Monday, December 17, 2012

Notes From the Field...

Woodspur School, February 2012

Having now gone some 20 months without one, I'd like to say my absence from these parts during the next few weeks is me scoring a much needed vacation, but it won't be exactly that.

Yeah, I intend to take a day off here & there. But on a project like this there's much needs be done apart from making the blog, which in itself has proved quite the thing. For instance:

I scan 4x5 film on a Scitex scanner that in its day was commercial grade imaging gear. Now I fear for any possible repair of what's essentially obsolete equipment and have put off using it until I could scan the large format film in just a few sessions. That's why most of the 'Selected Fieldwork' is from 120mm. 

It's time for me to work on what I love best. Should the scanner crap out in the bargain, so be it.

While 30 years as a commercial photo tech has served me admirably in regards to managing workflow under deadline, with so much time spent on the road some things fell by the wayside. The 'Resource' list is woeful out of date. And I've a bibliography to compile. Literature on the Lake Superior Basin is rich and so diverse it runs the gamut between folk tales and unique geological science. I've tapped a lot of it, to make this blog. You should have access to that source material.

Apart from three pieces for the Penokee show, it's been more than a year since I've printed anything. Not any of the Images of the Month. Not any of the knee buckling stuff shot while sidetracked in Utah. Not rivers not lakes not fog shrouded mornings not abandoned building or manmade deserts, deserted barns, fallen leaves, not big sea shining water. Not a single print struck to date, of the best work of my life.

Not this, which will take a number of hours and the better part of my printmaking skill to print to within an inch of its life, but which afterwards promises to be positively luminous...

Ontonagon County, October 2012

And when I look to the list of subjects I've yet to cover here, it fairly bursts with items requiring research while planted at the computer, not in a car hurtling through dim hours along two-lane blacktop, chasing the promise of light. If I don't work ahead on the writing, deadlines fail.

So I'll be absent from here for a bit and'll try not to worry overmuch that a blog gone even temporarily fallow is a blog feared dead. Won't be the case. Trust me, I'm just gettin' a 2nd wind and will pop back up here on Thursday, January 10th.


One thing already accomplished is that all 15 Images of the Month are now available on a single page, thanks to my invaluable webmistress and creative consultant Tina Leto.

It's bad enough to view film images on a screen. It's worse to view them small. These aren't so small. By all means, please wander on over to the left hand sidebar, click the gateway image & have a look. Window shopping's encouraged.

Speaking of shopping, here're a trio of things you can still get delivered in time to fill out your stocking, hung by the chimney with care...

During 26,000 miles on the road and uncounted nights spent in motel rooms or out under the stars, I was happily accompanied by a great variety of music. These three selections are by substantive artists all and for different reasons, each sustained me throughout. I've hotlinked, for your purchasing convenience:

Driving through mining country or to and from old mine sites, I relied heavily on Kathy Mattea's superb album, "Coal". Sure, I'd have preferred something more specific to the region, but no comparable songbook for copper and iron mining exists. And the almost mythical narrative of our labors to extract coal from the ground for to build America closely parallels that of copper and iron mining from the Superior Basin, as is demonstrated here:

Spending so much time in Ceded Territory and considering the history of the region, Neil Young's work on the Jim Jarmusch film 'Dead Man' got heavy airplay while on the road. If you know and love this film as I do, you can probably guess which notable phrase from it kept popping back to mind, as we explored the complex legacy of the still nettlesome relationship between white folk and their Native neighbors.

The score from 'Dead Man' contains some of Young's most incendiary work, especially as captured through this extended solo:

Finally, all too often I rolled back into some motel room already well into the night, knowing that there'd be a wakeup in full dark just a few hours hence. It was essential that I fall asleep quickly and sleep well once I did. Many nights, I'd douse the lights to Arvo Pärt's magnificent Kanon Pokajanen. Most of those nights I never made it past 'Ode 1', when the exquisite, almost painfully beautiful call & response laid me softly down and the remainder of the first disc played on to inform my dreams:


Here's where I ought wish you all the 'best of the season'.

But I don't believe for a moment, not even a little, that any wish for "peace on earth, goodwill towards men" can be consigned to a specific season and that the somewhat more gracious approach to each other hoped for during this time of year should ever be accepted as being in any way exceptional.

Compassion isn't a gift to be given, received or withheld. It can't be bought or sold. It's not parceled out according to merit.

Compassion is instead the breath of life well lived.

As I consider all that we've learned over the last months, this season of supposed grace and the events of the last few days, I wish for you what I tell all fellow travelers met along the road of discovery:

Travel safe.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Annala Round Barn

Sometimes, you just have to get lucky.

Maybe 30 years ago, I went with my friend Will to visit the Annala Barn in Iron County WI. Took a quick tour and that was that.

Wanting to properly work the place, as the years passed I'd regularly drive down that way hoping to find someone home so I might secure the permission necessary to do real work. Each time, the place stood empty behind a locked gate. 

