Monday, October 3, 2011

Beddis Beach. Action photography of the child kind.

One August day the family, us grandparents, our daughters and grandchildren, all drive down the road, over the hills and down to the ocean at Beddis Beach. On this rocky island, bathing beaches suitable for children are not that common. We park and walk down the leafy trail to the shore. A sunny day, the tide about half way up, several families sitting on beach logs or splashing warily in the shallows. Calm, except for the steady roll of waves from the passing stream of yachts out in Ganges Harbour. The little children run to the water and pause. Those waves! That four inch surf! With a shriek they rush in and with a shriek they run out again! That water is cold!

I have my camera of course, pictures of grandchildren are always in demand within the family ( and mostly not elsewhere), and I can see that this wild rushing in and out, the unselfconscious attitudes of these little bodies, has some interesting possibilities. I hate photos of children taken from adult eye level, small, big headed and down there, so I choose a reasonably wide angle to be sure I can capture a big enough slice of the scene and hand hold the camera at beach level. I will miss lots this way but with digital I can also take lots. Somewhere, sometime, if I keep clicking I might just catch something worth keeping.

This kind of photography requires a different approach from the carefully composed and organized shots of much landscape photography. It is all happening in the spit second, full of movement and changing expressions. Horizons angle wildly and add a sense of action. By the time I see a great shot it will be past so I set out to harvest images within a field of view relying on the beginning of an action sequence to prompt me to start shooting. I miss a lot and I catch a lot this way, but this approach feels appropriate to the subject, to the moment. Shriek!

Walking on the bottom of the sea

The sun is just cresting the dark bulk of Reginald Hill, the morning air carries the first chill of Autumn and at the head of Fulford Harbour the tide is far, far out. A sandy flat seems to stretch almost to the horizon. It is a vivid seaweedy green in the first rays of light. I stop the car and take my camera for a walk on the bottom of the sea.

Luckily I am in my rubber boots, the flats are streaming with water and masses of squishy weed (except, I notice that one boot is leaking and soaking my sock) , but now I am here it is difficult to make interesting images. A large, wet, green plain with a distant rim of water, hills and glaring sun. Somehow, I must capture the reality of the sea bottom in an interesting way. A photograph is not just a record of something else but a new creation with its own inner relationships. Just ahead I see three rocks and gratefully position them in the foreground of my composition. Now at last there is something happening, a triangular pattern organizes the picture and everything now is related to it. I grasp the vastness of the beach-scape in relation to these rocks.

The sun is dimmed by cloud for a few moments and the bright green and the glare disappear. The sand, the blankets of weed, are dark forms enclosing pools of cool light from the sky. This change in light is dramatic and makes a whole new series of photographs possible. I also begin to vary the angle of my photos, looking down on details at my feet or placing the camera at sand level. Suddenly, back comes the sun to reflect brightly in the pools. Down at the level of the sea bottom I see the detail, the rivulets, the roils of weed.

Still, I can only make so much of this and search for some new element. Way off down the beach a big waterlogged fir tree is semi sunk in the sand, its trunk and branches encased in mussels and flying streamers of weed. I walk that way, snapping as I go, because one never really knows what will turn out to be useful later. At my new subject I take several angles, settings and ‘zooms’ and finally I place the camera behind a seaweed-draped branch and shoot from within the cast shadow. No glare, but black arm and backlit weed.

Right down at the water`s edge it is obvious that while the beach water is still streaming to the sea, the ocean itself is quickly moving back inland. This is a place of shifting boundaries and amorphous reflections. In the half hour I have been on the beach the light has changed several times. Once again I need a form to anchor my image and just out there is a black piling left over from some log booming from years ago. I wade into the shallows to get a better angle (my foot cannot get any wetter), squat carefully so the seagull and top of the piling will jut above the hill beyond and click away. A few boat waves rustle the sea`s calm surface.

I walk back along the steeper upper beach to the rattle of pebbles under my feet, the occasional down-spiral of maple leaves and dark shadows under overhanging branches. I begin to look away from the sun toward the brightly lit shore; branches, sun-bleached logs, big rocks, brightly coloured leaves. There is plenty of structure here, it is now a matter of selection, of isolating a few powerful shapes, colours and textures. The very opposite design problem from the flat beach behind me which is now rapidly filling with the sea once more.

