Wednesday, December 17, 2014

At Little Qualicum Falls: failing is really a sign of success?

It is just a few days after a series of heavy rainstorms hit our west coast of Canada and I am anxious to see if that has translated into spectacular falls and rapids at this provincial park on Vancouver Island. Too late, the water flow is already back to 'normal' for this time of year as I trek the trails with my camera. Today I have chosen to use my new telephoto lens and so the feel of my compositions are quite different. Rather than struggle to find some 'air' in my photos I am zooming in this time, going deeper, seeking the detail that can express the whole rather than taking the broader view.

Taking lots of photographs regularly keeps me up to speed, but also prone to using familiar compositional formulas. And yet if I wish to move my practice forward I need to think carefully and be creative. Today I take plenty of 'big water' images, that is the most obvious thing happening right now, but try to slide some more nuanced things in as well, taking advantage of my long lens. It is always surprising to me how difficult original thinking in photography can be: perhaps it is the very simplicity of tripping the shutter, the second's worth of planning needed, that encourages only minimal thought.

One approach I use regularly is to thing in terms of contrasts: in shape, colour, texture, tone, line and subject matter. I know that placing white frothy water against dark canyon walls, contrasting large green mossy slopes with triangles of white water enhances the qualities of both and can speak strongly of this time and place, but that really has to be my starting point today if I wish to break new ground. I begin to notice the trees along the banks, the lines of the branches, the way they echo or bend against the flow lines of the river. I am making images that are about relationships within the whole frame rather than simply snatching 'things' out there. The tree in the foreground is integrated with the background, or one might say the positive and negative spaces work with each other to create a unified statement. And painters have been doing this for a long time too so even that is a pretty standard compositional device and should be available to every photographer as part of his 'bag of tricks'. Can I get beyond this today or does the powerful subject matter trump all?

In the end I have a set of strong images, partly because of the subject matter and also because I have used my skills well; but as for new ideas... I will have to wait and see; sometimes the germ of an idea only grows and emerges more fully developed at a later time. I must remember that breaking new ground is remarkably difficult and that failing is the best teacher in the end. Knowing that one has not reached the possible that lies at the edge of thought is the most valuable lesson and that self satisfaction is the most dangerous feeling for a creative person, no matter what one is working on.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Firewood gathering and first snowfall.

The murmur of the almost frozen stream, the distant calls of ravens, and the wind whispers in the sunny tree tops, but down here at ground level it is cold in the shadows and the fallen tree trunks are sprinkled with the first fine snow of the winter season. I am cutting up a maple tree today that crashed to the ground in the last big windstorm. We still remember the mighty thud and splintering branches amid the roar of the wind as we sat eating our supper by oil lantern, - the electricity supply being the first causality of the storm. It sounded like it was just outside the window instead of down the hill a ways.

Usually I do not start my winter wood collecting until early Spring, but this tree top has landed on my neighbour’s side of the line and should be gathered and cleaned up after as soon as possible, so buzz, buzz goes the saw, followed by the thump of the splitting maul. At first my hands freeze up and I hug them tight in my arm pits to warm them, but soon my body adjusts as the work continues. Once I get help from Heather and Nicole, wheelbarrowing and stacking the split rounds, and that is a great help, and welcome company too down in this lonely, cold, corner of the world.

Usually though, it is a solitary experience, just me in the forest chopping and carrying, getting the job done, a few hours each cool sunny day, nodding to the little brown birds that seek food amid the fallen branches and listening in to the raven-talk across the valley.

The Salmon run. Fall on the Englishman River.

 The air is still fresh on this frosty morning despite the rotting salmon carcases littering the cobbled shores. The river swings wide around the curves and brushes smoothly against its banks, eating away on the outside and depositing gravel on the inside of the bends, in the act of snaking slowly back and forth across its floodplain, as it has for thousands of years. Salmon have long returned here to spawn and leave their eggs to mature beneath the gravel and then let their used-up bodies enrich the river life, the dense undergrowth and tall trees that line the banks. What seems a simple sight, the salmon spawning once more, is really only the visible aspect of a complex ecosystem. We come to look, but miss the complex strands of life that are bound together: river, salmon, vegetation and all the other species from seals to eagles, from trout to bugs, that take from and also contribute to the river.

It is easy to grasp how it was that the reality of the world, its complex interwoven-ness, became personified by our ancestors. The River God, Eagle, Frog Woman, Mink, the Salmon People ...., were personalities that reflected that great complexity. As 'Beings', they were in relationship; we, and all other life forms, the river, sky, the very rocks themselves, could interact, we could speak to them and be spoken to, be influenced and seek to influence in our turn. We humans were in communion, an acknowledged part, but not necessarily a preeminently important part, of the web of life itself. What takes a scientist to explain to us now was once accepted knowledge spun within a common language of myth and story.

So,feel the pull of the river, swim against the current, run Salmon, run.