Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Love of Place.

The love we feel for another human being, especially one we have spent many years beside, is also possible in our attachment to landscape, to place. Like close companions we have grown together, our minds and emotions intertwined: that city street we have walked since childhood, the beach that has been our emotional refuge in hard times, the mountain on the horizon that somehow anchors our personality. We are creatures of attachment, one of our nicer features.

Once we are grounded in this capacity, once we have practiced this for a long time, we find that we can love a greater number of places that are different from our own. The Gulf Islands are part of me, I am at home here, but the wide ocean, the Pacific Islands, the Tropical Savannah, can easily claim my love as well, perhaps because I have done it once already so well with the one.

Today I walked down to the valley below and along a familiar road, one I have walked years ago with my young children and still walk regularly these days with my wife. A cloudy day, Spring barely begun: brown leaves, bleached and beaten down grasses, a touch of snow, a complex texture of bare twigs arched over the mostly hidden little streams that wander down the hills. First frog chorus today though, robins beginning to break the winter silence, ducks chasing each other in the still half flooded fields. This familiar nondescript place is where I take my photographs today and I celebrate those browns and greys, the tattered green bramble leaves still hanging around from last season.

I see this landscape through my own experienced eyes, a place I love even though I might not usually name that feeling. I have been helped to that realization by the work of the artist Andrew Wyeth who brought out the same qualities in his paintings of the north-eastern United States. I study his paintings, feel them, and I can then reach deeper into an appreciation of my own tattered, dark, late winter landscape.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Snow squall.


It must seem funny to people in naturally snowy climates for me to be rushing out with my camera as soon as a snow cloud rolls across the sun, but really the opportunities to try different camera settings and capture the side-blown streaks of a dense, brief snowfall have not come that often this winter.

All too soon the sun is out again and all that sturm und drang filters down to a skiff of snow wrapped around the Spring snowdrops, whitened branches and roadside grass. It is the contrast between the snow and the spring- new leaves, buds and flowers that leads me out for a walk down our neighbourhood roads.

Those roads gleam grey and wet in the evening light, the trees flare-up in the shafts of light as they transform quickly from snow to water droplets. It is a surprisingly dramatic few minutes of subject matter while this melt takes place. And I am out here to record it: the precision of this moment.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Reginald Hill on Saltspring Island

Ever since we discovered the excellent British crime writer Reginald Hill we have laughed a little over our local mountain of the same name. I had been working my way higher and higher up its rocky slopes from Indian Point over the past couple of weeks and finally decided to actually climb to the summit on an established trail that begins from the Fulford Harbour side. I bought a good hiking book (“Hiking the Gulf Islands’ by Charles Kahn) and drove to the beginning of the trail. “Strenuous, steep trail”, said the guide and sure enough I soon found myself climbing a wet, rocky hillside that was clothed in moss and second growth forest. Puff, puff, Bill is out of shape, but with a stick to aid me I scrambled upward out of the shadows toward the sunlight. It was a frosty March morning on the shady side of the hill, but I was never-the-less reminded of a similarly steep trail in Samoa that lead in tropical heat up the slopes of another hill on the top of which was Robert Louis Stevenson`s grave. Perhaps it was the same combination of steep trail, early morning, the lure of bright sunlight at the summit and the hopes of a wider perspective. When I finally reached the mossy top of the hill I could see for miles, across the Burgoyne valley towards Mount Maxwell and the distant snowy mountains of Vancouver Island in one direction and out across the shining ocean to the Gulf Islands in the other. Here was the perfect place for a typical viewpoint panorama photo with a wide angle lens to get in as much in as possible while balancing on the cliff edge. I did give in to that temptation once or twice before getting down to something a little more creative. It was as though I needed to do some basic exercises in this new environment before getting down to business. What was special about this place and what did I need to do to capture it?

