Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Rat Tale: Taking this land.

The first ones advanced cautiously, sniffing the wind that rolled over the seedy grasses high above their heads, but they were followed by a confident multitude that advanced like the tide. Across the grassy meadows, over the forested mountains and like a floating furry carpet they swam the streams, lakes and rivers. The wildlife fled or was swarmed and eaten to the bone. Then the bones too were gnawed to emerge later as sparkling white droppings. The rats did stop often to reproduce but as a mass they just kept on rolling along. It was a wide and wild land but it went down before their flood like grass before a scythe. The trees too were consumed: their roots were undermined by the tunnels that riddled the soil or were chewed from the bottom up until they fell. That pace of destruction could not go on for long.

When the only food left was other rat protein, the army fell to warring on itself: starvation, madness and then finally their flea close-companions passed on the plague. The land lay totally stripped of vegetation and covered with a rotting mass of corpses. There were no survivors.

The winds blew a hot fetid breath over the land. Deluges eroded the pocked soil, eroded the unprotected hilltops down to their rocky bones and filled the valleys with sand. A long time passed. Winds, rivers, migrating birds that dared to rest, brought the first seeds. It must have been like this when the glaciers receded at last and a green carpet crept once again northward. The landscape could not be as it had been pre-rat, but once again trees rustled along the river banks, fish filled the waters and waving grasses clothed the naked uplands.

The next ones advanced cautiously across the grasslands on horseback, weapons at the ready for danger in this new world they had discovered. Back behind them, the great wagons rolled confidently forward bringing the rest of the tribe, the herds of cattle, flocks of sheep and goats. This time it was the wain-rider`s turn to be taking this land. The only danger here was themselves.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The raft adventures 2 Winter food gathering.

It has been a little frosty of late and the pond has a skim of ice. The raft (!), I think, and prepare it for a winter adventure. The crew need some hooded garments, the cabin must be insulated and have a stove. Once again I wish to capture them in action, this time in a wintertime activity near their raft. They can walk on ice, the raft can be pulled into an ice choked lead in the ice and they will be hunting and gathering to resupply their ship. The winter cold will preserve their meat. Some of it is fish, drying on a line between the masts and some more butchered cuts are being pushed and pulled across the slick ice surface in the multipurpose bateau. One figure chops up meat into smaller pieces on the bloody ice while another carries some aboard the raft. Perhaps this will be sliced thin and freeze-dried in the winter wind. A plume of wood smoke rises in the almost calm air. All is purposeful activity, except, look, in the stern of the bateau is a young seal who has been rescued from the larder. The crew will enjoy this creature as a companion. It will be trained to carry a line ashore, to catch fish and who knows what else it may volunteer for. As a pet it has much to recommend it; takes itself for a swim, feeds itself and, hopefully, will learn not to mess on the decks.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Fifth Child. How place in the family influences one`s personality and role in life

I am the last of five children in my family, - by a long shot. I am an ‘accident’ and that tail-end-Charlie place has influenced my life and personality. I recognize myself in my siblings and in my parents, to some degree, but it is very much as if we have the same genetic notes but each of us has played them differently. By the time I was born in wartime England, the family dynamic was already well established. There were leaders, followers, youngest. And then, later, me, the survivor of identical twins. I was a passenger and the rest were crew.

If one has no real function in the family dynamic it is natural to turn away, to become independent of social hierarchies and view the world as an observer. Natural too to always be a little unsure of the whole complex of social roles that are learned within family life. One can understand everyone else`s passionate viewpoint but still be far removed from the hurly burly.

Being a passenger left me able to choose my own direction and interests, although without the family pattern to follow, finding my own way was pretty directionless at first. I always had an interest in art for example, but there was no understanding of that quality in the family. It was as if no one else wanted that role so I was free to take it if I must. All the regular and serious jobs were already assigned. I was free, but alone.

If one is like Pluto, circling way out there, far from the center, one has a splendid view of the whole planetary system in one direction but one is also free to look out into the galaxy and view the heavens as well. A larger view of things is built into my position. I have specialized in thinking outside the system.

