Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Wake up! Grace Darling!

The other night I awoke in darkness with the name Grace Darling ringing in my mind. I knew who this was, having read about her as a child, but why now? Why wake me?

Grace was a Victorian England heroine whose daring rescue of some shipwreck survivors, how she rowed out into the gale from a lighthouse and pulling them off a wave-swept rock, had captured the public's fancy. I lay awake and thought about the story of her life and the nature of a hero. How there is the original brave act and then there is the enshrining of that person into the state of HERO. For Grace, that last part helped to drive her into an early grave.

Grace Darling was the daughter of a British lighthouse keeper on the Farne Islands near Lindesfarne on the Northumberland coast and one stormy night in 1838 a ship drove onto a nearby reef. By morning's light a few survivors could be seen huddled on the rock beside the broken off bow of the ship. Here is where things come into focus. The lightkeeper and his young daughter launch a twenty foot rowboat and work their way around in the partial lee of the low- tide rocks and take off the first few survivors. Two of those sailors help row the 'cobble' back to the lighthouse against wind and weather and later the lightkeeper makes a return trip with the sailors to pick up the rest of the living.

The father of Grace must have taken sober thought about the whole venture because Grace was the only one of his family available to help handle the boat, but she had grown up on this lighthouse and was a strong and steady young woman. Apparently it was she who declared that they must launch the boat and rushed outside into the storm to begin pushing it into the water. At first they ran before the wind through a narrow gut or passage and then turned the corner into the lee of the low tide rocks and worked their way across to the wreck. Even in the lee of these rocks though, there would have been waves foaming right across the reef and the wind's strength was unabated and blowing the underpowered boat away from the partial shelter. Just two people, a man and a girl, rowing a heavy wooden boat, watching for every calmer patch, working the eddies, feeling the immense power of the ocean waves, struggling to force their boat across the wind. Two frail human beings pitting their skill, strength and determination against the storm.

There are many other details to this story to be found on the Grace Darling website but besides trying to understand why I had this night visitation from close on two hundred years ago I was interested in trying to form a realistic image of the whole event. Heroes these days can be as insignificant as the person who plucks your cat from a tree, and the seekers for the golden fleece or Ulysses on the way home to Ithaca are a long way back in prehistory. Still, whatever the function of the hero for the greater society, there are those moments when some people rise up and perform in an extraordinary manner. Grace and her dad, easing their boat through the storm performed at their peak and others caught a whiff of something amazing about human beings and celebrated it.

So, have I figured out why I awoke with Grace Darling on my mind? Perhaps it does have something to do with heroes after all, about those moments when we all reach for courage and take it firmly by the hand. Maybe it does us all good to seek above our 'station' for something extraordinary in our lives or to be ready when the call comes. Wake up! Grace Darling!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Genuinely Canadian.

We have just recently been through a Federal election and sure enough when the competition heated up we were treated to the politics of division - who is a real Canadian anyway – and that got me thinking.....

Because of course it is actually a complicated subject. Are we thinking of old families versus the newly arrived on our shores, or those with the right coloured skins, religions, languages or accents. Who is a Canadian? And what degrees of Canadian are there? These are the considerations we are encouraged to dwell on and evaluate our neighbours by. But Canada is a nation of immigrants. That is the real defining human category.

So what about the various nations that arrived on our shores ten thousand years ago or more and have more recently been swamped by new arrivals? Have they been here on this continent long enough to be proof against repatriation?

Before First Nations peoples arrived and spread throughout North and South America, who were the original inhabitants? Here is where things get interesting because that seems a non question. Before humans, who were the people? Because it was full of beings: animals, plains, tundra, mountains and plants. From a human perspective it was a larder waiting to be raided. That was the attraction then and still is today. We call it resource extraction and think in terms of minerals, oil, trees, but once it was woolly mammoth and other mega fauna. An immensity of resources. All vanishing, all being used up at an ever increasing pace.