Back at my car I pause to look back over the bay. In an hour I have taken many photos, mostly in difficult lighting conditions. I have explored a beach and found ways to tell its story in images. When I started, I simply walked down to the briefly exposed bottom of the sea and started interacting with this place with no clear agenda or idea of how to photograph it. An adventure! What I found there was partly the beach at low tide, partly the rising sun and time of year but also what I myself brought to it in terms of my picture making experience and preferences. That was actually hard work of the creative kind: camera settings, lens choices, shooting angles, the ability to visualize what this particular shot would look like in picture form. A challenge ready for me to take up. The satisfaction of working with a camera to picture something so transient, so dazzled in light on this early Fall morning.


Note. Many who live on the island have seen the big petroglyph boulder between the cedars at Drummond Park, a reminder that there were people here for thousands of years before us recent immigrants arrived. There is a story that once that broad shallow beach, where the big boulder originally sat, was dry land until the great waves of a storm or tsunami claimed it back for the sea. Perhaps there was at one time a gravel bar, a lagoon and a village here that was swept away. It may even be a long ago memory from a time of rising sea levels. To walk far out into that weedy world is to step into prehistory a little. In the glaring light, the falling leaves, the moving tide, is an ancient world speaking to us.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The raft people #5 They reach the sea at last.

When I started this model adventure series it was a chance to try out my new mini camera,( a Samsung T 70. ) I had become hooked on the possibilities of model photography earlier with a series I had done with a paper model canoe and its two paddlers and thought that a raft and modeling clay characters sailing on my pond would be fun to try. By combining a real photo of an imaginary scene with some photoshopping touch-ups I had developed a photo technique for storytelling in picture form.( Hang on, isn`t that movies?)

The raft people sailed on the pond ( a large lake to them) and then lived through an icy winter, - even ice sailing through a blizzard. With Spring, they dismantled their raft and built two narrow ones for following the stream to the sea. We met them last, portaging around a waterfall.

The scene opens with the raft reassembled and sailing along a long sandy shoreline. They sight a sailing ship that dwarfs their own raft ( the ‘Monshulu’, see Eric Newby`s ‘The last Grain Race’) and sail hard to catch up. They surge alongside and find the ship is in difficulties, trapped in shoaling waters. Before they know it the ship is broadside in the surf and the raft, which draws little water, can be of assistance even though waves are sweeping their decks. The dinghy is launched to carry a line to the Monshulu, but, alas, it fills with water and the paddler is lost ( raft people do not float).

An anchor is eventually carried out to deeper water, the ship is warped off and saved, but the three raft survivors have some difficult decisions to make. To carry on along this unfamiliar coastline with only three crewmembers or ship their raft as deck cargo on a voyage across the ocean. Will they struggle on or will they eventually sell the raft in Japan as raw logs?

Monday, August 15, 2011

The tangles. Westcoast Thoughts.

 While I have been making relatively bare and simple images in the past few months, - simplifying for strength and clarity -, I am also making complex images where the ‘point’ is clothed in layers of vegetation that are difficult to get past and really see what is going on. Mt. Maxwell is glimpsed through tangles, the little waves breaking on the beach are seen through branches, and the houseboat in the bay is sandwiched between tree trunks.

This is the reality of living on the raincoast that I am imaging here. We live at the foot of great trees and mountains and peer out at the world through the filters of our environment. It affects how we think; it is not easy to see the forms of our lives, the dominant pattern, through the crisscross of daily events and conflicting obligations.

So, these dense images that I make are important for me, are my reflection, but through my fascination for these interwoven lines and textures there is a crisscrossed web way of thinking developing for me as well. My world, my way of seeing it in its complexity of lines and shades of meaning.

Monday, July 25, 2011

At Batoche.

Saskatchewan #6

I wrote this piece as an accompaniment for the photos, to illustrate how in this kind of photography it is not the spectacular image that is important so much as the one that gets closest to a truth; about a people, a place, a history, and the present day reality that has grown out of that past.

The Answer is Blowing in the Wind.

