Saturday, August 29, 2015

Notes From the Field -- A Spring Truly Sprung, Part 2

What's past is prologue...

I was a prairie kid.

My first prairies were 'empty' lots scattered about the edges of my city neighborhood, which wasn't far from where the streetcar line once came to an abrupt end because back then, so too did city.

The elderly gent next door to us lived in his house since there wasn't anything like a streetcar line and not much of a city, either. The old man's land was overgrown with "weeds" taller than me but if you knew just where to dig and dared to, you'd find sea shells where even kids knew there was never any kind of a sea in all of human existence. During summer, Nighthawks soared to cicada evensong.

Across the cinder alley from us, an equally old lady secured her garbage cans on broken gravestones of indeterminate origin. When the city dug out the cinders but before they could lay down pavement, a big rain came and dozens of garter snakes swam in our alley. There went the gravestones too.

But there were still bits of underdeveloped landscape around, for children with an inclination to explore the mysteries of a real world to do it.

The Milwaukee Road Railroad grade bisected our block. The old frame family house rumbled and shook at odd hours of the day or night but it was only the train, always and ever hauling the stuff of industry & commerce from here to there and back. The house was used to it. It'd survived a long time under the circumstances and over time, so would we. As the fencing along the gone to seed grade stood in disrepair, I enjoyed ready access to one of the true wonders of my earliest natural world.

Heather on those same tracks.
Because this past week we enjoyed our 32nd wedding anniversary.

Wandering the tracks wasn't without risk, but I wasn't stupid about trains and the biggest actual danger came when my parents caught me up there. Then it'd be holy Hell to pay since everyone knew a train could leave a kid a cripple for life or maybe just lop off his fool head, which it was said actually happened to a kid one neighborhood over and true or not, that story was all any parent ever needed for to exert maximum punishment for the transgression.

Just the same, that old Milwaukee Road grade remains the only place I've ever seen a Green Snake in the wild. Fossils we found amidst the rock rubble that made the grade were a bonus.

My family also enjoyed regular access to a genuine log cabin; wood and oil heat. The cabin was one county northwest in what used to be called the country because up there the landscape'd only been subsumed by fields of corn and what remained untilled was still mostly oak savanna and grassland as yet sparsely populated by weekend refugees fleeing the concrete canyons of the city where the rat race was and still is a daily affair.

In the neighborhood around the cabin I saw tadpoles turn to bullfrogs. Met Soft-shelled and endangered Blanding's turtles. Shrill Red-winged Blackbirds and clusters of iridescent Barn Swallows that rode cool air  beneath bridges over muddy creeks in which hungry bullhead swam. Rolling grasses and Oak Trees that tossed the occasional acorn at you when on a sweltering summer's day in the comfort of their shade a young boy took a break from hot day's work. That work often included the climbing of said oaks, which grow sturdy, tall and sport a thick gnarled skin like a dinosaur's.

In time things changed as things tend to do. The northwoods of my maternal ancestry embraced me while despite its many gifts, on the prairie I always stood alone. Then the creeks meandering in oxbows through grassland dotted with oak islands became like the young love you think of fondly and with genuine affection, but the magic that fired youthful romance is a long time gone.

Anyway, all of this is by way of explaining how things took the turn they did during my visit to Bobcat Lake on a hope driven morning in May...


When before dawn I put the canoe onto Bobcat that morning, air temperature stood at 24°F. The exact temperature of the water was damned cold. The good news was no bugs pestered me for my trouble.

It didn't take but a few yards paddling to confirm what shallow water readily hinted at. The much anticipated emergent weeds that play so critical a role in spring lake fishing remained a couple weeks away. For all the good I was likely to do on or about opening day it may as well have been February. That's a hard discovery for to begin a fishing season. Still, old friends were in residence and Bobcat Lake itself is an old, dear friend, so I sallied forth.

The first Trumpeter Swans I ever saw at Bobcat were both banded. The following spring only one of a pair was. None have been since. Though I'm happy to see them on my lake they're aggressively cranky birds, loud as blazes in a temple of whispers and when trying to knock you from a canoe, they most resemble a small airplane.

Signs at Forest Service boat ramps remind one and all that when a Loon displays like that, you're too close. I'm sure that's often true and it's always best to leave loons in peace. But that morning this bird and I fished most of Bobcat together and if anything, that bird followed me. Probably entertained by the occasional dumb dink bass I managed to land, even as it scored a hearty breakfast from the same frigid water.

In high morning sun, with no real luck and little prospect of any, I put in. Mosquitoes and flies buzzed me at the boat launch but didn't bite. With warming, stable weather forecast, that wouldn't last long.

