Thursday, November 24, 2011

Splendid Isolation

This being family time, I’ll not burden you with much of me but please be sure to check in next week as I’ll have my first profile and it’s of an authentic living legend, someone who perhaps you’ve never heard of, but will be better off for having met.

If you don’t turn your face to the sun on the occasion it shows itself during a long hard winter, you’re like to forget it was ever there or will be again. And then maybe you’ll miss it when next it shines squarely upon you.

For myself, this season I’m especially thankful to my wife Heather McKelly, with whom I’ve shared Northwoods adventures now for some 33 years all told. When first I came up with the concept for this gig, it was Heather who was all in from the get go. So it’s because of my wife that I now get to work in such splendid isolation, to challenge myself to present the Superior Basin in all its complex history and rich glories, both past and present.

And at the moment I’m particularly thankful for these. If you’ve read “Where Eagles (Almost) Dare” you’ll understand why. Take that, ye Great White Bird:

Anyway, sometimes things said simplest are said best, so today I’ll just offer this. Left for us by an anonymous donor at an abandoned ‘black granite’ quarry in Ashland County WI and presented here in my sincere wish that it’s as true for you as it is for me, at least for today and maybe even as often as not…

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Snow Job

At the end of September I told of the afternoon when winter rudely intruded upon autumn to provide a stark reminder of seasons turning. After that the region enjoyed an extended period of unusually mild and stable weather, which lasted into November. Then six weeks to the day of autumn having first taken a hard turn, winter kicked the door in.

Just prior, long light streamed through late season woods stripped bare.

Through most of the year the great northern wilderness is an obscurity. Thick understory built up around uncountable trees arrayed beneath a nearly impenetrable canopy of green makes the forest appear as a single entity when in fact it’s nothing of the sort. Instead, the northwoods is a massive chorus of rough and tumble harmony, individual voices raised together with life and death freely intermingled, for three consecutive seasons the former feeding on the latter in a riot of opportunistic appetite.

With the last of autumn that chorus grows ever more unbalanced as trees shed leaves, brisk winds strip the place of its veil and all things weak or dying fall finally to the ground in a clutter. The occasional dilapidated building, groups of browsing deer, long abandoned cars, cranky red squirrels, hard rock outcroppings, pileated woodpeckers and old gnarled trees -- all stand revealed as distinguishable from the whole. If anything, the chorus then becomes richer for its transparency.

The evening before winter arrived, I attended a public hearing at Gogebic Community College. Held by the MichiganDepartment of Environmental Quality to publicly discuss Orvana’s proposed Copperwood mine, you’d think a meeting like that might’ve included at least a question or two about the environmental impact of a mine, but you’d be wrong. It was pep rally pure and simple, no bones about it and get those questions the Hell out of the way already.

Scheduled for three hours it lasted 80 minutes, if that. No apologies offered, none necessary. What do we need? We need jobs. When do we need them? We need them now!

The toy Canon sat at rest on my lap and I might have brought you some of the cheerleading but as the evening progressed too rapidly from a litany delivered by region-wide officialdom (attendance apparently mandatory) to a succession of everyday citizens, absurdity blurred to tragicomedy to outright tragedy and these good citizens deserve to stand for their hard choice outside the idle gaze and snap judgments of Internet gawkers. I wish I’d the chops of a Samuel Beckett in order to bring it to you distilled to its essence and yet unchewed, but my poor best will have to serve.

Old men, most wistful some still fierce, leaned heavily upon nostalgia for better days. Businessmen, desperate to stay in business even if only for another few years. Educators, burdened by damage done to youth through unrelieved rural poverty, with the field of opportunity gone barren. “We want our kids to stay here” played a common refrain.

At the last there rose an American mother, stoic but barely dry eyed while offering a song of Depression. She lamented that not only is the region depressed, we are depressed, with heads low and shoulders stooped, weighted down by cruel fate and crueler history, crueler because men make history and are crueler than fate. She sang that the Copperwood mine could serve as a new beginning, a wellspring of revitalization, a turning of our dark season to a brighter tomorrow for our children, our culture and community -- together in a great and magnificent land for generations to call home.

Copperwood is slated to last 14 years. Which means that by then, children conceived during this first flush season of desperate hope will be looking to their final years at A.D. Johnston High School and to the closure of the Copperwood mine, precisely when they’ll most need some hope of their first good job in order to remain in the region.

Everything else aside, that’s the thing about mining: whether copper or iron, they ain’t making any more. Once the resource is tapped, transformed into a marketable commodity and sold off to China to be repurchased by us in some other form, our resource is just gone. Then everything dependent upon it goes away and quickly too, a few short years of cash in hand being insufficient to pin an entire future on and there’s ample proof of that already, everywhere around Superior.

Overnight, winter came.

The forest is a wonder, flush with the first snow of the season. The chorus falls to a hush so low you can hear the snow fall. Superior is great enough that it makes its own weather and bands of lake effect snow flew across the Range, a little here a whole bunch there. As it happened, I headed off into the whole bunch.

It was work in a splendid place and isn’t that everything the good citizens of the region ask for, after all? Shooting made nettlesome by squalls, I started by spending as much time watching a shy flock of what I took for American Coots that’d taken refuge on a backwoods lake as I did actually working.

After a few hours it was prudent to head towards safer haven rather than farther away. Eight inches down and mine the only recent track on forest service roads wasn't simply an enticing gift, it was an invitation for the wilderness to demonstrate once again its indifference to every human concern.

Along the hilly ribbon of glorified two-lane that allows a corridor of wind to slice through the forest between Marenisco and Wakefield, I drove briefly in near whiteout. Only a few other working folk shared the road, because work is what we do and where it takes us we must go.