We do make distinctions between people and other animals, between rocks and living things, the economics of division. That enormous open pit mine though, the clear-cut mountainside; perhaps some of us blench a little, as we should when the last of yet another species is hunted down or blotted out. The history of this continent is a steady decline in diversity since humans arrived. Hunting, chopping, digging, trapping. Roads, farms, cities, airports, railways. We call it progress.

What is genuinely Canadian? The cry of Loon, the splash of Beaver's tail, the call of Raven, the ramparts of the Rocky Mountains.

 I just finished writing this piece about what is Canadian and realized of course that it would also work for American ( & etc.) as well. It was the idea that we are able to place firm division between different brands of human beings, but never make the leap sideways and think of the rest of creation as beings too with their rights and personalities that was my leap of concept. 

We can destroy what we place outside of our own circle. Minorities are always in danger of being classified, whether it is peoples, religions etc. or members of the greater natural world. Do mountains, forests and lakes have rights? Does Raven? When we destroy 'the other' are we not diminishing ourselves in the process?

Monday, October 19, 2015

Dawning moments in the rain forest.

It is an early Fall morning when I begin to brew the day's first cup of tea, the wood-smoke from the stove drifts through the trees and the yellow light of dawn seeps under the grey overcast. Typical, one might say if you live here on the West Coast of Canada amid the forest. It is the very ordinariness of the moment that gets me picking up my camera and stepping outside while I wait for the tea to brew.

Back-lit and filtered through wood smoke,
 the scruffy ending of summer flowers is special. 
How often have I waited until something spectacular is happening before I think to capture the moment? As though a normal conversation is not worthy of notice but we wait for the high moments, always. Life is made up of dawns like this, every twenty four hours or so, perhaps I need to observe this ordinary moment more thoughtfully. Practice like this could give my whole life meaning.

The sunlight comes and goes between the clouds
 and spotlights deep into the forest.

Not that you will find me ignoring those zingy times when they arrive, but they then will be in the context of the everyday, not some special jewels of light to be sought amid a dark and featureless landscape.

An almost undetectable detail, the pitch on
 the fir bark catches the first light of dawn

Maple leaves and winged seeds contrast
with the rough bark of a big fir tree.

Maple branches against the dark cedars.

An hour later and the morning cloud has vanished. What a difference! There is a whole new story to be told.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

We make our images but others interpret them.

Images do not tell stories with any precision. Stories are best told in words not pictures because we have to bring ourselves, our own interpretation to a picture and so there is no single story to be read from it. Commercial advertising has done a lot to train us to receive what the advertiser wishes us to buy in to, be it a product or a political message. Without words to accompany the image though we are much more free to add our own script.

People who make images use some design techniques to nudge us in the 'right' direction. Colour, shapes, lines etc. can convey some general moods or feelings, but there is no real way to make this universal because we are free to speculate and draw our own conclusions. The political photograph featuring a smiling confident leader might sell more votes or we might just be more than ever turned off by 'that hypocrite'. Words combined with images however can produce a much more reliable result.

Below are two photographs featuring the same 'person' in the same pose. Without a written message to accompany them we are free to attach our own message and although I have used certain design techniques to separate them quite forcefully, there is no guarantee that viewers will be willing to receive the way I might like them to. Even if I add some words, like “Happy or sad?” to guide you it might just depend on the viewer. A stressed out mother of several young children might well choose the 'alone' one over the 'busy' one for 'happy' even though all that colour and action should work the other way.

Carl Jung spent a lot of time thinking about human imagery, those universal symbols that have been built into humans from the distant past, - archetypes. And yet when we or the experts look at cave paintings from fifty thousand years ago we are still left guessing. We enjoy the guessing, the theorizing but without the written text, the speech balloons, we can get feelings but not factual certainty. And it is in feelings that images mostly trade in. The photo of the drowned Syrian child made us feel and urged us to action. A German war photo of a Polish Jewish girl being abused by victorious troops is intended as positive propaganda for the folks back home ( 'Our boys at the front having a good time'), but it makes my blood boil when I see it today. Same photo, different times and audience. Images are slippery things, are so culturally based and even then there are still open to interpretation.