I knew damned well that on the prairie, Sandhill Cranes were even then gathered near pothole lakes in which Largemouth Bass were busy fattening up. I prefer the occasional squawk of Sandhills over the constant bragging of Trumpeters and this spring, rather than taking the northwoods as they'd come, I preferred to catch some fish. By late morning, I'd decided to pack it in and go visit the prairie, where winter hadn't hung on so hard as it did on the Gogebic.

I returned to the river that evening. A few hours determined work in a mist of highly motivated mosquitoes brought one more fine walleye and that was that. Come next morning I called it a day and with confidence headed south in order to more fully pursue a spring that in the northwoods proved recalcitrant.

A couple days later I was on my sentimental favorite prairie lake, chasing big bass. Sandhills croaked. Frogs sang. Weeds were definitely emergent. Under a light wind regime, white clouds scudding through a broken sky found perfect reflection in the water. One spring while fishing a shallow bay I attracted the rapt attention of a coyote pup who proceeded to yip and dance and play hide & seek with me for a good ten minutes or so from behind the reeds that line the boggy shore.

It was that kind of day, the kind that holds a promise of magic...

Yet I worked 70% of the lake's circumference with everything I know how and was on the verge of being skunked. Flat water can be a real mystery. Except maybe 20 years ago I'd once dragged a lure I didn't much like through a nondescript stretch of open water and two of the largest bass I'd ever seen followed the lure right to the edge of the boat like twin submarines. It's true I didn't catch either fish, but I'd seen them.

Setting anchor thirty yards or so offshore at the edge of that stretch of lake, I tied on a new lure I'd been anxious to try and on the first cast with it caught my second good bass of the year, this one just under four pounds. She was thick, brilliantly colored and feisty as all get out. I'd divined the pattern. Magic could ensue.

By its lip I lifted the bass from the water. Had a kind word for her as I held the fish over my lap to easily remove the point of attack from her outer jaw. Gave the bass a quick grin and placed her back into the lake. She made such a splash toward safe haven that water sprinkled my face.

Then in the next instant time expanded and with a single, unified motion the world turned. I'll likely remember it until the day I die.

The canoe tipped ever so slightly in the direction of the bass. I instinctively corrected by leaning the other way. The canoe kept right on going anyway and went over. The next thing I knew I was in the lake up to my eyes and when I didn't touch bottom as expected a voice in my head said, It's deeper than I thought.

The canoe was filled with water. Nearly all my gear was gone, including a brand new St. Croix rod attached to my best reel and when I went over, my right leg'd entangled with the anchor rope, so I was stuck looking out over the water-filled canoe at the lake while trying to keep my one remaining rod and reel from being claimed by it while at the same time figuring this wasn't my day to drown.

I lacked the buoyancy to free my leg and at long last found use for my inflatable pfd, which has its own freighted history. I weighed anchor and slowly swam the canoe to the muddy shore, where I emptied the thing of water and climbed back aboard.

I'd not turned out of a canoe in better than thirty years and even then, it wasn't my fault.

The good news was that everything -- including me -- worked precisely as intended, exactly when needed. The bad news was that with all my best fishing gear now at the bottom of the lake, my spring was over just as it'd begun. I returned a few days later to drag weeds for my stuff but that was a truly miserable affair and to no avail.

When I left the U.P. I thought I wasn't chasing anything but instead chased spring over three states before it rose up and smote me for the impertinence.


Later in September when the air is crisp and the light perfect, I'll take a working trip along the south shore of Superior to try and wrap up a few things still left undone from the fieldwork. Turns out I'll also simply have to steal a not insignificant portion of quiet time for myself along the way, in order to learn yet again how to allow the northwoods to embrace me in a manner I've not let it since setting off on the Odyssey in September, 2011.

What's true is what Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.

What's true is that I weary of the chase.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Notes From the Field – A Spring Truly Sprung, Part 1

Yeah, it's high summer and I'm late. Hell, as we're now well past the solstice it's only a matter of time before the first snow flies. So best to get that whole dancing naked around the fire thing in while you still can.

My spring went like lickidy split. Then summer brought a for hire gig continuing into August and you'll understand that took precedence over my telling stories to you. After all, we're ad free 'round here and at this point always will be yet the piper lurking behind the scenes must ever be paid and such is life, eh?

Before getting back to business (such as it's been), I'd very much like to thank the far flung Annala clan for their continued interest. Seriously, you folk ought pool your collective knowledge then arrange to gather in Ironwood for a family bash and share the Annala story. People in the region  will be interested. Back when the place was more or less abandoned, locals kept a proprietary eye on things. Mathew's barn is a continuing source of provincial pride and that too, is part of your familial heritage.

Also, a tip of the hat to Allison Mills, for inviting me to provide just the slightest assist in making her Keweenaw and La Roche Verte article in EARTH Magazine so well achieved.