Meanwhile, hard rock was covered in soft white while the deer and Coots and red squirrels and even the millions of trees? Unburdened by human concern they murmured on, knowing that short of dying there’s nothing can be done but to remain resolute in the face of a long winter in the wilderness, with its sure hard times and roiled discontent.

That, and provided we mustn’t eat our own bodies to survive in the meantime, to take comfort that a season having once turned must inevitably turn back again.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Down to the Sea in Ships...

Some years ago when I was sitting on the beach at Whitefish Point just north of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, a couple of old men ambled past and stood close together on the sand, hard by the shore. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop but couldn’t help overhearing what passed between them, which was far more than mere words.

These men spent their lives as mariners on Superior. They spoke of the big lake as a woman, spoke of her with reverence, awe and regret. In old age these men still both loved and feared the lake. Even though the day was bright and calm, with the surface of Superior as placid and blue as ever it gets, their conversation turned mostly upon hard times spent trying to escape their love’s final embrace.

I recall those old men sometimes, when sitting beside Superior in her many moods. But I think of them always on November 10th, which was the date in 1975 when the Edmund Fitzgerald went down with all hands and so fast it was as if she'd vanished. Without even time enough to send a distress signal:

No one knows for certain why the Fitzgerald sank, though the question continues to be asked because that’s what we do -- we try to impose a sense of certainty upon an uncertain world. We do that so we might fool ourselves into believing that our constructs provide some final measure of control over a world utterly indifferent to human concern. That’s bald conceit. What’s true is that Lake Superior is big and men are small and sometimes we can’t survive its embrace no matter how mighty our lifeboat.

Superior serves as grave to untold thousands of human souls, from native peoples plucked out of canoes by Mishipeshu, to Voyageurs caught between safe harbors, from pleasure seekers run afoul of sudden weather to seasoned crews serving aboard the mightiest ships men can construct. So please take a moment out of your busy day to remember those souls lost and to consider, however briefly, that no matter the might of human industry, it’s never greater than a speck of dust in the eye of a storm…

“If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her…”

An image of Whitefish Bay taken at the mouth of the Tahquamenon River, retrieved from my now retired portfolio of 35mm film.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Notes From the Field

While considering taking this project public I checked out popular photography blogs, which are full of tips and tricks for capturing better images whether on film or file. And of course there’s a lot of gearhead talk, ‘cause without gear you can’t take a photograph at all.

I realised that nothing I’d do would fit the template. The time honored craft of capturing images on large format film isn’t relevant to most of you. Neither is the gear used to do it. I could tell you how to use my light meter and a stop watch to guesstimate proper exposure for transparency film under moonlight or other such arcana, but that’s knowledge you’ll likely never use. So we’ll treat these notes as waysides along the road, making only periodic stops…

Tip ‘o the day #1: when shooting from a canoe, make sure you’ve brought two anchors for boat control because the quality of your tripod isn’t worth a damn when what you set it on moves even a little:

The first leg of this odyssey encompassed 16 consecutive working days in the field and traversed nearly 3,000 miles, all but 600 or so on two-lane blacktop and too many of those at or near full dark. The longest day ran 18 hours, the shortest ten. I wanted to see autumn through from early color to past peak and did. If the mission was to chase perfect light, I sometimes chased too much or anticipated poorly and missed things I ought to have captured. That was partly due to the added distraction of the blog and the ease of shooting with the toy Canon for blog content, which together presented a challenging workflow. I pushed on through, learned on the fly from my mistakes and won’t make the same ones again.

That would be tip ‘o the day #2: when you’re in the field and a thing doesn’t work as planned, change the plan because the gig is to capture the image. Once I adapted my approach to accommodate the increased workload, things went better.

I exposed 30 sheets of 4x5 (nearly 1/10th my total supply) and 38 rolls of 120mm transparency. I took chances. Some worked and some didn’t, which is what happens when you take chances in the field but you always should, especially if you’re shooting digital as there’s no economic barrier to restrain you. Let it fly and sort it out later. Whether working in difficult light, with nettlesome subject matter or some combination of both, daring is essential to creative growth. Always press forward with your particular vision, even when that means returning home with fewer usable images rather than more.

Knowing that looking at the world exclusively through a lens tends to obscure why I’m looking, I took a handful of hours off during those sixteen days. Left all the gear back at the motel and went out to enjoy the world. Turned out the most exquisite light encountered during the entire time occurred precisely then. For instance, I captured this only with the toy Canon. Not only is that unacceptable, it’s downright painful:

So tip ‘o the day #3 is the old Boy Scout motto: Be prepared. And if you’re not, then be content to suffer the laughter of the photo gods. From here on I haul everything everywhere always, even when on break.

The elusiveness of perfect light notwithstanding, I got what I shot: a ratio of better than 2 to 1 with the large format, something less with the Mamiya because with that I was profligate. I met good folk, shared stories, enjoyed a surprise visit from an otter, through which conversation he spoke and I listened. And on day two I lucked my way onto special a site I’ve coveted for near to a quarter of a century, securing an invitation to return throughout the coming seasons to document the place in full over the next year. And of course, I got this blog business off to a proper start. All told a fine and proper beginning for an odyssey.

Our first autumn in the field having been well and truly spent, we’ll move forward together into November -- in some locations merely a grey, unwelcome harbinger of bitter times to come but up north the hard face of early winter and no foolin’.

Now the waters run cold, the forest lays bare secrets previously hidden and long shadows enhance the landscape, offering ever more opportunity to capture perfect light…