The first thing I chose to do was to put the distant view in the context of the mountain top itself, include some foreground, frame the distant through the near, the panorama within the local context. A nearby rock outcrop repeated the form of Mount Maxwell in the distance, a grove of small arbutus trees filled the frame and created a tunnel through which we see the distant mountain: a mountain which would seem insignificant without this tight, close-up framing. Ravens tossed themselves through the vivid air, chatting to each other and to me, an immature eagle landed on a snag just below the hill crest and the morning breeze ruffled the forest canopy far below.

I soon found a faint trail on the other side of the hilltop and followed it down to another series of mossy bluffs; there was subject matter overflowing here, gnarled old firs, slim arbutus, contorted oaks and the bay far below. Wait! A little gaff rigged sloop catches the breeze on its way out of the harbour and while that would draw my attention anyway, I now had a point of interest for my compositions. Those white sails gave a sense of scale and action. Soon I have worked my way down slope in the direction of Indian Point, perhaps I did not need to follow the guide book but could find a new way down! Fortunately, I remembered the stories of hikers falling to their deaths or being marooned on innocuous seeming but suddenly steep and slippery mossy slopes like these. I turned back to the summit and followed the official trail back to the car.

 I have been taking plenty of photographs lately, and I sometimes wonder for what purpose? I do not have a customer for them, I will most likely not even publish most of them in any form, and yet here I am doing something that is very satisfying; this composition thing, the framing of wild nature into an organized communication: trees, clouds, rocks, a boat in the bay, distant mountains, the glare of sun on water and the ruffling leaves in the morning breeze, all this to be condensed into the small compass of the camera`s frame. The challenge of creating within an art form that can transmit all that is special about this mountain, this day, my choice of path and where I choose to direct my gaze up here upon Reginald Hill.

Evening light at Indian Point.

 Somehow I usually find myself at this familiar place in the morning, but this cool winter afternoon is sunny for a change, so I grab my camera and head for the Point. That place I found the other day up in the mist must be quite different in the slanting, late afternoon lighting. Photography at first must seem about subject matter but as time goes along, for me, it is increasingly about the light. That is how I can come back to the same place, the same subjects, and never repeat a photograph because light changes andit is my increasing sensitivity to the nuances of light that keeps me learning and hopefully improving in my photography. One must open more and more to the subtleties of things.

Sure enough I find an embarrassment of subjects. Side lighting creates three-dimensional rocky outcrops and the backlighting of mossy trees and boulder-fields or rotting logs is spectacular, - all the images in my viewfinder line themselves up in compositions that celebrate the brilliant shafts of evening light. I will find later in the computer`s ’Lightroom 3’ program that many of these dramatically lit images will become effective B&W versions as well. Freed of colour and its sometimes contradictory messaging, they express this place in all its form, value and textural complexity so very well.

Foggy day at Indian Point.

Across the bay, clouds drag curtains of mist across the lower slopes of Hope Hill so I take another path at Indian Point; one that leads up through the cedar forest and across the rounded rocky feet of Reginald Hill. Mist is a transformational element and I want some!

Partway through the cedar forest I branch off and follow a scramble- path up the slope onto a mist-wrapped rocky clearing. Here I am at the upper limits of the Indian Reserve that encompasses Indian Point, a place I have not visited before because it is usually so much more attractive to stay close to the shore. These passing scarves of cloud at the foot of Reginald Hill merge into thick mist that reaches hundreds of feet up steep slopes of mossy rock-face and forest. Here in this open space is a landscape of Garry oaks, individuals and ballet troupes stretched and twisted into frozen poses when they sense my presence. Arbutus trunks shine red through the mist like ship`s lights out at sea ( I can hear the foghorns of ships passing further out in the channel) This atmosphere is a precious thing in photography and it will not last for long!

Soon the fog-cloud rolls away and I slide back to the trail and continue across the slopes and down to the coast again. Already the sun is shining through the ragged clouds and reflecting pally on the smooth sea surface. I have another face of this place to do justice to: a rocky beach, an arbutus reaching out to the light, the first spring leaves bright green in the rapidly changing light.