Speaking of snow...

To judge from folk's enthusiasm for their camera phones you mightn't think so, but viewing real life too much through a device ends up being problematic. I long ago realised that when I approached wilderness primarily by trying to capture it, I leached the wildness right out of me. There's only so much room in a life. Or time to relax during brief sojourns to the wilds of the Superior Basin too, for that matter.

All around Superior, I found amazing things the like of which most people never saw or ever will see firsthand. I'm born with the temperament and practice provided the skillset necessary for me to share Superior's particular sort of amazing with the world at large. In time it was as if with the inclination, knowledge and skillset came responsibility and in a sense, it had.

'Planet of the Apes', from 'Wasteland: The Wolverine Mohawk'

Meanwhile, old St. Sebastian's burnt down and the floors of the new St. Sebastian's don't creek in memory of miner's prayers. The wonderful dairy, the miserable old Bessemer Cafe and even the grocery were gone from Bessemer. Scotty's near Ironwood and Red's in Wakefield too. As were trains from across the region. With that last, it was no longer possible to lie awake in the deep woods at night with the rumble of rolling commerce to serve as reminder that you'd not in fact abandoned civilization entirely and neither had civilization entirely abandoned you.

Eventually, work became my primary reason for visiting the wilderness. Other, richer reasons were made subservient and with that, I was diminished. For what does it profit a man to capture the world and forfeit his living spirit?

Once damaged, I got better at things. Learned to separate out time for work and time to fish and time to just lollygag around, which is maybe the best reason for anyone to visit wild woods and waters.  Then during our fourteen month, 26,000 mile Odyssey around one of the most magnificent landscapes on earth, I allowed myself only three full days off and a few scattered hours here or there to kick back and suck in the magic that fairly drips from the place.

I was on a mission it's true, but by the end was again diminished and seriously so. Turns out, I'm getting too old for to easily recover from the like of that.

'Silent Owl', also from 'Wasteland: The Wolverine Mohawk'

Which is why my annual trip to the U.P. in May must be about fishing, visiting with dear friends and being idle in the woods, with work relegated to afterthought and/or crime of opportunity. Quietude is the whisperer of wild. When you don't practice listening, you forget how to hear it and eventually the wild stops whispering to you.

Spring in the U.P. is a crapshoot, though if you want your best chance to count coup with outsized, fierce fish that don't get that way by being stupid, you pays your money and takes your chances with May. It's no coincidence that every one of my 30"+ walleye came during May in the Northwoods. And many of my big bass, too.

Man makes plans and God laughs, or so I'm told. Anyway, here's how this last spring went. I can tell 'ya, someone got a good laugh.

Long about the time dogwood blooms you might catch the end of walleye spawn in the rivers and the beginning of spring bass fishing on the lakes though of course, one can never tell. Last year I waited into June on seriously crappy weather and missed everything. This year I was determined not to.

I arrived on the Gogebic Range to breezy, 45 degrees and wet. Clouds obscured the tops of the Bessemer bluffs, which essentially means the sky's come down to bless the ground. As I carried my initial load of stuff into the motel room, something fell into my arms. On first glance I thought leaf. On second glance I thought That's a really big moth. Upon further review and having already entered my room I said aloud, Holy shit a bat, then reflexively backpedaled outside.

Unsure of the bat's condition and what with me being a guy and all, I jostled it a bit just to see. The thing barred its fangs and positively snarled at me, which was mighty cute. It'd no obvious sign of White-nose Syndrome, a virulent invader killing bats far and wide. Content the poor critter had simply sought refuge from the cold and wet beneath the eaves of the motel and that I'd disturbed it far more than it'd disturbed me, I carried the bat on my raincoat off to a sheltered place beneath thick, low hung evergreen and gently laid it there. When I checked the next morning the bat was gone. Godspeed little bat and all your kind, in these troubled times.

Undeterred and with a few hours of good light left, I headed off to a favorite spot where a few years before in water so high and hard as to be all but unfishable I caught and released a 35" walleye, which was about the length of the better than 60 year old Michigan state record walleye. I'd show you the picture but someone might recognise the spot and word might get out and then I'd be the worst sort of fisherman there is – the kind that receives a once in a lifetime kiss then indiscriminately tells.

That evening a few hours of cold, wet work yielded yet another 30" walleye. The last member of my immediate family to be born and raised on the Range, the guy who first taught me how to fish and who was about as fine a fisherman as I've known, my Uncle Ray never caught a walleye of 30". Each time I do I think "Uncle Ray, this is what you should've been doing all along". But where, when and how I fish wasn't his style. Uncle Ray used to say the fishing'd gone to hell after the CCC built the campgrounds during the '30s and he remembered times when if fishing luck ran thin, guys might use dynamite for to even the odds. Times change.

