Essays taken from a weekly newspaper column published in the Washington County News, Washington, Kansas. Look for my book, "Dispatches From Kansas," available from Amazon.com, or from the author.
Thursday, December 31, 2009
Winter solstice, winter sun
If my Winter Solstice Project had one beginning, a shot of a low-flying crow spotlighted by the early morning sun, it had two distinct and disparate endings.
It wasn’t the way I would have planned. I prefer orderliness, linearity, a sequential narrative with a defined beginning, a middle, an end. Time as we know it may indeed be direct and undeviating, but our minds and our hearts infuse it with an elasticity that forces us to constantly evolve or adapt to its constraints. It was something my project reinforced, and on a daily basis: Be open for the unexpected. Take nothing for granted. When in doubt, circle back. And always, always, take another look and see. Obviously only one ending was possible, and it came at the solstice sunset. But at Mill Creek, where I’d driven to shoot a steel building recently purchased by the city of Washington for a new shop, I wandered down to the falls and nailed a few images that turned out to be some of the most powerful taken since the inception of the project. Something about the stillness of the afternoon, gray and cold and the woods silent and moody, and the soft sound of water sluicing over the dam, a sound that always takes me back to crystalline trout streams and mountains, accompanied by some indefinable extra, an unformed thought that left me sad for no reason. For a long time I stood listening to the water, studying the stone flood wall rising from the banks and the electrical power plant beyond, snow everywhere and the river frozen save where the current picked up to go over the dam, and I thought, here’s the ending, right here, with some good shots of the water and ice and an early dusk falling. And then what. What will I do to continue this creative outpouring, this blossoming. What now.
It wasn’t over, of course. There were other stops on the drive home, notably the town of Hanover, where I stopped to photograph a house that had burned several nights before, potentially another arson in a town plagued by arsons, after which I discovered a derelict house complete with rusted tractor. Which I also shot. Through an open window at the old house I spied a chair perched atop a moldy roll of carpet and the ceiling spotted with mold, such wonderful imagery that I rushed back to the car and switched lenses to a superwide. I was in the process of circling the house when I spotted the neighbor’s dog, a massive creature eyeballing me with obvious interest, at which time I didn’t take stock of whether it was chained or free, but made a beeline back to the car to make my getaway. With regrets, because there were so many things of interest in that yard, from old vehicles and tractors to scrap metal and signs and a hundred shades of rust.
And so I was back in the game; the project wasn’t finished.
There was still the impending sunset. As I left Hanover, the clouds suddenly lifted in the west, breaking into a bright cerulean backdrop a few degrees in width between the horizon and the upper bank of clouds. I drove fast to make it home in time, and when there barely paused but kissed Lori and took off on foot.
I cut down the road and through the apartments, the snow deep and slowing my progress. By the time I reached Western Avenue I was panting altogether too much to feel good about my physical condition. The sun was still up though not for long, a few minutes at best. I roamed the field looking for a likely foreground that had something to capture the eye and lead it to both the barn and the sunset, and waited then for the moment.
Watching the sun in its final degree of descent is like waiting for a pan of water to boil: seconds drag to infinity and, as the adage goes, it refuses to happen while we watch. The solstice sun, however, was on a mission to usher in the longest night of the year. Without fanfare, it kissed the edge of the ridge and sank behind the northernmost spur of the Flint Hills. I rapped off a series of shots as each windswept whorl gilded in the sun’s dying light, golden patterns of drift and swirl on the crusted blue surface of the snow. High above the clouds flamed before smoldering to ash. It was deathly still.
Cold settled in; I hadn’t noticed it before, but with the sun down and, yes, the completion of my project now past, it nipped my exposed ears and fingers and snaked down my collar. I let the camera hang, and donning gloves and hat slowly, very very slowly, made my way back to the road.
I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay until dark and have it fall about me and become a part of me. But there was so much left to do, from downloading photos to sorting and processing and uploading to the Web and then a column to write. No rest for the weary nor time even to think things through, but another rush as the entire day had been a rush. And so I walked home in twilight and the woods darkening and a sort of alpenglow turning the snow lambent, and that was the end.
I had the shakes when I entered the house. Lori asked, “Did you do it,” and I said, “yes.”
“You should be proud of yourself,” she said.
“I am,” I said. “I’m just a little emotional right now, is all.”
I felt depleted, sucked dry of all energy or thought. But sitting at the monitor watching the images appear on the screen was another revelation of sorts, not a revisitation but a renewal. Each photo was a tiny heartbeat, a spark, an epiphany. I was reminded of something Chase Jarvis wrote near the end of the book that launched me on this creative journey: “This is more than a project.” Watching my creations come to life, it was, I knew, merely a beginning.
