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 That's part of the reason the header and other aspects of this blog remain so woeful out of date.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: