Friday, March 7, 2014

The Porcupine Mountains, Part 4 -- Fresh Content

Resident Artifacts

I've spent the greater portion of my photographic career in pursuit of what's left behind by those who've come before.

I do that primarily because what's hidden by the obscurity of a wild landscape always surprises & interests me. A sense of discovery coupled with mystery is often especially keen.

For instance, someone once casually mentioned an abandoned railroad grade cut through the woods, on which Heather and I then proceeded to take our old Subaru out for a drive. The grade was narrow and steep and once on it, the only way out was to keep right on going, no matter how or where it ended. Had we come to a collapsed bridge over a river, that car might still be in the woods and decades from now someone could be amazed by it, much like I was once amazed by this...

On our drive along the middle of nowhere, we came across a once fine white house standing hard by the old grade. Long unlived in and with the forest fast encroaching, it was easy to imagine that when the trains still ran, that house possessed a clear purpose since obscured by disuse. By the time we found it, the place was the province only of ghosts and they sang for us that day.

Eventually, we returned to blacktop without having to walk out.

Over the years, I've fallen in love with the geometry of wreckage, which I believe makes for powerful, resonant imagery. It used to be there were only a relative few of us working that rough-edged territory. Recently, digital shooters everywhere have  taken up the cause. These days, Detroit draws photographers from all over the world.

Some folk call that "ruin porn" and sometimes, that's exactly what it is.

The definition turns largely on creative purpose. Some photographers have a ready sense of exactly what they're up to and why. Many don't. Mostly, you can see the difference between the two in their images.

At any rate, if the work is to have lasting value you'd best first come to grips with the fact that you're picking over the remnants of people's lives and livelihoods and learn to treat that with respect.

My stay in splendid isolation at Dan's Cabin was a deeply personal experience. While there, I found things to share with you and earned things to keep just for me. That spoke directly to my purpose at the time, which was both professional and private, depending on the moment.

In the cabin there's a journal kept by the artists in residence, for the residents that follow. It's a great read and often strictly personal. I did my part and poured myself into it. I'd not intended to share any of that with you.

But the farther removed I am from the immediate experience, the greater the resonance of it grows in me and the longer we're on this trip together, the more I think it appropriate to share pieces of what I'd thought I wouldn't.

So here're some edited excerpts from the better than 5,000 words I committed to that journal mostly by lamplight, and a few other things scavenged from my residency besides...

From the Journal

Day Five

It's occurred to me that while there'll surely be other writers/photographers to stay in this splendid cabin after me, it's possible -- perhaps even likely -- that I'll be the last to capture this place on film.

I went up to Lake of the Clouds before dawn yesterday morning on the hope that the coming storm would bleed the sky red. It didn't. So I never took the cameras from the bag 'cause the harsh light just plain sucked.

But that didn't stop the cadre of digital shooters, lined up shoulder to shoulder. Shutters clicked away like a swarm of angry beetles. Bad light? Fix it later.

And I wondered if any of these shooters know that it's on them to create a new aesthetic for their new medium, as the once rigorous craft of capturing light to inform content -- intended to capture the authenticity of a given moment in time -- is fast passing from the world.

What'll replace that aesthetic I can't guess and I'd guess that neither can those digital shooters busily collecting pixels up on the escarpment, to be altered later in Photoshop and turned into what they wanted to see, not what they actually saw.

But you'd like to think the thought's at least crossed their minds...

Day 9

It rained overnight & again late this morning. Hadn't planned to, but as I again awoke a couple hours before sunrise I headed up to Lake of the Clouds in hopes that the valley would be filled with mist. It wasn't.

Had the place near to myself though. The last week's been tough on autumn color as gale force winds knocked it to the ground and the forest floor is littered with brittle golden death. Man, just let the season slide past peak and all the amateurs skitter away. Truth is, the fun's just starting.

The rain came again, more persistently. S'okay. I needed to do laundry anyway so went into Ontonagon and treated myself to a proper sit down lunch while the clothes dried.

Even though the thermometer says it's a bit warmer today than yesterday, the moisture's lent a bite to the air & after lunch I repaired to the cabin intending to hunker down.

That didn't last.

Quite unexpectedly, the rain stopped the wind died and the clouds thinned just enough so that the light became perfect. I hurried down to where the Little Union joins its big sister & for about an hour or so proceeded to do what should be among the most sublime landscape work of the trip to date.

And isn't that the advantage of residency? When the moment came, I was here. Not somewheres else, not on the road, not holed up in a motel 'cause of the rain.

Then the magic hour passed & I returned to the cabin to reshoot the fungi I'd worked the other day. As an old Indian friend used to say: "Everything's better when wet".

A very good day...