Jarvis closes his book with a one-word admonition. “Shoot,” he wrote. Shoot. Already I was thinking of solar alignments. The vernal equinox was only 89 days away…
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Monday, December 28, 2009
Sunday, December 27, 2009
Saturday, December 26, 2009
Santa in a tractor
Friday, December 25, 2009
Thursday, December 24, 2009
Far from home, finding my way
I crouched behind the blind and waited.
It wasn’t really a blind, but the nearest urban equivalent: a few pieces of molded ash, a padded cushion of muted colors, four tapered legs. From my vantage I could peer across the living room into a narrow opening that branched off into the kitchen and family room. Soft light filtering through the gauzy drapery spilled onto the hardwood floor, casting a golden sheen that seemed to hold an echo of footsteps that never completely faded away. A faint murmur of voices drifted in from another room, a comforting undertone that nevertheless emphasized the solitary nature of my lonely vigil. Rising above the muffled conversation was the methodical plodding of my heartbeat and a creak of old bones as I shifted to one knee. The camera was heavy in my hands, and prefocused to a spot ten feet away.
I waited and listened, and knew it would not be long.
I used to think I was a pretty good photographer. I owned a pretty good camera, with which I could rack the ISO to astronomical levels to eliminate the need for a flash or track motion with a 3-D sensor, a technological whiz-bang that was far more efficient than the fumble-fingered idiot pressing the shutter. My preferred lens, a pro version with an f2.8 aperture, was fast and sharp as a tack, and cost almost as much as the camera itself. It was a good rig, a professional rig, and possibly inadequate to the task at hand. I felt completely outgunned.
Something stirred beyond the opening, the pad of a foot, the rustle of clothing.
I tensed and raised the camera. My finger brushed the shutter, taking up the slack. The custom dial was set to continuous high-speed shooting, the photographic counterpart to full auto on a machine gun.
A shape lunged through the opening with a high-pitched, delirious giggle. I had just enough time to squeeze off a few shots before it was upon me. The restricted perspective through the viewfinder allowed only for fleeting impressions: pale blue eyes, golden mane, teeth.
The creature ricocheted off me and streaked past. As it darted for the safety of the couch, it cackled in triumph, a wild cry reminiscent of a rooster crowing, hard r’s in succession interspersed with a staccato granpa granpa granpa!
Not long ago I was asked to photograph a volleyball game. The action was at times fierce, the lighting suspect and often crappy, and when I got home I threw out four hundred shots right off the bat. And that was before I started weeding through the good ones.
Shooting a two-year-old might be even more difficult.
I’ve always felt we should take every new experience and learn from it. Take its lessons to heart. Here, then, is mine: After 30 minutes with our granddaughter Hailey, I realize my career path as a photographer will never, must never, involve child portraiture.
It takes a special person with special skills. I’ll stick to dead flowers and shuttered prairie towns.
“What is in the way is the way.”
I came across this quote by Lao Tzu in David duChimen’s e-book, The Inspired Eye. As so often happens with quotes, witticisms or pithy sayings, it arrived on the shores of my consciousness at the exact time I most needed it. I’d been struggling to find creativity and vision in an urban setting, feeling like a duck out of water on these strange shores, and questioning the merits of taking time off to visit the grandkids as my winter solstice project neared its conclusion. Lao Tzu’s wisdom dropped like a boulder into the stagnant pond of my thinking.
In the day following this discovery, I photographed one of my favorite compositions so far: a child’s ball beside an oak heater vent.
There were others that haunted me, including one of a frosted sugar cookie (held by Sage, our oldest granddaughter at nine years old), another of a cookie sheet with two half-formed (or deformed, as was the case) cookies and Hailey’s finger—a finger which just poked a hole in the nearest gingerbread man—and one with Lilah’s hand wrapped around Lori’s index finger. Lilah, at five months, is the latest edition.
I also liked an image of a shopping cart against a wall with painted-over graffiti, taken at the old Sea Galley Restaurant where we used to eat crab legs and prime rib, now an empty building in a bad neighborhood. If, as I said at the beginning, my Winter Solstice Project would stand as a visual diary, then its imagery would be a remembrance of where we’ve been, what we’ve seen and what we’ve done. Incorporating the metropolitan area and our granddaughters wasn’t merely a challenge, it was an integral part. It was the journey.
It wasn’t until I’d posted the images that I realized I’d included the hands of all three granddaughters and my wife. If that wasn’t a subconscious inclusion, I don’t what is.
I was more in my element on the drive home, looking for images for my project in the abandoned prairie towns of eastern Colorado. A row of mailboxes, the front door of a mechanics shop and a weathered picnic table in Last Chance, an ancient green pump house east of Idalia, a rusty metal arrow affixed to a fence post on the edge of Cope, all fit my purview of a rural world in flux. As I was in flux, my art and my way of seeing, my impression of myself as grandfather, and the autumnal sun, too, its peregrinations leading it ever southward.
As we crossed into Kansas I glanced to the south and noted how low the sun rode in the afternoon sky. The solstice was two days away.