Encouraged by the quality walleye, I knew the next day would dawn cold as dripping snot in January, so looking forward to quality time with friends and even a bit of work, I slept well. There's never anyplace quite like home for a good night's sleep.

Now, a better man would've grabbed the Nikon and gone out to do some serious damage. Being on a fishing trip and all, I went fishing instead and got skunked. That was a bad sign if you believe in omens, portents and signs but the cold wasn't so bad next to the big lake, which is a perversity of the season because Superior can have you digging for winter jackets in July. Caught up in the moment, I fished on until the time came to visit with my friend Wil.

You might remember Wil. During the Odyssey the two of us spent Super Bowl Sunday night stuck in the trashed, frozen parking lot at the Presque Isle, wondering at least for a while whether a bit of water and three curiously strong Altoids™ would last two grown men 'til morning. Three nights later I returned determined and enjoyed one of the better working nights of my life, never give up.

Wil and I headed out to Houghton Falls north of Washburn on the Bayfield Peninsula. It's the sort of place too many travelers miss because the abject glory of the region tends to fill people's eyes with wonder, which then blinds them to tender magic that also abounds. 

Houghton Falls is on a seasonal creek, which means most times there're no falls at all. Spring or after a few days heavy rain is the time to go. There's a splendid horseshoe falls when running, but it's tough to capture because the light is often impossible. Wil likes to go when it's foggy and of course, that'd turn the trick. As we drove through the chill morning the sky burnt off and the sun shone bright, which was O.K. by me because what I wanted most was to push at the limits of digital capture where film had already failed. And for the first time, maybe I found those limits.

Or maybe just the current limits of my dexterity with it, I can't yet say. At any rate, though I captured a far greater range of available light with the Nikon than ever I managed on film, this is dull as dishwater and to my eyes looks distinctly digital, which isn't a compliment:

I'm not easily still without there's also purpose to it. Sitting in a lawn chair doesn't cut it. I find purpose in fishing. At its best, fishing makes all other concerns fade, which purges the routine background noise that besets most all of us nearly every hour of our days even when there's no cell signal to intrude. Fishing allows me to plug directly into the real world and I become as one with the wild while doing it. It's a lot like tactile, cogent dreaming.

So in the evening of that first full day I again invited walleye to dance. None were forthcoming. While the fact that I worked as hard and smartly as I know how for no few hours yet failed to raise a single fish of any kind or size was disconcerting, at least the chill kept the bugs down. The water was in fine seasonal shape and the evening on it with Superior just beyond was ideal. With dark, I walked out. The next morning I'd take the canoe onto Bobcat to chase big bass and maybe toothy pike, then visit at leisure with another dear friend.

Being very much in need of intimate contact with the real world, of course I remained determined. That I'd soon make a pivot upon which my season would turn wasn't yet part of the bargain...

Friday, July 3, 2015

The 4th of July

Is still called Independence Day, by some...

...and I'm thinking it's past time we called it that again.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Spring Break

One one Thousand...

Two one thousand...

Three one thousand... *


* No bass were harmed during the production of this blog.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Notes From the Field -- Radical Transition Pt. 3

At the very bottom of this post is an image of a dead bird. Now, it may well be as beautiful an image of a dead bird as you've seen. But it's a dead bird just the same and I'd not want to sandbag anyone, so...

Youthful Ambition

Back in the day when eagles were still desperately rare, I once spent four hours sitting at rapt attention in my car near the dam on the Presque Isle Flowage during a late autumn snowstorm. I never took my eyes off the far reaches of that flowage for longer than needed to check the time or hit the windshield wipers, Scout's honor. It was something of a holy mission.

About the same time each day a bald eagle rose from the headwaters of the flowage, just this side of where boat chasers live and the Presque Isle is like murky serpents coursing through bug-infested forest. Every late morning that trip, the great bird came from deep in the floodplain, briskly reviewed the length of flowage then headed off downriver in search of riparian bounty. It flew past the dam, then disappeared over a stretch of dark, slow river that soon grows headstrong and sometimes hot white along a quickening rush to Superior, where not infrequently its voice is furious at the prospect of reaching big water and dissolution.

I'd my sturdy Nikon F at the ready, determined to capture the eagle front side and back as it went by. I could just barely see that damned bird all the way back there, circling low upon a snow blotted sky. Of course with that last day of the trip having gone so foul, it never came out. Which proved eagles had better sense than I.

Going through my back catalog of 35mm film reminded me that once upon a time, I'd wanted to be a wildlife photographer. I mean, who wouldn't?