Day 12

So at night I've been practicing my Barred Owl call, which used to be fairly good. Apparently not anymore, as I've drawn no owl response. However, every time I do it some tiny critter in the woods near the cabin goes apoplectic.

"Alarm! Alarm!" it chirps.

I don't recognise the voice. Maybe it's a Red Squirrel, a little bird or even a mouse with operatic lungs, I dunno. But making so much noise when you think an owl is near doesn't seem like sound survival strategy to me. Having had no luck with the owls, I'll desist, as all I seem to be doing is disturbing some poor neighbor's sleep...

A couple of days ago I learned through the Ironwood Daily Globe that I'd be doing a reading as part of my presentation. I'd forgotten I'd promised one of those. That being the case, I figured I'd better write something to read. Which is how I spent Day 10 -- sitting at the table writing.

Note: you can read what I wrote sitting at that table during Day 10 by going here. Scroll down to "A Landscape of Perspective".

This image was taken by a dear friend who visited with me on the day of my presentation. I figured it too precious by half to ever show. But what the hell...

Day 13

Last Full Day.

O.K. then.

Woke slow, purposefully. It was raining, a bit.

Eventually went down to the Folk School to get a copy of the book 'Dan's Cabin' by Karen Berg. Stayed for a while to chat. Awfully nice folk, these are. And smart like nobody's business, too.

Rain stopped, no wind. Heavy overcast. Walked the Union Spring Trail 'cause Bob Wild said there're a couple old cars at what once was a lumber camp & there are, but only pieces. Sure am glad I didn't haul my gear in. Only the second time in two weeks I went walking with just the Toy Canon in tow.

Shot my way back from Ontonagon -- creek mouths & the blue house about midway between here & there. Intended to make an early day of it but as I approached the Park that changed.

One of the things I love about the Bessemer Bluffs of the Gogebic Range is that occasionally the sky drops down so low that the tops of the hills are shrouded with clouds. So it was this evening at Lake of the Clouds. I ran up there one last time & hot damn, it finally paid off. Mist rolled over the cliffs and through the valley. I've waited 30 years to catch that with pro gear. I was the only shooter there.

Made it back to the cabin at dusk. The woods soft & still. Struck a fire in the ring & devoured a piece of seared cow flesh.

Tomorrow I'll work my way down the South Boundary Road & depending, maybe even stop @ the Presque Isle to see if there're any more Steelhead with my name on them.

I think it likely that I've done some of the best work of my life, these past two weeks. It's what I needed to do, 'cause who wants to bring a decades' long creative craft to a close by moping & putzing around?

One more night & a wakeup & I'm out of here. I've no desire to leave save for that I must & the cabin isn't mine, though from here on some bit of my spirit will help inform this place too.

Note: There's frequent mention in the Journal of a nighttime skittering across the Cabin's roof.

Likewise, I've heard the visitor in the roof. Neither do I know what it is. But unlike some, I don't care. I figure as long as this fine place isn't being damaged the critters are welcome, whoever they are.

To you digital imagers who follow -- remember, it's on you to establish a new aesthetic for your new medium. Sure, you can keep trying to do what photographers like me have done for more than 100 years, but the authenticity of light is today rendered irrelevant and there's no good reason for you to pursue it further by working backwards into the past.

Consider instead what filmmaker and documentarian Werner Herzog calls "Ecstatic Truth".

Pursue that with your wondrous new tools and you've the chance to achieve something great...

It's at or about the new moon & still heavily overcast. Not a hint of breeze. Through much of my stay I heard each individual leaf fall through the night air to strike an invisible earth. Now most are fallen and none fall tonight. Only the creek murmurs, refreshed by eight days or so of generally light but persistently periodic rain. The Little Union finally sounds happy.

All is dark, silent & still. A right & proper night, to call it a career.

My chapter of this profoundly inspiring narrative is drawn to a close.

Your turn.

Live it large.


Finally, the same dear friend who took that picture of me also captured a few bits of video during my presentation at the Visitor's Center. I viewed it once immediately after the fact, then not again until I started gathering the material for this post.

Despite the relative roughness of the video, regardless of the fact that 14 months of road food made me resemble a backwoods Santa and even considering my positively relentless use of the word "alright" as some sorta verbal bridge, I've decided to share some of it with you.

My presentation lasted better than an hour. It began with my reading of A Landscape of Perspective, followed by a slide presentation similar to this.

Then I winged it. I'd not known I could talk so long off the cuff at such a stretch, though that'd probably not surprise some of my friends.

As it happened, the question & answer period turned on local issues and proved so lively that we ran overtime. You won't see that here, though later this month I'll repost the essay that came from it, as that continues to have lasting resonance not only to the region but for the nation at large, as we assess what hard times have wrought & why with a mind to moving forward and making this country better for all who love it.

In the meantime, here're a couple artifacts of me...

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