Thursday, December 19, 2013

A walk beside the Englishman River.

It is the middle of December, Fall is way back there somewhere, and snow is still waiting in the wings. I am walking beside the Englishman River, midway up the east coast of Vancouver island, and using my camera as a tool to understand what is happening here on this cool winter's day. It is not my camera, but my nose that picks up the first clue: carcases of spawning salmon lie among the boulders and in the shallows. In one deep pond, chum salmon leap to show some are still arriving to spawn. My foot-on-land perspective is really only a partial understanding and others here see things differently. Those salmon circling in the ponds are waiting for heavy rain to supply more water so they can move further upstream through the shallows to the spawning beds. They are more aware of the consequences to them of a dry Fall than I am. The eagles flying heavily along the river are focused on their next meal of dead salmon drifting on the river's current. I may see this river as picturesque, a good collection of 'photographic opportunities', but for these others on different planes of existence this environment has different faces, different values.

 Among the occasional human visitors today we would find shared human perspectives: the fisherman, the young couple with their cell phone camera, the man and his dog; if asked they might share some general ideas about nature and the need to protect this river, but as individuals, once beyond the usual off-the-shelf beliefs, I would guess there has been little thought given to a reality beyond their own. It is after all an unsettling thought that a human perspective is not the only one available.

While taking my photographs in colour, I am thinking them in monochrome as well. Partly colour blind as I am, I make up for it with a heightened sense of tonal values. The vivid green mosses, the patches of blue sky seem too cheerful once I feel the cold light, the scent of death and see the life running parallel to my own along this river.

Perhaps it is the river itself that is such a powerful teacher, flowing on and on down through the ages, creating the boulder strewn bars and water-worn cliffs, looping from side to side of its valley and arriving finally at the sea. I can experience it as something that has a beginning in the mountains on the horizon and an end in its estuary or know it as I do today as nothing but flow, the constant sound of rapids, the never-ending-ness of it all. I have a choice how I experience the world, as discreet events, as objects, or as flow or change. My choice of perspective influences how I experience the river, how I then understand my place among the many and what I see through the viewfinder of my camera today. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Time in Photography. A view into the nature of reality and the creative imagination.

Which represents time? The painted lines
or the reflected dots on the wet pavement?

Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing make you afraid.
All things are passing.*
God alone never changes.
Patience gains all things.
If you have God you will want for nothing.
God alone suffices.
St. Teresa of Avila

The Santa parade is in full swing in the little town of Sidney, B.C. It is a wet, cold, windy night and the procession of vehicles and people is filled with with lots of coloured lights and movement: here is where the camera cannot help but be involved in the mysterious realm of time and motion and in the nature of reality itself.

Hold on, you say, this is simply a camera trying to cope with low light and movement and the operator simply has to snap away to collect a few interesting images. True to some degree, but what the camera dwells upon is directed by the photographer, what details are selected and how it is framed are all important. What we can imagine it to be, what we see as a potential final image, makes all the difference.

A scooter zooms in and out of the parade vehicles and I follow it as I press the shutter. The result, with its streaks of light, gives the impression of motion; it captures the energy of the moment and freezes it. A split second moment in time is chosen even though we can imagine that this image stands for but a thin slice of what is the scooter's path through the parade.

Behind all the bustle, an office building stands silently beside the wet street with a tree's shadow draped across its face. Here is time in another guise, still and grave, dreaming of who knows what, but the camera has caught this moment and has focused our attention upon it. It takes but a short time to take the image, but we know that the building and its light has more permanence and exists within a longer period of time. Even as dawn breaks the building will still be there. But the moment captured within this image is still unique, if only because no one else may realize that this is worth seeing in quite this way.

The parade troops by and I use a transparent DVD disc in front of the lens to centre our attention. The parade takes on a nightmarish hobgoblin quality, as thought time has pushed aside its normal face to show a glimpse of another disturbing dimension,; we glimpse another possible aspect of time because of the interaction between the rapidly moving and changing subject and my particular 'take' on the event.

A woman walks past, her sad face distorted by movement to become anyone at all; a reject image for sure one might think until one arrow of light is seen, being driven into her chest. Saint Teresa is pierced all unawares by the arrow of heaven, here on this Santa Parade evening. At this precise moment in her life she has been lanced by love right before our eyes, thanks to the camera. And, thanks to my interpretation, this ordinary fragment within an hour long event assumes a more complex meaning*.

After the parade has already moved into past time, down at the seaside the wind waves below the lighted dock roll shoreward. I prop my camera on a post and take a long exposure. Even so, the resulting image is dark and difficult to understand, the waves have merged into a haze of repetitions, averaging out the individual ones and even the pilings of the dock have shifted towards the insubstantial. Time is captured over several seconds, and shows us present time stretched out so we can see another aspect; how the present moment is really part of impermanence.

Change is the only true constant of reality and by selecting pieces of time with the instrument called a camera we can observe that our solid material world is never still, is ever changing. Our minds assign meaning to the passing stream, gives solidity, but all flows past, ourselves too caught swirling within its waters. How beautiful that stream really is.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

No man is an Island.

'No Man is an Island'
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.   John Donne

There is a debate going on in the world that goes something like this. The world is a resource and we can profit from it. If we use the earth intensively, digging, cutting, pumping, shipping, catching and building, then the general prosperity of all of us will rise. A sort of win, win for all.
So, the powerful man in his high rise in Vancouver or any other city, can finance and direct the resource extraction; be it mines in S. America, tar sands in Canada, forests all over, or fish in the world's oceans, and feel good about it. Enterprise in action.

There is a lot of truth in that too, if you are not being chased off your land in the countryside by mining company goon squads, or having your ancestral hunting grounds destroyed or fishing grounds stripped bare. What happens when the taking outstrips the recovery capacity of the oceans or forests and even the soil itself? When minerals are all gone and waste piles of toxic stuff remain, when oceans die, when people can no longer live and grow and hunt? Where will we turn next? Short term gain combined with terminal pain.

It turns out that the subject is complicated, but not really that impossible to sort out. To build an oil pipeline across mountains and across other people's land does benefit the larger population at the expense of the locals. It also turns out that in the longer term, ( getting shorter by the day) digging shipping and burning that oil will kill everyone, even the city folk. It is simply a matter of perspective. How to turn our thinking around?

John Donne's meditation, 'No man is an Island,' does give a perspective, pointing out that we are not separate from everyone ( and everything) else. What we do, does impact others. The death of other species, the diminution of the earth, is our own death knell as well. And this is not just philosophy or religion, it is also cold hard facts. For a brief while, like a flash of light, some of mankind may prosper, but then out goes the light. The bell tolls for thee.