January 28, 2018

Sunny, 32 Degrees, Calm Winds

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Well I only barely got the camera gear ready. I forgot until morning, then quickly charged a battery part way and took the Canon DSLR with me on a shoulder strap. No tripod. I was fortunate to have my wife join me this morning, which is a rare treat. It was helpful as she could handle Jamie while I took photographs.

I took largely simple documentary photographs, taking almost no time at all to frame or consider my shots. I took mostly illustrative shots of the trails with a couple of shots of woods that might amount to something, though not much. Right now things are so monochrome and there is so little contrast that I don’t expect the images to look like much. But we’ll see when I download and edit some of them. Right now I have to say that the whole thing seems like a bad idea. I feel like I’m writing useless crap that no one will want to read and photographing pedestrian scenes in a pededstrian way.

I can envision some shots that might work at dawn and/or dusk. I picture a brooding darkness with the woods or brush darker than the trails. I can see that working, perhaps quite well. But part of the point of this is to photograph every day and see what the passing days will show me. I started with the idea that I didn’t want to rely on particularly spectacular scenes to get interesting photographs.

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I remember well that when I started doing photography I would go anywhere and photograph everything that caught my eye. I took thousands of images of things that, though pretty or interesting in some way, did not rise to the level of a good photograph. After some months of this, I finally began to see scenes and compose them in a way that really started to feel like something. I don’t know what I figured out, but my photographs took on a timeless and portentous (big word!) feeling that was lacking earlier.

The problem is that after months and years of photographing, I could see more and more that I knew wouldn’t work as a photograph, or at least not as a strong photograph. And what a gallery wants is a powerful photograph. Ordinary photographs are a dime a dozen, especially now that everyone walks around with a camera in their pocket all the time. Although I always returned from a trip with several strong photographs, I passed on a million images that I knew would not pass muster. Little by little I got more and more selective, which is to say I was eliminating more and more things as possible subject matter. I knew that a beautiful scene had to be compositionally interesting, it had to be free of ugly distractions like power lines or houses and it needed to be shot at the right time of year and under the right lighting and atmospheric conditions and the right time of day as well. That leaves very few things to photograph. Even when many things might be visually or intellectually interesting, they almost never made for powerful photographs.

I spent entire days driving the back roads of Michigan looking for interesting scenes only to see something during the waning moments of the day when the colors warmed and the light softened. The same was true for hiking through woods and trails or roaming the beaches of Lake Superior. Often, the only images worth having made were those taken in the first and last hour of the day, the so-called golden hours.

All of this is a long winded way of saying that I was continually eliminating potential subjects. My standards got higher and higher as my body of work grew. A photograph had to be exceptional in order to really add something to what I had already done as a photographer. And of course there was not only my own work to compare to, but that of other good photographers. Eventually I found myself where I am now with no idea of what to photograph and no sense that I can find something new and powerful to say.

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Having written all this down, it strikes me that I need to look elsewhere entirely for subject matter. I might need to move away from landscape and nature. Maybe I truly can’t expand on what I’ve said with the photographs I’ve already taken. Not that I couldn’t make more nice landscape photographs, but perhaps they just can’t really expand sufficiently on what I’ve already said to make them feel worth pursuing. So I may need either very different landscape subject matter or another realm altogether.

Two things come to mind in this vein. One is that I have never really photographed the rivers and streams that I used to love fly fishing. They are gorgeous environments with some magical elements that might be worth pursuing. The other is the waterfalls that my wife loves. She took me to some last year that I actually found pretty compelling. Of course the waterfall is a terribly overworked subject, perhaps as bad flowers or fall colors for the cloying ordinariness of their representations. Most of the waterfalls we saw were of the type that seemed impossible to photograph well. I could see them saying nothing more than ‘here’s a pretty waterfall.’ But one or two of them were more like little streams or rivers tumbling over a rocky bed through lush forest. They hinted at more possibilities. I took a few nice images of these places, but maybe at the right time of day I could create something more.

I love the moody light just around dawn and before dusk. The soft indirect light makes things just glow with an almost internal illumination. I can see one of these streams in that light, perhaps not even at or near the center of the frame, so that they could be seen as a subtle life force more hidden in the forest than highlighted at the center of the frame. Of course this means getting up way before dawn and getting into position shortly before daybreak, not an easy thing, especially in summer when the days are so long. The other option is dusk, which is easier to get to, but getting out afterwards can be tricky as the woods are a different place in the dark. But it’s the only way to go if you want to make powerful images.

I guess powerful for me involves an element of mystery. There must be a sense of forces at work that appear only at the edges of the day. I guess in this case it does come down to the scary feeling of walking in the woods at dark or at least of being in places where there may be forces outside ourselves or beyond our control. The edges of the day are the times when the more mysterious forces of life come alive.

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I remember well during my fly fishing days I was always scouting remote fishing locations. I might drive for hours to find a little dirt road that crossed a stream somewhere where few people went. I would park on the shoulder of the road and put on all my fishing gear and head down to the stream as the evening progressed. I always waded these rivers which meant putting on waders and walking through the stream, stepping over logs and maneuvering around passages of deep or fast water. Fly fishing is tied to insect hatches which are related to the time of day. In summer, the time for hatches and egg laying was often late in the evening, even after dark, when the day cooled.

I remember wading down a stream in the dusk with no sign of activity on the water. I resolved to stay in the river until dark in order to catch the insect hatch and hopefully some fish. But inevitably, as the darkness came on and the woods darkened and the river got hard to see and dangerous to wade I would lose my nerve and head for my car before I had to maneuver in complete darkness. One night, as I was making my way back to my car in near darkness and complete quiet save for the rippling of the stream, I was startled by the crashing and beating of wings of some large bird at close range. I nearly jumped out of my skin. It turned out that some turkeys had come to roost in a tree over the river and I had startled them into flying noisily away to a safer location. Twenty pound turkeys make quite a racket when they fly through dense forest in the night.

Anyway, that’s the time of mystery that arises as dark falls. There’s no getting around it. I was afraid of being in the woods alone in the dark. Certainly, I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of wading through a river I could not see.

This reminds me of another fishing occasion when a friend of mine and I determined to fish after dark one night. The theory was that big fish fed at night when they felt safe. We wanted to catch those big fish, so off we went. We knew of a place to access the North Branch of the Au Sable river and we wanted to fish there. We turned off on an unmarked dirt trail, drove a half mile or so of rough two track back toward the river. We were surprised to find a few people camping along the river there. We gathered our gear together and put on our waders and headed down to the river’s edge. We were just about to step into the water when one of the campers said “Uh, you might want to head down there a little ways to get in.” We wondered why and he told us that the water where we were about to get in was over six feet deep. We would have stepped in and plunged in over our heads. Our waders would then have filled with water making escape difficult if not impossible. I think that occasion was always in the back of my mind when I thought of fishing after dark.

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Well I’ve strayed a long way from my walks in the woods, but it strikes me that I may need to get up much earlier if I hope to find more attractive lighting in the woods. Or perhaps I can go over in the evening and see what I can see. As long as I wear a headlamp, I wouldn’t be too afraid to be in there in the dark. It’s not nearly so remote and creepy as the places I used to fish. And of course I may need to revisit the idea that this whole idea isn’t workable and I need to find an entirely new subject matter, perhaps after visiting some waterfalls and fishing rivers where I might shed some light on things that only fisherman would know.

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