevices high on the dome of Reginald Hill to be slowly released to the vegetation through the summer dry period, but now the extra creeps downward through the moss covered slopes or springs to overflow at the base of the mountain either above the ocean beach or in the underwater canyons and cliffs that stretch down to the deep floor of Fulford Harbour.

The stream finally reaches the sea
A little stream exits the forest above the gravel beach, runs swiftly down the last slope to the dam of tangled driftwood at the high tide line where it then filters the final distance to the sea through the beach gravel. I have often wondered where this stream begins and decide to start higher up in the cedar forest and see if I can trace it to the sea while the flow is at its peak and the leaves are off the deciduous trees and bushes. I look for a defile above where the stream should run and walk across the slope through fallen trees and deep salal until I find water oozing out of the ground. Bingo! But then, this is not enough in itself to account for the brisk flow of water at the beach end. I struggle back to the path and soon discover another spring right beside me. I must have crossed it often but only with my specific focus do I now recognize it for what it is. I have found another source and can assume now that my stream has many tributaries that well up in the undergrowth from cracks in the bedrock and combine with the general surface flow.

A spring on the upper path is one of several that feeds the stream
I follow the downward trend of the slope, ease carefully over dead-falls that criss-cross the little valley and see the beach up ahead. The stream slides past a fallen moss-covered tree trunk and then winds away beneath a last dense mass of salal. I make my way around this and meet the now brisk flow of water from the beach side.

Close to the end of its short course, the stream is about to slide under some salal.
Not a grand adventure in the scheme of things, tracing the short path of this minuscule stream, but I now have a larger view of Indian Point. The rocky mountain above, the underground seepage that pushes to the surface at its base and the myriad threads of water that join to form the stream that finally meets the sea.

Rainy weather 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Eternity: The use of multiple images to form a new thought.



The other day I made a mistake when ordering a collection of 4x6 prints and got twice as many as I needed. This lead me to a new way of using images, not one, but an assemblage that contained the original image which was repeated ten times within a pattern.

I have always been interested in the kind of patterning that one would usually associate with textile design and printing: where a single pattern is repeated side by side to form a new, more complex design. It was natural that I would start shuffling the photos into this kind of multiple repeating pattern and that I would find a new way of thinking about the making of photographic images. Oh, I know one can form patterns in a 'photoshop' program, but this physical assemblage felt quite different, as though using my hands and eyes was qualitatively separate from computer work.

I find it interesting how thought can come from working with materials, as though what my hands discover, working with one part of my mind, can inform another more theoretical side. Can fingers really be that smart? What I see forming through the repeating assemblage is a kind of deeper pattern that uses the single take of reality, - a photograph -, and then speaks of that deep river where all our surface impressions meet as one in the flow of life. That river that we all wade in when we set out to create. The muse, the ground of being, the unconscious, whatever we refer to when we try to give some words to express the ineffable. These images are a reference to that thing.