Imagine stalking some wild northwoods beast on its home turf not to kill but to represent, so that others of your kind might understand what drew you to do it. With that imagined ideal image captured in perfect light of a bear or moose, eagle, loon or wolf doing it's thing, you'd stand for the beasts of the wilderness and for wildness itself. Because by choosing dominion over the world we've also chosen the responsibility to tirelessly advocate for that better part of everything that needn't reduce things to words. There's just no getting around that, if we're gonna pretend to be boss and still get outta here alive.

On a less stormy afternoon we once got a really good look at a lynx atop a beaver dam because we'd arrived downwind and in a canoe, now that's some kinda quiet. That day the Nikon sat fallow on my lap and in three twelve foot leaps the lynx was gone. By then I'd learned some sights are gifts meant to be seen, not prizes for potential capture.

And the truth was, I couldn't make much of a wildlife photographer working only twice a year on vacation either, so there's that. Though I never stopped looking for the great grab shot and occasionally the looking paid off:

Near to 30 years passed before I finally captured an eagle. Just so happens it was during a blizzard and I only got it because eagles are still smarter than me.

In time I altered my gear and most basic creative approach to suit. Stalking the wilderness in deep pursuit of what's typically hidden from the casual visitor proved much the same no matter the quarry. And as it turned out, the mission to stand for what has no voice -- in my case cultural memory embodied in monuments to human dreams that continue to inform us -- proved much the same too. I'm proud to have done it.

But maybe the happiest thing about architectural work as opposed to wildlife photography was that by & large, nothing moved. That virtue was particularly conducive to large format fieldwork, where I could spend 15 minutes setting up a shot and then not press the shutter. Sure, each time I'd revisit a site in some new season it'd maybe fallen down a bit more or perhaps wasn't even there. That was just part of the gig. But nothing ever suddenly up & flew away.

Static Energy

You find a lot of different things in the wild. You've only to keep your eyes open...

My film portfolio contains a raft of found objects, strange natural sights and a variety of dead things. Courtesy of digital capture it'll finally include some wildlife too, though not the sort I'd hoped for as a kid starting out:

Probably my first capture of a dead thing was when a fisherman left the head of a King Salmon perched atop a rock at the edge of the Laughing Whitefish River, like a warning for other salmon to beware. Trust me, that's a hell of an image. About such radical transitions, the great northwoods poet, author and all around raconteur Pat O'Neill writes:

Death is life.
It's why we're all here,
because of the dead.
Our homes, our clothing, our food, our compositions
are donated bodies of the once living -- gifts.
The dead are our primary caregivers.

I think that's about right. Quality time in the wild only proves it. Life relies on death for replenishment. It's the deal.  The only deal, really. And it's a natural process wholly devoid of moral consideration  but that we intrude upon it because we've intruded us upon life to the extent that there's no going back on our responsibilities without the earth first shrugs us off for its trouble.

Not to mention that found objects, natural oddities and dead things don't move either. That remains appealing, even without considering I'll be 60 this year. Stilled voices still have things to tell us too, though not so easily as architectural remnants that speak readily of dead people's dreams.

The image that appears below is from the last time I ever took the Nikon N90s into the woods.

On a brisk autumn day, for old time's sake Heather and I walked the short Speaker's Cabin trail in the Porkies down to Superior. I almost left the Nikon in the car. By then I was using the Linhof to shoot what was appropriate to that and 35mm film was about as pertinent to me as 16mm. In addition I'd learned how and when to separate working in the wild from walking in the woods. At the last minute I thought What the hell and slung the vintage hippie camera strap over my shoulder one final time.

Because of that I captured this bird so recently slipped into something else entirely, but not so far that you couldn't still see the life in its eyes.

And now probably the thing I'm looking forward to most about my transition to digital imagist is the feel of a camera in hand as a ready extension of sight, locked and loaded to capture whatever wonders there are to be found...

Friday, February 27, 2015

Notes From the Field -- Radical Transition, Part 2

For every prohibition...

Viewed from too close, things seem impassible...

I spent a considerable amount of time this winter reviewing my extensive back catalog of 35mm images. This is the second winter in a row I've committed to archiving film and there'll not be a third. That's part of the reason the header and other aspects of this blog remain so woeful out of date. I very much desire to sell my big Nikon scanner and leave film behind once and for all. I knew that if I didn't first scan select 35mm frames I never would. Then it'd be like they'd never been captured all, which was existentially appalling.

So I've now put fresh eyes on 37 year's worth of film. As dogged an effort as that's required, the retrospective is already serving me well in the transition over to digital imagist.