Eventually, the property fell into disrepair. I heard rumors of vandalism and feared that the barn would fall to ruin or be burnt before ever I got to work it. That's happened before.

When this project began, the Annala Round Barn stood second on my list of unique architectural sites I'd determined to finally capture. Last chance, and all.

During the fieldwork of October 2011, I again took the drive into Iron County. This time the gate was open, with a car parked in front of the house.

Turns out the owner was just getting ready to leave. He greeted me warmly and after I explained what I wanted he gave me a tour of the place, including the sumptuous restoration he and his wife are doing on the interior of the house.

Then he kindly gave me carte' blanch to work the site during the course of my project, through the passing of the seasons and in the best light I could manage.

Timing is everything.

From a 4x5 Transparency

Early last spring while shooting the breeze with folk at the Berry Patch in Copper Harbor, I mentioned that my Uncle John had once owned a farm on the Gogebic Range. When asked what kind of farmer John was, I reached for the Yooper's stock answer and six voices replied in unison with mine: "A rock farmer!"

In 1902, the Annalas were among the first five families to settle the rural reaches beyond bustling Hurley WI. Matthew Annala was a Finnish carpenter and stone mason by trade, a farmer and (eventually) father to 12 children, insert joke about long northern winters here.

Back then, round barns were promoted as the most efficient means of working a dairy herd, with feed being stored in the middle of the space and cows spread out around it rather than in rows.

Matthew Annala considered this, looked out upon his field of glacial rock, decided to become a dairy farmer and in 1917 put his better skills to work. It took five years of labor to construct the Annala Barn.

Round barns never caught on, in part because they proved difficult to expand to accommodate growing herds. Few remain in America, with round barns made of stone being exceptionally rare. I know of only one other in the nation.

In 1979, Matthew Annala's barn earned a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Here're a few paragraphs culled from that successful petition:

"The Annala Round Barn and significant for its design, its excellence in craftsmanship, and its associations with the area's early Finnish settlement and with private dairy farming in Iron County.

Like most of the Finnish immigrants who came to northern Wisconsin between 1890 and 1910, Annala settled there with the goal of farming the cutover stump left from logging days... Early on he discovered that the cutover lands were unsuitable for agriculture since the growing season was too short, the soil was thick with red clay and the fields were littered with glacial boulders. Thus, Annala, like others, switched his attentions to dairy farming.

Annala had taken a farm tour with Gogebic County Michigan farmers to explore alternative farming techniques...Whatever his influences, Annala was fearful of the destructive power of tornados...With the assistance of his neighbors and a few of his sons, he constructed the 24-inch thick stone walls, while using little mortar but relying instead on the mason's skill in fitting the multi-colored rubble together. This process allowed the walls to be raised in a free-standing manner, as the stones were carefully selected for tight binding. The stonework was excellently fitted to resist water, wind and weather and allows a full appreciation of the various colors, shapes and textures of the stone."

The Annalas delivered milk to the region at least through WWII. His barn continued as a dairy barn until 1973, when the property was first sold.


I'm grateful to the property's current owners, not merely for the favor of access but because they realize the importance of what they own and are taking the necessary steps to preserve it.

So the sturdy round barn built long ago of fieldstone by a Finnish craftsman, his neighbors and sons might well stand for another century as testament to hard work, ingenuity & craftsmanship.

And to the willingness of rock farmers everywhere, determined all the same to overcome natural obstacles laid down by nature.

In this case, that'd include tornados too...

From 4x5 transparency

From 4x5 transparency

These images of the interior are all digital capture from the Toy Canon, as I've not yet scanned the film...

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Paddling the River of Memory

A few years ago, I returned alone to that stretch of river where Heather & I long ago shared our greatest youthful adventure. This essay is what I came back with. Call it a coda, written 30 years after the music ended.

Should you like, you can read about the original adventure here & here.

No warranty given or implied that it'll help you any with this...

Presque Isle

Autumn is full upon the ground.

Burnished bronze through brilliant gold are fallen. The world breathes ragged at the edges, cut by the wind. Season and spirit are unbound. Resonance withers and what remains stinks of nostalgia.

Repelled by the scent of decay, whisperers in the woods are silent; entreaties saved for ears more fresh with inclination to listen. Water over rock murmurs in muted voice. With winter just beyond a fast dimming horizon, effort lent song now would prove ill spent later, when darkness runs long and flow goes cold. Only the wind boasts full voice, chilled even from the west and never silent. It roars, subsides, draws deep and rising fresh throws a thin veil of grey over an otherwise radiant afternoon.

The sun dims in acknowledgement. Long shadows mark the land, no matter midday.

Buzzards ride updrafts, alert to failed spirit. They crane on the fly and peer straight through thinned forest, down to the moist maze of color at its floor. There nothing stirs save yellow death upon the breeze. Great black birds with dried blood heads peel off on a gust, soar sideways to the south and are off to richer fields. In a moment, they're not even specks against the sky.

That's not easy to do, when one hasn't wings.

Once, we knew how to fly. Or thought so anyway and the two are not so far apart as to make for critical distance.

We drew full the nuances of autumn and soared upon its spirit. Owners of time, we pleased to call Death arbitrary. Then the future was whole with the past, Janus-faced and vibrant. Awareness made us weightless and at liberty to soar. Should a salamander live in a fire pit, the great owl stand guard at the gate and otters disdain foolishness with gruff rebuke, we knew the way those signs pointed. Or told ourselves we did, which is all the same.

And in a moment, we weren't even specks against the sky.

History outweighs promise. The ground is nearer than ever. Maybe time demands that, prerequisite to intimate relation with the Earth. Flight is made the province of dreams -- lest memory invite that acid of old age and slayer of spirit no matter the age, regret.

Autumn is full upon the river.

Slow black water assumes a semblance of day as a mask for a heart run cold. Wind abated, reflection is a real as real can be, but with heaven overturned. Only the faintest ripple betrays a canoe sliding across a liquid sky. Clouds part before the bow, pass on in silent moment then with a visible shiver reform behind. Shining blue pierces dark current. Little fish seek precious warmth in shafts of light, unmindful of exposure. Now and then, slender green tendrils dance in bunches through the sky, waving with revealed rhythm.

At its center, the world meets upon itself. Distinctions of perspective are healed. Stones hover, weightless. Grasses weave in every direction. Forest rises from forest, reaching clouds above and below. The wind points nowhere and everywhere, no compass need apply.

A great heron rises from the river and takes a wide, slow arc across two skies before coming to rest again downstream. Somewhere unseen, but near to where recall resides.

Memory is writ so large that sometimes actuality disdains to contain it. A remembered torrent is a trickle, distance becomes squeezed and youthful courage long tamped down by the weight of perspective turns tremulous.

It's not that memory lies. In its time the moment was true and so remains. There the dead thing was, life reduced to muck and ooze. And here is the spot where determination forced decision and two spirits joined forever in lifelong pursuit, mostly up to the task. The woods were thick, the trail obscure and blazed with fortitude as darkness fell. Thus is narrative created.

Memory is a stain indissoluble. And if the size of it doesn't fit the present, it's only that history has grown so large as to make the past seem small.

The day turns late. It's no trouble to move upstream. Only occasionally does facing current urge to the side and course correction is easily achieved with a bit of will accompanied by a gentle push. A pair of tiny ducks lead the way. Their delicate, duplicate forms effortlessly maintain safe distance.

An otter appears. Its smooth fur throws river on the rise.

The injury of time fades. If scolded for daring, convergence would be complete, old acquaintance made fresh, the past resurrected. Instead, the otter is playful and curious. Repeatedly it dips behind the clouds then reappears to make inquiry with a melodic string of delicate chirps and whirs. A slipstream in the sky marks its underwater path.

Then the otter is gone. As happened long ago, in a heartbeat unnoticed, an invitation is withdrawn. Some secret briefly there for the asking is withheld.

Now history augments flight and seasons come undone.

The worlds of otters and of men intersect and memory is rendered irrelevant. The present is a promise that can be forsaken but not broken. Knowledge is no better excuse to deny what's true than is ignorance.

Autumn is full upon me.

The trip upriver is leisurely. Air and water are one. Earth and the heavens are indivisible and firelight streams through all.

Season and place are reflected whole in the richness of moment. All around, schools of tiny fish leap, fall back and leap again like black specks turning together across high sky. A few lingering golden leaves sway brittle in a freshening breeze. The river runs as deep as heaven is high. Winter is at the horizon, with night just beyond.

Steady against the current and with memory tucked safely again into its bed of dreams, flying proves instinctive.

And from this vantage, one can see that the Evening Star will find its proper place upon the river so to be cast by it back to the sky, as once was a midday sun.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Show & Tell -- October/November

Here's a selection of images captured on 120mm film during the final two months of fieldwork. We spent half that time in and around the Porcupine Mountains as Artist in Residence, with a side trip up to the Keweenaw. The rest was on my home turf, on or near the Gogebic Range.

Once again, we've seen autumn change to winter.

I've set this collection to a few minutes culled from near the end of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony #11. When Johnny, Heather & I spent our autumns at Bobcat Lake, this music often floated up from camp then over the water before trailing off into the far woods beyond.

The Symphony is played here by the Houston Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of the inimitable Leopold Stokowski

It might seem hard to believe now, but in his prime Stokowski was a controversial cultural superstar of rare standing -- women swooned, men wanted to be him and the culture at large fiercely debated his relative merits, both personal & professional.

He outlived most of his critics.

This is the most evocative rendition of the 11th I've yet heard and it's absolutely appropriate that we close out the fieldwork with it...