Thursday, March 08, 2007

Shadowfall, serendipity, luck and the breaking of the Big Blue

It takes a lot of imagination to be a good photographer. You need less imagination to be a painter, because you can invent things. But in photography, everything is so ordinary; it takes a lot of looking before you learn to see the ordinary. – David Bailey

It was a shadow, an ordinary shadow, inching incrementally across the ice like a barefoot bandit, cautiously keeping the high railroad bridge between it and the sun. I saw it from the south side of the bridge and picked my way carefully downward through a bouldery thicket treacherous with ice and crusted snow, and passed under the bridge to the far side where the barren trees along the upper bank pooled a cool blue shade. Canting in from the left at a sharp angle, the shadow slashed across the river to meld with the bridge on the opposite bank. The interplay formed thereby a distinctive symmetry, a geometry of substance and insubstance at once so intriguing and, yes, so ordinary that I was compelled to raise the camera, frame shadow and bridge, and snap the shutter.

Luck and serendipity are often mistaken for one another, but there’s a crucial difference. The etymological roots for luck lie in the act of gambling, according to the Oxford English Dictionary; undeserved happenstance, or fate, or whim of the gods. Luck can be good or bad.

Serendipity, on the other hand, is always favorable. Its roots date to an 18th century fairy tale in which three princes of the mythical kingdom of Serendip were always discovering things they weren’t looking for. Scientific American defined it in a 1955 article as “the chance observation falling on a receptive eye” (OED). In all cases, serendipity involves the act of searching.

Therefore, the position of the shadow in relation to the bridge and the angle of sun, the seamless field of ice heightening contrast, and my being in the right place at the right time with camera in tow, all had more to do with serendipity than luck. But I felt pretty lucky, nonetheless.

There was, unfortunately, a mistake made in the exposure.

It was a minor thing, easy enough to repair in my digital darkroom, but I felt a return trip necessary. Timing again was critical. The success of the image depended not only upon the angle of light but with the presence of the ice, and how long it lasted was a matter of conjecture.

So it was that on a warm afternoon one week later Steve Rock and I parked near the abandoned road to Irving and took off on foot for the bridge. We were looking for a shadow, but what we found blurred the boundaries between serendipity and luck, immixed and fused them into a separate indefinable concept, so that now I’m unsure which is which.


Some say spring arrives with the first upthrust blossoms, but I say it comes on the dog-cries of snow geese. As we walked through a patchwork of snow, mud and spongy grass, winter’s demise was etched across the heavens with long draggly skeins of white and gunmetal blue, their cries a clamorous song of homecoming. Darker shapes of Canadas stitched the horizons as they coasted in to feast on winter wheat. On either side of us fields flooded with snowmelt, and everywhere the sound of running water.

As we neared the river we slipped through a fence and scrambled up the railroad grade to walk the last few yards to the bridge. What was once a smooth coating of ice was now fractured and buckled, and open water formed a long narrow pool for a hundred yards downstream. The shadow draped across an undulant terrain of shattered floes, some brick-sized, others nearly the width of the river, some clean and white, others black with mud. The effect I’d wanted was ruined. We were too late.

But not too late to enjoy the sudden warmth and the simple pleasure of being afield after a long, cold winter. I experimented with filters and tried to simulate last week’s mistake to see if I could find a method of compensating. And as we stood with the bridge towering overhead there came a resonant crack, followed by a sound like a truck driving fast down a washboard road.

“Is there a road on the other side?” Steve asked.

“No,” I said.

The sound drew our eyes upstream. A faint shudder rolled through the ice as if some leviathan passed beneath. There was a long low groan and a surge of water into the pool. To the burble of rushing water came a deeper growl that hummed the very air, and from somewhere around that distant bend rose a terrible grinding babel that rose in pitch. The nearmost floes heaved as if struck from behind, juddered and cracked, and the entire assemblage lurched forward.

Whatever pressure shoved that thick, interlocked mass—rising water, we guessed—it wasted no time in forcing the ice forward. And once it started there was no stopping it, though the massive pylons created jams that heaved thick blocks of ice atop those wedged against them. The trapped bergs flexed and moaned as if in pain while the weight of those accumulated tons pressed and weighed with an ineluctable force, a force that brooked no resistance, until stress fractures lanced across their whitened surfaces like tongues of lightning and they surrendered with a sound like rifleshots. Along the shore smaller floes ground to bits. The temperature dropped several degrees. A slight current whispered the air. We stood mute, lost in the spectacle.

For over an hour the ice flowed. A battered john boat went by, and, near the end, when patches of open water became common, quarter-mile-long rafts of wooden splinters that must once have been logjams. And as suddenly as it started it was over, the river a smooth current, and slabs of dirty ice tilted crazily along the banks.

We both said it was blind luck that the river broke when it did, how fortunate we were to be there. But I wonder—where is the demarcation between serendipity and luck? Perhaps it lies in a gray twilight of language, where, when confronted with nature’s implacable force, words falter and lose their meaning.

Only this is certain: that as we started the long walk back, we both felt pretty lucky.

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