Why should we be concerned about the proportion of our European or Indian blood? Since we have some of each, gratitude and filial love command us to say: “We are Metis!” Louis Riel

Driving north of Saskatoon to a point on the prairie overlooking the South Saskatchewan River we came to the National Historic site of Batoche, the site of the final battle that broke the North-West Rebellion. A new interpretive center with the first of a series of dioramas, the old original church and residence that were built just a year before the defeat of the Metis in 1885 ( still showing the holes of musket balls), who were lead by Gabriel Dumont and Louis Riel. A graveyard full of historic family names and the mass grave of those Metis killed in the four day battle. A separate graveyard for the British soldiers. Depending on your viewpoint, a rebellion or a resistance. How to photograph this? How to understand it?

My daughter held up a card, “ There is a photographic contest, Dad, for several historic sites in Saskatchewan. Do you want to have a go?” We proceed in loose order across the field, toward the church, cameras at the ready, looking intently for the best targets. I crouch behind a wooden wheel and shoot from between the spokes. Closer in, I angle a shot up the spire and then fire from behind a tree (several shots just to be sure). I then edge my way along the picket fence to the church door. And in the entrance I pause for what I will realize later is the most important shot of the day.

Above the door is a painted circle, the only sign, apart from the dioramas back at the interpretive center and a Louis Riel quote on a notice board, of the native Indian half of the Metis` heritage. This round ‘tipi door’, painted on this white frame structure, gives me a sudden insight into the unique reality of the lives of these people of the Prairie from not so long ago, who refused to be put down by the Canadian Government without a struggle. Who so valued their way of life that they would resist a government that the peoples of the Saskatchewan knew had been imposed upon them and was irresponsible in its care of them. They fought well here at Batoche for four days and were finally beaten by a trained army. The reverberations of their resistance are still blowing through the separate graveyards on the prairie wind.

Note. Riel was captured at Batoche, sickened by the killing, and at the end of his trial, before the verdict, before they hanged him as traitor, he asked to make a statement. It was a rambling affair spoken in English. His legal defense had done their best to save him through a plea of insanity and that would not have been difficult to do, but Riel refused that because then all that the ‘half breeds’, as he referred to his people, all that his life and their lives represented and had been given for, would be dismissed as crazy and pointless.

Not an official Canadian hero, then, or for many years thereafter, but a great man of the people nevertheless.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Prairie Town

Saskatchewan # 5

I have read before we came to visit on the Prairies, of the decline of the small towns as farming changed from family toward mega-farms, transportation routes improved for road vehicles and declined for trains and the traditional grain elevators became redundant. In the little town of Dundurn, Saskatchewan we were to see the effects in action and to glimpse the complexity that lay behind the reports.

Certainly the main-street business buildings had seen better days; cracked sidewalks, peeling paint, closed storefronts. Just down the street though, there was a splendid white church and beyond it an elementary school. Streets of occupied houses, hardly anything for sale. Droves of people turning out for a children`s soccer training session. If we walked around the edges of town, by the railway tracks we could find some rough patches but so we could in any Canadian small town where people worked in trucking and agricultural businesses and gentrification had not waved its magic wand.

The railway tracks looked used even though the nearby highway carried a steady traffic of transport trucks.

That highway was the key to Dundurn`s state of health. Just forty minutes from the city of Saskatoon, it meant that grocery, hardware and the like could not compete with the big box stores not so very distant in highway miles, but it also made this a bedroom community for those interested in cheaper housing at the expense of longer commutes. The nearby military base provided more residents and no doubt there were some retired farmers who had sold out to those neighbours following the trend toward bigger farms. As for that, it is possible now to live a neighbourly life in a small town and drive out to work one`s farm during the growing season.

That disappearing rural life on the prairies we read about ( and in the rest of Canada as well), is not so clear-cut on the ground. People adapt and adjust as do their towns and reports of their demise is premature.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Church at Stony Creek.

Saskatchewan # 4

 Someone called Halvar Anderson lies here beside his neighbours beneath the prairie soil in this churchyard. These were the first settlers of this area near the South Saskatchewan River. The church itself lies deserted beside its gravel road in the evening light.

Who were these people? We can know in general terms how they ended up here, where they came from and that they happened to die near here and were of this particular Christian denomination but the reality of their individual lives is hidden. All we have are names and dates, but together they form a sample of the great wave of settlement of little more than one hundred years ago that claimed land on the bald prairie.

