Up at 5:30 after getting to bed late, wind howling, snow stopped. Made a pot of coffee, dressed in warm clothing, unscrewed the Black Rapid camera strap from the Really Right Stuff L-bracket and stuffed the Nikon D700 with 14-24 m/m lens in the Think Tank camera holster.
Everything done by rote but lovingly so. Extreme weariness slows action to a crawl as does exquisite pleasure. When tinged with anticipation the sensation is electric. Never having owned camera equipment this good I’m constantly taken aback by the results and effusive in my gratitude for a supportive wife. As they say, with this gear any issue with the image is not the fault of the equipment but the idiot behind the shutter. I’ve been that idiot more times than I care to admit and already sense this day falling apart. That it hasn’t even begun properly but remains cloaked behind a resolute darkness is all the more discouraging.
Outside a white wonderland. Beneath it, according to friends who may or may not come up for the Lillis St. Patrick’s Day parade, a layer of ice. Great. The road leading south from town meanders through twisty turns frost-heaved into substrata like a potato patch, treacherous when snowpacked or icy. I don’t have far to go and traffic should be light to nonexistent, but still.
A smudge of light stains the eastern horizon. Wind lashes the house, drives clouds of snow in billowing swirls. I do not want to leave the warmth and safety of the house, but I must.
Already I’m late. There is no dawn only a dawning of a paler shade of darkness. Truck heater on full blast, I scrape ice off the windshield and sweep snow from the hood. The air smells of the far north and swampy taiga and ice left over from the beginning of time. What had been a slight greening is now reduced to a monochromatic negative, black and white and shades of gray.
The sun, now a few degrees above the uncertain horizon, remains a ghost of itself, merely a lighter form against a formless field. I’m late and bitterly castigate myself for dragging my heels, but once on the road there is no hurrying, only the steady plodding to the tune of ice crunching beneath the tires. The road is slick and swept with streaks of hardpacked snow, drifted in places. Cold to look at, colder to drive.
It’s not far, a few miles at most. When I arrive I bust through a two-foot drift and park beside the house where the wind is blunted. Two red-tailed hawks lift from a spruce and wing toward a distant tree-line. Woodsmoke is heavy in the air, pungent and homey; it must be coming from the house on the horizon, tucked into the woods. The only sound the ceaseless wind whistling around the fallen eaves of the old farmhouse and whispering across the frozen stubbled fields.
It’s cold but I’ve felt worse. I sling the camera holster around my shoulder and carry the tripod. The barn is several hundred feet away, looming in the soft light, and as I approach I watch for escaping barn owls. There are as usual none but I haven’t lost hope of eventually seeing them. The door is stuck and I have to force it. I enter and close it behind me and allow a moment for my eyes to adjust. And then start climbing the worn ladder to the upper level.
I’m too late. I sense it in the amount of light filtering through the windows and the open slats in the roof, the receding shadows. Too late for the most important photo of my 79-day project. I wanted first light, the camera set to about a 20-second exposure, just enough to outline the windows and add definition to the gray rafters, but what I get is blown-out highlights from a strong luminance dominated by clouds. The largest softbox in the universe. I’m irritated at myself but carry on as if everything were preordained which according to the Baptists it was.
Ten shots max, bracketing for effect. I don’t even have to look at the LCD screen to know that they’re not that good and will never be good no matter how much time is spent in post-production. The knowledge leaves a coppery taste in my mouth. The cold seems to intensify as if fiercely resistant to the pull of spring and the changing of seasons, or to mock my feeble and ineffectual efforts.
Hump down the ladder and into the frigid air. The wind flays exposed skin like razors. Normally I’d snoop around, look for other shots, but the idiot behind the shutter has had his fill. I back out of the driveway, goose the gas into a slight fishtail, retreat northwards at 25 miles per hour tops. And then—what? More coffee to consume, Lori home from work, and the unenviable task of trying to work with images I cannot stand. My project ends with a whimper rather than a bang.
A fellow photographer from Kansas City named Bud Simpson told me that only perfect practice makes perfect. “And that way lies a path free of growth and understanding,” he said. “Failure and struggle are keys to enlightenment.”
It sounded like a Zen mantra or something the great philosopher Eeyore might have said but the wisdom of it was irrefutable. Striving for perfection is mandatory but no guarantee of success, nor are there any laurels to rest upon. There’s always the next plateau, the next attempt, the next image. The next defeat. And, yes, the next photograph that rocks you on your heels, that sucks the breath from your lungs, that makes you stare at the monitor in stupefaction and ask to no one in particular, “I did that?”
It’s all relative, all part of the journey. In the absence of laurels there was only the drive to carry on.