Pictures I shot with Heather's Topcon camera in autumn of 1978 show that my basic photographic interests were present from the start. Tucked amidst the prosaic vacation pictures (geez we were young), I found images of heritage architecture:

 ...and shots taken in the dark:

You know when to get off Bobcat in the evening by the bats. They work near the surface of the water and flit around the canoe like whirligigs. After you watch the bats for awhile because you must, by that time there's insufficient light to safely unhook a fish and before much longer Heather'd have to fire a torch for to see my way home. I guarantee the bats were out when I spotted this guy.

Anyway, as anyone who's followed along knows, my interest in heritage architecture went on to define my body of work on film. Though I pushed hard at the limits of large format fieldwork in low light with some good success, the night -- so rich and wondrous in the woods -- continued to elude capture. I came to figure it always would.

The most exciting thing for me about transitioning over to digital capture is that's no longer true.

The (too) Luminous Dark

Having gotten the basic methodology of night shooting down during June when I also learned that the Nikon has better vision than I do, I was particularly anxious to try some more.

Near the end of a day in the field that'd begun before dawn, I went to Bobcat. I made myself a steak dinner over fire and prepared for night shooting at the same campsite as when I shot the blue fisherman in '78. Many's the time I've retired after dinner to sit quietly at the edge of this splendid lake amidst the croaking frogs and glow worms like stars in the grass to watch the Milky Way rise as day transitioned over to night...

...except what'd previously always been only a mild and fairly unobtrusive glow cast by tiny Presque Isle WI to the south proved freshly intrusive indeed:

Because I was settled in I tried a few different things, some more successful than others. The hour grew late, the day exceptionally long.

There's a spot in the Ottawa with an overlook from a ridge where otters play.  And one year, as my godson and I traveled cross forest through the dark of night to fish a backwoods lake come first of morning, we paused atop that ridge on our way and wondered silently at mighty Orion, more brilliantly defiant in the sky over the hushed forest than I've seen him before or since. I can make my way to that ridge even stumbling around exhausted in the dark. So I packed up and headed there.

Where I found that vantage faces Presque Isle too, with what might be the Ojibwa Correctional Facility off to the side. What? You think things like the occasional prison aren't stashed in your National Forests? Think again.

Or maybe that big-assed glow is the place where they apparently correct Ojibwa and the little one to the right's Presque Isle WI. I didn't pull out the Gazetteer to figure that out. In either case, the sky above my favorite ridge was ruined.

More or less defeated, I turned the Nikon to the north just for the hell of it. I swear I saw nothing but stars with the naked eye and when the Nikon saw green by that time I'd no earthly clue what it might've been. All I knew for sure was that I couldn't see no stinkin' green in the sky and by that time was pretty well wiped besides, so I called it a day. Night. Whatever.

Except it turned out what the Nikon saw and I didn't was the Northern Lights. Had I not already been poleaxed by a too luminous night over the deep woods I might've recognised that, even in the Nikon's little viewing screen. Indeed, I should have recognised it. In which case I'd have excitedly driven the 30 refreshed miles or so through night shrouded wilderness to the shore of the big lake and happily worked the Aurora right through 'til dawn or when the Lights went out, whichever came first.

The next nights proved fairly cloudy and that was that. Still, a couple of things were made plain about this luminous night business, called Landscape Astrophotography.

First and foremost: Location, location, location. There's only one officially sanctioned Dark Sky Park in Michigan and that's a long ways from Superior. Then even if I find the perfect landscape with a grand sky vista it'd still be a one off and that image would have to compete with the like of these. I'll not be visiting Easter Island or find myself sitting at the exact perfect spot on Big Sur anytime soon. So what's a fellow to do?

I mean, if you can't do a thing most others aren't doing and at a high level, why do it?

Well, I've got some ideas about that. I've spent a lot of time contemplating the night woods and know a thing or two about the luminosity that informs an apparently dark forest at different times and under a wide variety of conditions. I'll be working on some of those ideas, come May.

But that's not all, not hardly.

The facility of digital capture along with the review of my entire body of work on film has led me to consider types of image capture I'd left behind or shunted aside years ago, mostly in order to better concentrate on what the limitations of large format fieldwork with film allowed me to do best.

Should you like to know a little something about that, you'll just have to tune in next month.

But that apparently hard wall? Viewed from a broader perspective, it marks a passageway:

Friday, January 30, 2015

Notes From the Field -- Radical Transition Pt. 1

Wolverine Mohawk, Keweenaw County MI, 2014

You can still find people who argue that the imposition of censorship during the early 1930's made Hollywood filmmakers more creative than they'd otherwise have been simply because they had to devise ways to tell a richly informed story within the narrow confines of prior constraint.

Except all you need do is to stream a choice handful of long suppressed pre-code Hollywood films to recognise that argument for the stuff and nonsense it is. Instead, what's true that those same prior constraints forced what'd become the art form of the 20th Century into decades of self-imposed adolescence, right at the hub of its global influence.