It was a land rush and a great experiment: - turning the sod of a vast grassland, planting annual crops, frame houses, fenced fields, permanent settlements- on an ecosystem that is grassy because of variable and unpredictable rainfall. Traditionally, all around the world this Steppe landscape has supported small nomadic populations and a lifestyle that followed the seasons and the new grasses and hunted the animals that grazed upon it, or the herded domesticated cattle, sheep and goats. A little agriculture perhaps in sheltered valleys and the harvesting of wild grains. Think of the Steppes of Eurasia, where we Europeans developed our cultural preferences for grains and dairy products and our tendency wherever we go in the world to make fields out of natural woodland, raise cattle, grow grain. Here the experiment was to go the next step and create permanent settlement on a landscape designed by nature for impermanence. To put the whole prairie under cultivation and leave the valleys more or less alone was a major reversal and extreme experiment that would seem to have worked. Here are roads, railway lines, farms and communities. Here is a churchyard with its history carved in stone.

But then, this church is abandoned. Is this a precautionary note? Can we really declare victory just yet or is our confidence based on a couple of lifetimes of experience only and not on the earth`s timetable which stretches over much longer spans of time and climatic changes. How about this dramatic grassland climate that provides too much rain and then not enough, blistering heat, early and late frosts? To make a successful crop can be a struggle now. How about a hundred years of variation, of little or no summer rain? The original grasslands had that experience built into their communities of plants and animals. How well would the present man-made system cope with this guaranteed eventuality?

To imagine this seems ridiculous, everything is so solid, so worked over, we cannot imagine the large balloon after it has popped from one small pinprick. Remember those images from the dirty thirties in the last century: dust storms, abandoned, drifted in farm buildings. Just a few years combining dryer conditions, uncertain rains and a financial system that would not continue to support people on the land. A little bump in the weather and economics being the pinprick for many, setting them moving on like the wind that was blowing their fields away. Imagine the mega-farms we know today, the banks and investors watching the bottom line, pulling the plug on agriculture that could not pay after only a few years into a longer, dryer spell or even more dramatic shifts from year to year as are associated with global warming.. Complexity in our modern world is more vulnerable than those nomadic flexible lifestyles of the past.

We have an example of poor agricultural practice from ancient history. The lands around the Mediterranean were once rich productive lands. The islands of Ancient Greece covered in trees, the desert lands along the north coast of Africa once the breadbasket of Rome. Now the seaport of Troy at the Dardanelles is ten miles inland, its harbour filled up with soil from the grainfields and once wooded hillsides that washed away.

Imagine the grasslands of North America, stripped as they are of their natural blanket of adaptive vegetation becoming dryer, abandoned farms and towns, the soil beginning to blow, forming dunes. The desert climate creeping northward. The tipping point, the permanent conversion of grasslands into desert just as has happened in the past in other places.


Those settlers in the churchyard, they had no concept of this, they cannot be blamed if they were swept up in a great social experiment that nature must surely, and perhaps sooner than we think with global warming, put an end to, but we can think ahead, imagine what we can do to limit the damage, how we can reseed those open soils with natural grassland before it is too late.

Note. While many have tried to recreate a native prairie grassland, the mixed results have shown just how difficult this is. Easy to plow under, but very challenging to re-establish. The deeper into the project, the more complexity, the more variables. The struggle to do this, however, teaches us a lot about the interconnectedness of all things and the shallowness of human understanding. This is a life-form we are attempting to recreate from bits and pieces.

We are aware that when human cultures are rudely interrupted by disease or conquest, as happened to the native people of this same prairie, something is lost and the people who carry the remains of this destroyed culture remain lost in some ways. One does n`t just drop one and pick-up another. This grassland ecosystem, of which that human culture was an adapted part , is vastly more crippled if the major proportion is done away with.
However, just as it is very important that battered cultures rediscover their roots and begin to live again, even in a modified form, so it is important that the Prairie grasslands be helped to recover. If only out of self interest, to prevent a new Sahara which will eat us all up.

The sea breeze at Indian Point.