I`m obviously not a joiner of organizations that expect acceptance of a set of beliefs. I may be interested in systems of thought but am always pointing out alternate ways of understanding, - pulling disparate ideas together and showing their similarities, their function. I am a reader and researcher and a creative thinker in general as well as in the arts. Not many people do this so there is a role for me to express the creative idea. Even way out here on the margins of the solar system I have chosen my role to play.

The best thing to happen for me was to marry and raise a family. What I missed in my birth family I could gain within a new one. A central part of a team, a breadwinner, a supporter of others. A rounding out and fulfilling of otherwise missed opportunities. Not a leader within relationship, that would be expecting a bit much of Pluto, but instead, a team player. In fact, I was the representative of my family of origin and could be my whole crew of siblings.

All those adventures we have gone on, working in foreign lands and sailing the seas. That fits so nicely with a viewer of the heavens. Already turned outward, it is a simple step to travel there. New peoples with new patterns of thought, new lands like distant galaxies to travel to. Those long sailing voyages so like wanderings through space between the stars.

So in the end I am happy to have been the last in line, to be who I have become. To be still becoming, because creative people never stop creating themselves.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The raft adventures 1: Model making and photography.

Last week I got busy in my workshop and built a model raft that turned out to look quite like the Kon tiki, Thor Heyerdahl`s famous raft that he sailed from Peru to Polynesia and showed the seaworthiness of a wash-through design where the logs supported the load platform and allowed any waves that came on board to simply disappear down the cracks. I even built a flat bottomed bateau for it and peopled the raft with a crew who stood less than a finger high and were made from some moldable wax based clay. That was just the first stage of preparations for a photographic project I have been thinking about for some time.

Last year I made a paper canoe and two paper cut-out paddlers and photographed them as they ran the rapids in my little stream. Obviously cut outs, they never-the-less caught the imagination of many people. Minds were not tied to reality it seemed and in fact related to pretend figures more easily than to simple reality. That should not really have come as a surprise; all the arts work on this principle, after all.

I varnished the finished raft to keep it waterproof and got Heather to sew some simple sails and then, impatient to begin, placed it and its first two figures on a blue, crumpled-up sleeping bag to simulate the ocean and began to photograph it from all angles and in different lighting. Even in their raw, unmodified state the images I made on my new little Samsung T 70 were impressive. I now had a much more three dimensional craft to work with and more fully rounded characters to put into action. The moldable clay allowed the figures to be twisted and altered into a variety of poses. The raft was too large ( about 20 inches long) to cruise down the creek but the brimming pond afforded a large body of water and some interesting shorelines to explore. The next afternoon, with two more characters joining the crew, the raft set sail ( and it could really sail) on the calm and sometimes rippled surface of the pond. I began to photograph it.

Sure enough, as it sailed into the bull-rushes and I photographed it from above it did look like the model it was, but what interested me was that when it approached shore and I held the camera at water level, just as with the canoe series, the sense of smallness and model-ness receded. When I put a crew member in the bateau dinghy and she set out to tow a mooring line to shore the effect was increased. The little characters were no longer idle passengers but took on roles and reality. Close-up, they were still roughly hewn, but that did not matter, or more accurately it seemed just right. Model people on a model raft going about their real lives.

The next step was to ‘photo-shop’ some action into the still fairly static images. The raft needed to create a wake, the waves must leap and splash, cabin lights must cast their golden glow in the star filled night. The woman towing the mooring line ashore must be seen to be paddling hard and foaming along in the raft`s bateau. This is where the photographs became paintings as well, as the computer photo-shopping tools did their work. As I was now free-styling I now needed to recall background knowledge on how a raft would create a wake and how water would look when stirred by paddles, and I needed the skill to paint them in.

I also needed to continue to keep working creatively as I went along. The night sailing image started simply enough. By darkening and making the image monochrome I achieved the first stage of ‘night’ and by tooling in a phosphorescent wake I had the raft moving across the dark surface which reflected a starry heaven. But the image, while semi-accurate to ‘reality’, lacked any real punch. It needed something more and when I placed the imaginary oil lamp at the masthead and lit the cabin from within, I finally had something. The golden light spilled out of the window, through the cracks, and touched the deck and a mast just enough to give the effect I wanted. How often on night watch have I myself glanced down the companionway hatch to drink in that same warm glow from the reading lamps of the crew below and then raised my eyes again to the windswept, star-filled sky and the faint curve of the horizon we were sailing endlessly towards.

