Thursday, January 26, 2012

Northwoods Follies -- Johnny

Years ago, I enjoyed the company of a friend named John. A smart, energetic fellow and sympathetic to my character at the time, which sympathy I suppose is the basis for most friendships, lasting or not.

Johnny’s grandparents lived in a splendid vintage home on the shore of a fair-sized lake over in Wisconsin. It was too near the big fiberglass fish and the tourists of fabled Hayward

Heather, about to be eaten by a giant Musky

…but was a nice spit of wooded land all the same. Once while walking the beach we spotted a bear track big as a pie plate in the sand and cast glances over our shoulders the rest of the day.

For some years running, Johnny, Heather and I tempted the wilderness together. Mostly in late season when the air is cool, the light sublime, weather persistently variable and the whole world knows exactly what time of year it is. That is, time to prepare for a cruel, dark season or suffer the consequence.

It’s said there’s strength in numbers. That isn’t always true, though it’s sure nice to think so when deep in the autumn woods at two in the morning and a serious case of heebie jeebies suddenly arrives. But numbers also sometimes breed false confidence, which often leads to foolishness. And that then leads to everywhere from serious fun to serious injury and/or death, depending on the quality of foolishness.


I don’t remember John’s gear but he was proud of it and I’m sure it was fine because that’s the kind of guy he was. After a couple years of rather steep learning curve, Heather and I’d purchased a new North Face geodesic dome (1978), a tent that at the time cost more than my car. Being a big guy, I’d lusted after the sort of thing you could sit in behind a desk to review the Union troops, but Heather thought the pair of drawstring openings in the back of the dome would make for ideal escape hatches in the event a bear politely entered through the front, so we left the tent store with a revolution in gear nestled in my arms and have never regretted it, regardless of bears.

That tent led directly to foolishness like the week it never got above 45 degrees and rained for five straight days. Sheets of rain, mostly. We dug a trench in front of the fire pit to divert the running water. Spent the week huddled together beneath a makeshift tarp, clutching coffee cups in trembling hands, peering to the angry, sodden sky to offer feeble prayers like “It seems to be letting up a bit”.

Then on the six day it snowed. Four inches.

Back in the city, when family and co-workers asked after our vacation and we told the tale, their response fell squarely along the lines of “What kind of vacation is that?!?”

We just thumped our chests, low grade foolishness well survived and proud of it.


We were young. City life was brutish and cruel to our youthful sensibilities. The Great Spirit of the Northwoods intrigued us. It ain’t Disneyland up there, that’s sure.

So we constantly prodded the wilderness of Superior to respond to our interest and whether or not it ever did, we generally got what we asked for and sometimes a good bit more.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Show & Tell -- November/December

Select images from when autumn turned to winter. The first snow fell to the woods, we were there and it went like this.

When next autumn turns to winter, it’ll be time to head for the comforts of home. A long time, with much to see and do, between now and then.

Vivaldi, off 40 year old vinyl. Beautifully played by the Academy of St. Martin-In-The-Field:

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Show & Tell -- September/October

Mostly, it’ll be show.

The central dilemma faced by photographers of my generation revolves around the revolution of digital capture, reproduction and dissemination. Those sound like three different things but are instead a slender string of craft applied that ends in the achievement of creative purpose; whether that purpose is purely documentary, to reinvent reality or whatever. And with revolution the whole thing’s been made different, in a flash.

Not long ago this Search for Perfect Light would necessarily have taken place in private. Then I’d have completed the year of gathering, collated the material, reproduced the best of it, tied it all together in the finest presentation I could manage and tried to publish. With revolution the whole thing’s been made different and here I am walking a creative tightrope, sorta live.

And of course, not long ago I’d have enjoyed a steady supply of large format film to burn through at my leisure, instead of the last in the world to work through with pride, which is why we’re here.

Fine reproduction is the noblest end for any image, hung upon a well lit wall and appreciated from appropriate viewing distance. That's especially so for any image that wasn’t conceived of pixels to begin with because so much is lost in the translation of film for digital delivery.

The chasm between what my field work on film actually looks like and how it appears onscreen is aesthetically irresolvable. But because I’m asking you to follow along, I’ve a responsibility to deliver at least some of it all the same.

So this is what I’ve come up with.

Later there’ll likely be somewhat higher quality versions of these clips available for viewing through my website, but for now here’s short selection scanned from both 4x5 and 120mm chromes, culled from the hundreds generated to date and set to a traditional American song in an exquisite arrangement by the great Ry Cooder:

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Animal Stories -- A Bird in the Hand

A memory plucked from a fast receding autumn, told today lest it fade beneath the complex accumulation of seasons spent in the field, with all their attendant marvels large and small…

I’m alone at Au Sable Light -- just west of the mighty Grand Sable Dunes, a couple of miles in from the nearest road and with some hundreds of miles of open water before me, stretching to Superior’s northern shore.  A bluebird morning in a splendidly remote place, it’s unseasonably warm beneath a high sky.

To reach the lighthouse I pass the site of three wrecks on the beach. Depending on the vagaries of wind, waves and sand, these are the visible evidence of the Graveyard of the Great Lakes, so named due to a treacherous reef off Au Sable Point.  This year, the Sitka is buried while Gale Staples and Mary Jarecki are at least partly exposed.  I’ve gone in just after sunrise in pursuit of long light and some hours into the work am thoroughly distracted by the geometries of light and shadow.

A bird’s eye view of Au Sable Light

Lakeside off to my left flies what peripheral vision takes for a locust.  I’m concentrating on my set up, left arm partly extended, hand outstretched.  The ‘locust’ comes to light on my index finger with the taut, slender grip typical of large insects.

I look down to find a tiny puff ball of a bird clutched tight to my finger. A heartbeat passes, then two. I stare at her and she looks squarely up at me. Then she’s off to the safety and comfort of the forest. I watch until she disappears, a fleeting speck lost to the autumn woods.

After later consulting my Sibley’s bird guide, I figure her for a female Common Yellow-Throated Wood Warbler. Tough to say for certain, as in that too brief moment I saw mostly only the gaze of her dark, liquid eyes and that’s what I’ll always remember.

Considering the season it’s at least possible she’d ridden favorable winds the entire width of Superior, was desperate for safe refuge and once hard to the shore fell in near exhaustion to my outstretched hand.

Or maybe with approaching dotage I’ve come to best resemble a gnarled old tree.

It doesn’t matter precisely what species, how, from where or why. That little bird was a fellow traveler in the wilderness and especially in time of need, those must always be made welcome…