Not since early Spring have I walked down the rocky trail to Indian Point. From muddy trails, tiny leaves on many twigs and pendant maple blossoms to a now matured world where the trees and bushes have taken larger form within their leafy clothes and are swaying and chanting in the wind. At my feet the grasses on the rocky slopes have changed from trim green to a soft carpet of waving furry stalks gone to seed.

The sea breeze urges sparkling waves to the shore in an ever repeating pattern of ripples, flows invisibly across the beach and then takes form again in agitated leaves and sighing, bending grasses. The morning light too skims and flashes across the waves, steadies on the rocky beach and then dances and blinks as it presses deeper into the shadows above the shoreline.

This hypnotic steady swish of waves and higher pitched murmur of the wind in leaves and grasses joins the full orchestra of visual instruments. I hear, I feel, I see, I am immersed in this moment. I am aware of being alive, part of this place and time. Part also of the fragrant gusts of sea breeze that breath all to life as they sweep through us here at Indian Point.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sand Hills.

Saskatchewan #3

The rolling humps I am walking over are sand hills, and once, during glacial times, they were roving dunes, built and pushed along by powerful winds rushing down off the continental ice sheet. Now they are tamed and held down by a mat of prairie plants, here a remnant of a grassland ecosystem that stretched up the center of North America. Even as I wander with my camera I can see holes where the carpet of plants has been disturbed and the sand released to blow restlessly on the wind once more.

In other places with sand hill landforms the natural grasslands have been plowed up and annual grain crops have taken their place. Planted to follow the contours, with the stubble left after the harvest to hold the fragile sandy soil in place throughout the winter months, now in early Spring we see enormous tractor and discing outfits lightly tilling the stubble under and preparing the ground for another crop. Farther down the road, big sprayers are moving over the enormous fields to kill emergent weeds that will permit a new cash crop without the need for more cultivation. Everything orchestrated to keep that soil where it is and save time and money at the same time A perfect combination!

Here in this unplowed military range area there is no need to ‘make `er pay’. The plant communities in all their complexity have no economic advantage that is easy to see. No grain to feed the world`s hungry, no rows of wonder-bread on the supermarket shelves. No tilling, no sprays, no GM grains either. Just the sound of wind in grasses, the flutter of new poplar leaves and the scream of a hawk. This must have a value beyond the immediately economic. It speaks to us who stand in its midst, of our relationship, to our sense of community with what lives and what strains to move beneath our feet once more. This is our skin, our desires, ourselves, that rolls around me.


Friday, June 17, 2011


Saskatchewan #2

A modern building echoing the tipi form, a fold in the bald prairie with a stream winding through poplars. We have arrived at a Native Heritage Center just north of Saskatoon and will spend some time walking the trails and have a picnic lunch. The clear blue sky, the sun`s noontime glare and the blustery cool wind tells me that photography might be a little sketchy today. We choose a simple walk on an archeological trail, suitable for the grandchildren, which details the long history of use by native peoples, - a winter shelter down among the poplars out of that cold winter wind. As soon as we too walk downslope we can feel the shelter and begin to take a more detailed interest. Some tipis nestle among the trees beside the stream and I step inside one to find a different light, filtered by the white canvas. A great place to photograph the family! I catch Sarah standing at the entrance in a pool of light.

Those tipis, if I find the right angle and avoid anything in the background that speaks of the present era, have the potential to be ‘historic photos’ with a sepia or B&W version. Fortunately my camera will do this for me right away and this guides me to take several more. I have Curtis`s images from 150 years ago as a creative guide.

We discover some wild flowers on the slopes and I smile to see my photographer daughter following her Dad`s example by placing her camera down on the ground and shooting these prairie flowers up against the blue sky. The results are so effective! I am shooting images today that catch the subtle textures and forms of this early Spring day, so much are still sticks and buds or dry plants from the last summer season. How much more powerful this transition would have felt for those peoples who overwintered here.

The question I am holding in my mind as we walk and take photos is whether my regular habit of careful observation as I take photos is what is making this little fold in the prairie so vivid for me on this day or if there is something about this place, used for thousands of years by First Nations peoples, that is influencing what I see and how I photograph it. I have studied the history and cultures of the plains peoples sometime in the past and that is a real help in understanding the significance of this place. Whatever the mix, this brilliant noon light is working just fine for me today.