If you're interested, start with the uncensored version of Baby Face, then come back and tell me why six years later it was such a big honkin' deal for Clark Gable to inform Vivian Leigh he didn't give a damn. Or why three years after that even sophisticated adults couldn't be sure that Rick and Ilsa had sex during their penultimate night in steamy Casablanca.

Yeah, on the one hand maybe the work of Busby Berkeley wouldn't have been so gloriously mad if not for those same prior constraints. On the other hand, for decades thereafter American popular culture was force fed straight from the corporate trough of a relentless Fantasy Factory and You are what you eat, as they say.

On the other other hand, those technological constraints inherent to fieldwork with large format transparency film dictated the hard limits of its creative use. I can't tell you how many times I walked out into the light from the baroque interior of some splendid ruin creatively bereft because my choice of medium prevented its capture. Which would be why my architectural portfolio leans so heavily to exteriors and why the most evocative scenic work was invariably captured on overcast days.

Here's a fine example of both, on one sheet of film:

Houghton County MI, 2010

Real life enjoys its share of sunny days too, even around the Superior Basin. And generally, when I was mucking around deep inside the guts of someone's ruined dream I could see things just fine thanks, even when my film couldn't. Thus did the prior constraints inherent in the medium restrain not only the body of my work, but my creative vision for it as well.

Over time, those constraints went on to alter my fundamental approach to my subject matter. The very thing I labored to convey as authentic.

And besides, who thinks perfect light never occurs on days so brilliant it hurts your eyes just to see?

Existing light...

The last of film's halcyon days were spent largely in the technological pursuit of ever finer light. Then film died before it ever quite reached the point when early one morning you could lazily come out of a shaded bay, think "Geez, would you look at that", lift the camera, click the shutter and sit back to let the moment breath, reasonably assured you'd captured the essence of it:

Ottawa National Forest, 2014

In years past, if I hit the Superior Basin for a week's worth of work and that week turned out to be resolutely sunny, I'd have shaken my fist at the too bright light with too deep shadows and cursed the photo gods right to their washed out sky. Mostly, only the Magic Hour at either far end of the day would've been salvaged for serious work, though after a while you realise that having captured more than a few gorgeous sunrises and/or sunsets in your time means you've pretty much got that covered.

Not to mention that the twice daily hour or so of magic light is also magic for big fish. These days, I tend to side with the fish.

Before taking the Nikon out for extended fieldwork this last September, I'd set distinct goals. I'd visit those select places where I was already on intimate terms with the quality of light, sites I'd worked repeatedly through the years. That way I could later compare the digital capture with film of the same image, which would allow me to better understand the differences between the two. By pushing hard at its creative controls, I'd find out what the Nikon was capable of.

And I was determined to once again shoot at night, having had such a good time with that in June.

As it turned out, that fieldwork had to be done during the most unusual of September weeks in the Northwoods, with unrelentingly sunny days and bright bluebird skies and the whole world bathed in contrast sufficient to make a strong shooter weep. Just the same, I stuck with the plan.

Which decision proved liberating.

Union River, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness, 2014

Had I come to the turnoff from the South Boundary Road to the Union River during light like that in years past, I'd not have bothered to go in. That's basically in camera, with only the slightest, most routine Photoshop teaks.

As is this:

Gogebic County MI, 2014

And this...

Gogebic County MI, 2014

For a while I went sun crazy and was nearly blinded, by the light. Then I remembered the dark.

Gogebic County MI, 2014

For all the images of this forlorn old Ford that I've captured on film and in a healthy variety of light, I'd captured nothing the like of that.

All of which made me very excited to go traipsing off into the God's honest dark, which we'll revisit together long about this time next month...

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Christmas Wish

At the beginning of our 2nd consecutive century of near perpetual war, it seems to me the only Christmas wish worth the name is Peace on Earth, goodwill to all.

So please to remember -- if you want peace, you must first work for justice.

My very best wishes to you all.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Captured on Film, Part 4 -- In Thanksgiving

It's been suggested that the images in my portfolio with the greatest intrinsic value are those of things that no longer exist. Abandoned remnants of Northwoods culture that without perpetual maintenance somehow managed to stand for decades in a wild place until one day they're gone, like they never were. Simply disappeared, except from the memories of people who worked there or lived there or maybe once upon a time found a special place while wandering in the woods then always remembered the day.

And of course, those remnants survive in images people like me capture before it's too late. On balance that work is also the most valuable to me, personally.

Years pile up and people forget. Stumble across as much stuff back in the woods as I have and in time you forget a lot. There're places I've been that I couldn't find again to save my soul, even if they are still there. Like the time before I was a proper photographer when Heather and I came across an entire -- if exceptionally small -- hilltop town for sale. Complete with a view of big water too, probably Superior. But after this many years of not remembering exactly where we were that day and being unable to find it again, who the hell can say?

