Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Kate McGarrigle memorial concert. The Gods still resonate within us.

I tuned in to the radio when I came in the house for afternoon tea and it took a while to actually listen carefully. With 24 hour radio available it is all too easy to hear much but listen poorly. Kate Mc Garrigle's song 'Procepina', written in the last three months of her life and sung now by her family, pulled me into focus.

Her daughter, Martha, referred to the Greek legend of the goddess Persephone (as we spell her in English), the embodiment of the seasons of agriculture in the Mediterranean when the wheat was put into underground storage for the summer months and then brought out for planting with the fall rains. A yearly cycle of harvest, storage, replanting and growth through to the next summer harvest. The same cycle over thousands of years since agriculture was first invented in that part of the world. The two embodiments of agriculture, Hera, and her daughter Persephone were in this song. The focus was on Hera's plea for Persephone to return from the underworld - “ Come home to Hera, come home to Mama”and what was so touching was that she was plainly identifying with Persephone being called home to mother as she herself was participated in the process of dying to this world and already hearing the voice of the next.

It is an amazing artistic feat to be able to create through every stage of life, to find the myths that we all feel deep under the skin. The Gods of the ancient world still resonate within us. Some time ago Kate said to her daughter “ I think I may be a goddess.” and maybe she meant it literally or perhaps she was simply grasping a truth; that the Gods are deeply us, their stories the transit of our own deep and eternal selves.

Song writers work with metaphor, with story, with eternal themes and they touch us with that potent mix of story and music. This recipe of music and phrase, of metaphor and legend has been with us for a very long time, so far back that Homer would count as recent. To be human is to have brains designed over long periods of time to work with music and poetry and to respond far more powerfully than words alone, the prose version, would elicit.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Scything the meadow: an outdated technology; or is it?

The scythe swings rhythmically in my hands, the grass, sending up its seedy stalks on this early summer morning, slides along the long thin blade and parts from its roots with a satisfying 'Ahhhh' before being deposited in a windrow along the edge of the swath I am cutting through the meadow. The tool, the grass and I are working smoothly together in an ancient ritual.

My father, once an English farmer, taught me how to do this when I was young and now I don't suppose there are many people in the wealthy West that know how to use a scythe anymore. Perhaps they have only a vague idea what 'cutting a swath' really means if they read the phrase used metaphorically in a book.

I do own a lawn mower and a weedeater and use them regularly: they are noisy, use gas, wear out eventually and need replacing, but they do specific jobs very well. My scythe usually hangs under the eves with its sharpening stone, waiting for this time of year when its own particular qualities come to the fore.

I pause regularly to sharpen the long, thin, curved blade; holding the scythe upright with my left hand and, with my right, sliding the sharpening stone down the cutting edge on alternate sides, just like I do for sharpening the carving knife at home. Cutting grass for hay is not a test of strength, but of finesse, and I wish to perform this dance smoothly and accurately.

Each stroke begins as I bring the curved handle back to the right, line up the next strip of grass stems and then swing back to the left, pulling my left arm back to my body as I do so. The blade runs along parallel with the stems, slicing them cleanly and the final curve lifts and deposits the cut pieces in a neat windrow, there to cure and dry. So smooth, so very satisfying, so quiet, and so cheap.

That simplicity, the long life and inexpensiveness of a scythe, the basic skills, are of course not popular in our market economy. Why, if everyone lived this way, made their own hay, used no tractor, no fuel, had no overhead ,surely the world would collapse! Perhaps it will anyway, and then my simple scything and hay making skills will be in demand once more.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Photographs do have a point of view.

'Images from the Likeness House.' Dan Savard.

In our Ganges library I found a fascinating book about early photographs that now reside in the Royal BC Museum and were taken of First Nations peoples along this coast from the 1850's to the early years of the last century. Perhaps it is my background of studies in Anthropology, my childhood carvings of totem poles and early friendships with native children in a small coastal community, but this material draws me in big time.

The photographs provide so much information about how things were; the portraits, the communities, the little details about canoes and carvings, how the boards were laid on house sides and roofs. One’s eyes are such great gleaners of information and the camera has recorded all this for me in detail; but not without the filters of the mind of the photographer and the social conventions of the time.

That is always the hard concept to get across; that photographs, like written accounts, drawings and paintings, have a point of view and are not simply the 'unvarnished truth'. That the photographs we may take today 'in living colour' are also just as tightly constrained and project a cultural bias that others can read. The images we take while travelling abroad are, like these images made by early photographers, reflective of a certain suite of attitudes. Some local people squat around a fire and we do not think to ask permission to take their image, not thinking that they may be uncomfortable about this thoughtless capture of their likeness. We look down and shoot ' local colour' from above, as part of our safari, rather than squat down in their sides and, with permission, make a likeness.

These unconscious prejudices come through in these old photographs. Indians are so often shot for their 'quaintness' their interesting savagery and the commercial value of their images. We see the romantic photographs of Curtis, the American photographer, eager to re-enact images of 'the noble savage' using models who, having neglected to die off as expected, obligingly doff their European clothes and pose in feathers, buckskin and bark clothing. Another photographer in Victoria poses an old couple on the linoleum floor of his studio and exposes his own attitudes at the same time as he trips the shutter.

But then there are also photos taken by survey parties in the interior of BC, at the same time as Curtis was making his re-enactments on the coast, that show local men and women in their normal working dress, at the blending frontier that is closer to another truth of the times.

An action photo taken by an Indian crew member of a whaling canoe in Juan de Fuca Strait is to modern eyes a masterful image, so close to the action that, despite the scratchy print, we are in the midst of the hunt!

The images in this book tell a lot about the relationship between the 'ghosts' with their cameras and the real people. The white ghosts got to write the histories and make the visual record but still, hidden in photographs like those in this book, one can read another bigger story stitched between the lines.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

All the arts share so much in common: how a painter can have much to say to photographers.


Edward Hopper 1882 – 1967. Transformations of the Real. By Rolf Gunter Renner ( in our Ganges library)

A couple stop in a late night diner; we are aware of the reality of the moment, of the isolation of individuals in society, even in this case between the two at the counter. This is a painting from another era, but the theme is universal and versions of this image can be found in many photographer's portfolios. In fact 'alienation' as an idea came to be recognized through the Arts ( including writing and music) long before it finally appeared in the images of photographers today.

Beside thematic content, we can also look closely at individual Hopper paintings and learn much about making photographs. His interest in the play of light, how it delineates the scene and sets the mood, and in this 'Diner' image how the space around the central characters is so important to his idea. Imagine cropping this down closely to the central three people: a lot less lonely, less isolating and less effective.

'Bridge in Paris', painted in 1906, could be a modern photograph with its interest in colour and tone and in using closely confined, almost abstract forms to express a larger idea.

If we take time to browse through this artist’s images we see that his imagery may change but the theme is always present. That is what gives his work such cohesiveness, such believability. When a photographer does the same, instead of skating all over the map we can see him go deeper, grow roots and stand firmly upon the mountain of his work.