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Monthly Archives: April 2010

A fellow photographer, a devotee of the 35mm decisive moment school of shooting, once asked me about my affection for the 8×10—“don’t you sometimes feel like you get to the end of the day, and you missed most of what happened?”  and I laughed—because if you’re working with a big camera, the whole point seems to be to miss the action, to look for things that move so slowly that they seem never to change at all.

I’ve been living in Fairbanks for nearly 20 years now, and one of the first few things I photographed when I came to town was the flowing ice on the Tanana River during freeze-up, in October.  One of my first trips to the river I made several photographs of the sun shining through thin high ice clouds as the pan ice moved in front of me, as perfect an image of the onset of winter and the coming of darkness as I think I’ll ever make.

Tanana River at Freeze-up, October 1993

But there is the other transition, break-up, when the cold dark winter yields to the sun and warmth of summer, but I’ve never been able to catch the river in the act, even though it is only a few miles from my house.  Until this year.  Over the past three days, the temperatures have been close to 60, the sun bright and warm, and I’ve been heading to the banks of the river to look for photographs.   And I think maybe this time I’m catching the action.

Tanana River Break-up, April 2010

Every year, the river freezes, and the following spring, the river breaks up.  It never makes the news, and almost no one comes to watch either event.  The spot where I made the first of these photographs has been fenced in and posted off limits, the second photo is from down-river a quarter mile or so.   But is the leaning tree the same tree?  Or does the river’s current devour them one by one?

I only spend an hour or two by the river each time I visit, and I know the river keeps on flowing after I’m gone.  I always miss most of what happens.  But most moments are not decisive.  The act of tripping the shutter is, for me, an attempt to recognize the stillness of the moment, and the forces that shape it:  the light, the flowing river, and my own life, moving in the current.

I’ve been collecting photography books since the early 1980s–as long as you manage to snag a book in print, it is a relatively inexpensive way to acquire a lot of images–but some books go out of print, and used prices can be very high.   A few books exist that have never been “in print”–for example, Lee Friedlander’s book Cray at Chippewa Falls, a book commissioned by the management of Cray Computers to celebrate their 15th anniversary, and distributed as a gift to the employees.  (The book is listed in Badger and Parr’s The Photobook: a History, Volume 2, page 199. ) I’ve never seen a copy, and the  few copies that popped  up for sale on e-bay over the years  were always bid to levels much higher than I was willing to pay.  But about 6 weeks ago, a “new, in-shrink-wrap” copy came up, and I bid as much as I thought I could afford, and got a copy.  When it arrived, I thought for two seconds about keeping the book in shrink-wrap, but I buy books to look at, not for an investment, so off it came, and I dove into the book.  The book is a beautiful object, from the orange cloth cover to the thick creamy paper to the lush tri-tone separations by Richard Benson–no expense was spared on the production of this book.

Lee Friedlander--Chippewa Falls

The photographs are divided into two sections,  the first from the town of Chippewa Falls–and, by golly, they have a falls, as well as railroads, graveyards, old factories, and fields, farms and trees.  The pictures are pure Friedlander (how does he do that, why do we know after looking at three images that these are Friedlander’s,  no one else would ever make these pictures?), and pure small town America.

Lee Friedlander--Cray Worker

The pictures of workers inside the factory show men and women using their hands to build these amazing nests of wires that become machines that think far faster than we do.  It’s like a 19th century factory producing one of the most amazing products of the 20th century, and the 80’s hair matches the cascade of wires.  Now most of those wires are on the chips themselves, and the computers we have on our laps are more powerful than the Cray’s of 25 years ago, but they are assembled by robots in factories on the other side of the globe.  But it’s nice to think of a time when people actually put their hands into the brains of these machines.

When I was a kid, Easter meant daffodils and tulips and egg-hunts in the green grass of the yard–but living in Fairbanks, Easter means the time the snow finally begins to melt, and puddles form…  And the ice on puddles is sometimes spectacular.

Ice and Sun, April 3, 2010

Ice and sun, April 3, 2010

Which looks cool, but here’s a detail from the center of the picture, just so you know I really suffered with the 8×10 to get this image:

Ice and Sun, April 3, 2010 (detail)

Ice and Sun, April 3, 2010 (detail)

Maybe Easter doesn’t mean what it once did to me, but it is a time to think about suffering and rebirth, and beauty and death.  I know that the surface of this puddle melted in the same sun that was illuminating it yesterday, and that if I go back today, it will be gone…  But a photograph can capture the miracle of the ephemeral…

And lest viewers get too carried away about the wonderful wilderness of Alaska and all of its natural beauty, I took a picture with my digital camera, pointed level–

Well Street, Fairbanks, April 3, 2010

Well Street, Fairbanks, April 3, 2010

The photos were all made in the middle of the railroad industrial area, not that far from the Well Street Art Gallery…  And perhaps even more surprising is the fact that I couldn’t really even see the picture with my naked eye–the glare from the sun was too intense to see anything–but when I set up the camera, I could see the image on the ground glass–something I’ve learned about working with big cameras–you can find pictures on the ground glass that you never see walking around…