My discovery that Whitecap Mnts Manor got bulldozed brought these things to mind. My work there wasn't done. Then it suddenly was. Today all that's left of the thing are memories of the place and images of it. So here're some more images of things that no longer exist...

The vintage barn below represents some of the first work I ever did with the Linhof:

Johnny, Heather and I'd come across this abandoned homestead at the far eastern reaches of the Gogebic Range during the early 80's while wandering around the woods. We had a strange adventure in the old house that stood near the barn, which is a story I'll save for some other time.

Later, Heather and I returned to the site so I could work it. That was the first time I'd ever been inside a vintage pole barn. The first two images were captured in 1997 on a fine afternoon that I remember quite well primarily because of how positively radiant Heather was beneath a warming sun as she roamed the grassy fields behind the place while waves of grasshoppers led the way.

By 2010, this was all that remained. You can still see the pile of hay that no livestock ever ate...

This next barn (?) stood for years by the side of U.S. 2, in Iron County WI. I'm told that There's Nothing Like It In New York was painted large across its face. I never saw that. I passed the thing for years, going to or from one place or the other. Finally, I stopped. Glad I did, because sometime after 2009, this too was bulldozed.

It's intriguing to me, how all manner of things in the Northwoods eventually manage to get themselves pockmarked by bullet holes. Is that particularly American or what?

In  Ashland WI, there once was a massive ore dock that stood as a reminder of the robust and storied heritage of the place. Today, it too is gone. The good people of Ashland hope to someday build a public pier on the crumbling base that remains. There's something perversely encouraging in the fact that there're still somedays afloat in the region.

Mostly, that's what everything there's been built on all along...

As you approach the Keweenaw, the Painsdale Mine once required a proper Administration Building. Then, people worked there and streams of miners passed through it on a daily basis. I captured this image in 2005. I'm told the bulldozers have since eaten this too.

Farther east out on the Keweenaw and along U.S. 41, there stood what was undoubtedly a classic American roadside motel that for who knows how many years served weary travelers and happy vacationers as they made their way around what today might still be the most isolated county in the Midwest. This last September, I watched a couple of men on the job walk over the now cleared lot.

They sure seemed to be assessing the place for some sort of future development. A new motel, maybe?

Back on the Gogebic, this splendid wreck stood at the Puritan Location, so called for the iron mine that long ago was carved into that particular hill. It's likely that this structure was originally a company house for miners and after the mine failed, home to whomever followed the miners for whatever reason up that hill.

Then during one brutal winter, the house simply couldn't take it anymore. We happened across it in May of that year, before any bulldozer could render the place once again safe for civilization. The set of images I captured that day remain among my favorites because in this one wreck is found just about everything I ever shot that sort of thing for:

Lastly, there's this.

In 1984 my family returned to Bessemer to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of our hometown. That was the only time I ever went there with my late Uncle Ray, who a few years after our visit turned out to be the last surviving member of my immediate family that was born and raised on the Range. Uncle Ray was the man who taught me to fish and because I fished, in '78 I chose to take my first adult vacation in the Porcupine Mountains and the Ottawa National Forest. Much of who I went on to be is owed to my Uncle Ray.

While there for the big party in '84, Uncle Ray introduced us to a raft of extended family members -- third & fourth cousins and the like -- not a single one of whom I remember today.

On that trip Uncle Ray also took us along an obscure dead end road up a hill that rises above the northeastern reaches of Bessemer to look out across an ancient range of mountains that once scraped the sky but are today merely rolling hills, past glories having been rounded off by time until now only the shadow of it remains.

That afternoon Uncle Ray showed us the house Uncle John built, when once upon a time on that hillside was our family farm.

In 2010 I returned to Uncle John's house, to capture the memory of it before it was gone:

I'm thankful for a lot of things. For Heather especially. And of course for all those I've loved through the years and who've loved me in return. I'm well blessed in that regard and make no mistake.

But I hold a special place of thanks in my heart for the lifetime of work I've been privileged to do on and around the Superior Basin. That work would never have happened had not my great, great grandfather for reasons no one remembers chosen to make his way to the Gogebic Range before it ever was that, sometime prior to 1884.

I'm thankful every day that his grandson, my dear Uncle Ray, some 80 odd years later and in the place of my birth that's about as different from the Northwoods as a place can get, saw fit to teach a city kid how to fish.

Because as it happened, my maternal family of immigrants put down roots in their new country on what later became the fabled Gogebic Range, still one of the most challenging and rewarding landscapes in America.

And today, those obscure roots in a hard place I've never lived still manage somehow to sustain me.