This does not mean we should abandon crafting our imagery to better convey our message, but it helps to understand why it is that photographs or paintings on galley walls can elicit such varied responses. We make our images but others interpret them.
And later: I used the word feeling to discuss how we react to visual imagery but that does not necessarily mean only nasty or warm and fuzzy. I think it relates to the process of brain function: we see something and at one level can process that visually and even go on to make a non verbal decision, but translating that into words is actually quite complex. We think of it as feeling because we know somehow that it is different from thinking with words and concepts.

We see an image ( or something from the world itself) and pass that directly to the visual cortex and react. If we wish to interact with the 'image' and then share our thoughts with others we can draw or gesture or involve other more interactive processes like dance and music and words. That form of communication is a way of thinking that is more rich and complex than the stand alone logical word based kind.

We stand before a picture or a piece of reality and get a visual message, we react visually, but as likely as not we have few words to explain ourselves. The processing into words requires some complex evaluation and translation and it is a temptation to give a simplified reaction - I like, don't like, or we reach for a story to explain it. Perhaps we could also have gestured, waved our arms, danced, whistled a tune and sung a song and that would have been more accurate. That is what our ancestors did and artists still do.

One piece of visual thought stimulates another and sets the ball rolling. There is no such thing as stand alone art. There would be no context within which to understand it. Having a larger contextual and knowledge base is essential for this process. Both the artist and the viewer are responsible for 'birthing' the next generation of ideas.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Texture: getting a photograph past simple representation ( this is that!)

Walking with Heather at Burgoyne Bay. This tells a story and has used the framing
 devise of the hedge as an element of design.
The hedge is also strongly textured but is not the main element
 that is at work here.
Texture is one of those elements of design that often gets into a photograph more or less by accident. Here on a recent walk in the old farm fields of Burgoyne Bay I have made them the leading element. Of course there are forms and lines and colours as well, but textures take the lead. If one is used to photographs that tell a story, then these will seem lacking, but if you admire fabrics for example, you will be able to appreciate these two dimensional images for themselves alone.

Being able to get a photograph past its representational duty ( this is that!) is challenging, but having a feel for design is a step along the way.

The slanting sunlight creates a repeating pattern, an overall texture, but we still see the old and new trees. There is still a story being told.

We catch a glimpse of distant hillside but the textures of the
 trees in the foreground dominate the composition.

Strips of grasses, and the big oak almost disappears into
 the dark green forest. Textures in varied proportions. 

The old barn boards repeat the pattern and it would be boring if it were not
 for the angle of view and the details of window and colour. Texture of weathered wood..

I saw the colour contrast of green leaves and orange rusty roof, but the strong
slanting lines create a texture that also contrasts with the leaf shapes.

The most strongly textured image of the bunch, like a flat screen. I love this one!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Estuary of the Englishman River.

This short, steep, Vancouver Island river runs from the mountains to the sea in a big hurry, but once it reaches the sea it drops its load of silt quickly and blends with the Strait of Georgia. This day in early fall we walk along the banks of the estuary; that place where all the rocks, mud and whole trees from the nearby highlands are deposited. Compared to the faster flowing stretches this place seems oppressive and flat, with the view often blocked by tangled undergrowth and alder. We walk the trails in mid afternoon's bright sunlight mixed with dark shadows. How to record this place at this time of day? Even a foggy day or early or late in the day would surely yield better results!

I shrug and decide to get what I can and use my imagination to make up for the conditions I am given. A first photograph simply sets the scene; the tide is out and there is a tree stranded in the muddy foreground: the estuary. I have to decide though whether I am making a documentary or a set of art photographs or something in between. Is it possible to create a set of images that catch the feeling of this place rather than a 'factual' record. Now that is a challenge!
Once we walk upstream  I remember how abbreviated this river is, very quickly we are away from muddy tidal flats and into the rushing river again.This part is still tidal but the tide is out.

 Lights, action, the images are full of movement, colour and light!