One thing was obvious however, just because these were photographs of a model did not mean that just any old pictures would do. I still needed to make good, interesting images. Where will this project go from here? Well this camera will make HD videos and I have always been interested in action and story telling. Perhaps this model raft project will not end here but be a good beginning for something new and the raft folks will have more adventures.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Self. Who is that masked man?

The self is the sun shining in the sky,

The wind blowing in space; he is the fire

At the altar and in the home of the guest;

He dwells in human beings, in gods, in truth,

And in the vast firmament; he is the fish

Born in the water, the plant growing in the earth,

The river flowing down from the mountain.

Katha Upanishads, II.2.2.

For the past month I have been using the many rainy days to work in my studio and one of my projects has been to continue practicing with lighting and the human body. Not having a lovely female model to work with I substituted the next best thing, myself. Oops now wait, I was not bragging here about my elderly male figure but stating a kind of truth all the same. Female nudes are actually fiendishly difficult to do if one is to avoid a kind of voyeurism and yet say something even faintly original with this all-to-familiar subject matter. Oneself, however, presents a different set of problems: who am I, where am I going? The subject is oneself and it is equally difficult to make a photograph that gets below the surface smile, the social face. In a self portrait, the mind that thinks is split between the photographer and the model and, with that disconnect, what emerges can be unsettling. “Who is that masked man?”

Partly, the fact that I am using a 10 second timer on the camera shutter is a help because in the time it takes to press the button and jump into position there is no time to smile at the camera. There is no person at the camera anyway to relate to and one`s mind is busy getting the right angle for this new set of lighting directions. The photos have a preoccupied air, the eyes are focused and the mind attached behind them is busy and not thinking about a nice smile. That kind of piercing look in public makes people shudder and turn away. It does, though, achieve the first important step toward a self image that is deeper than ‘a nice portrait’.

One dark overcast day I move my tripod and camera out under the still darker shadow of some big cedar trees. I will pose against the trunk of one while setting the flash unit to bounce off another trunk nearby. The light will come from the side, 10 second timer is on, I leap into position and turn my head just so and perhaps just because I am bored with the standard pose I cross my hands on my chest. Is that Tolstoyesque person really me? Next I cross the path to a bank of salal undergrowth. This time I use a big white reflector board to bounce the flash and dive into the salal. I have been visualizing a photo like this for a while. Flash! Oops, I was nearly out of the frame and somewhat out of focus. Next time I burrow into the salal right in front of the camera. Perfect! Well focused, well lighted. Only later when I can see these two images on the computer screen do I decide to choose the first. There is my dead self partially covered by the undergrowth, faded and shoved off into a corner. Lost and forgotten! A much more powerful image and one I had not seen coming. Unsettling is good.

Yesterday I lugged my big tripod down the path to Indian Point. I now have a battery for my remote shutter release so I can set the camera up, choose a focus point, and then stroll down to my chosen position on the cliff edge and trigger the shutter by remote control. This is really civilized, but unfortunately the face in the image is my social face again. No pressure, I revert to nice. Next I turn away and stare out to sea and, who knows why, I rest my hand on the long oak branch beside me as the shutter fires. The result is powerful though, and I could be anyone, so now that I am back on track I move to the beach which is wet from recent rain. The green sea swishes gently up the granite pebbles, a brown log lies at an angle and behind it all is my favorite cliff of rock, rain-varnished in exquisite detail. I set the camera and tripod, walk up to the rock-face, carefully step into the water, turn, and lie on the beach facing the log. Click! Here, in these two beach photos the tree has reached out to me to take my hand in unity and Bill on the beach this time is more impersonal, a sea lion perhaps, big and brown, who has come ashore for a snooze, an element among several in the composition.

It takes something dramatic to break through the social mask; fierce focus, a unpremeditated dramatic step beyond the ordinary, a kind of death of my public self. What I have found is the Self behind the self. The one who lives in all things as the Upanishads say, is the tree and the rock , the sea and all its creatures and somewhere above the clouds the sun himself.