Monday, October 3, 2011
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.