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Some moments are so perfect they need no comment. untitled (99 of 163)untitled (83 of 163)

Sunset in the digital Age, March 20. 2016

Sunset in the digital age, Bellingham, WA,  March 30. 2016

All the adults are on their smart phones, talking, texting, taking pictures–the kids are still throwing rocks.

 

 

Digital sunset, Vancouver, BC, April 1, 2016

Digital sunset, Vancouver, BC, April 1, 2016

 

In Vancouver, the rocks seem to be talking back.

 

 

A few years ago, I purchased a small (about 4×5 inch) Ansel Adams print, shown below.

https://denniswitmer.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/aa-blog-image.jpg?w=490&h=736

This image was probably printed sometime in the mid 1930’s, and was most likely sold in the Yosemite Park gift shop, where Ansel’s wife’s family had a long term concession.  The image is of Yosemite falls, probably made in the spring (judging by the strong flow of the falls).  While I do not know the exact details of the photograph, it appears to have been made with a large format camera, and shows care in both the composition and the printing.

Yesterday, I and my wife spent a few hours in Yosemite Valley, on a lovely day in spring.  I carried a hand held digital camera, and shot several hundred images over the course of a few hours.  One of the images is shown below:

 

Yosemite Falls, March 22. 2016

Yosemite Falls, March 22. 2016

 

Of course, my image is taken from a different vantage point, with a different camera, in a different century, and with a different purpose.  I expect absolutely no sales of this image from the gift shop (my wife comes from a family of plumbers, not gift shop owners.  Maybe if the toilets back up, I’ll get a call).  My image was, of course, made in color, but in honor of Ansel Adams, I converted the image to black and white and very carefully selected the “green filter” option to bring out the texture of the trees.

As a young man, I read an essay by John Szarkowski about Ansel Adams who noted that “many people prefer the experience of viewing an Ansel Adams photograph to the experience of being in the actual landscape”–a statement that shocked me when I read it–at the time I believed that a photograph was always only a small part of the reality of the place, and therefore always inferior.  But being in Yosemite valley is to be in a crowd–there were probably 10,000 people in the valley when I was, all of them with their cameras and cell phones, posing themselves, family, and friends in front of the falls and cliffs that Ansel Adams so famously photographed before.  Every view was occupied.  After about two hours (much of it spent looking for a toilet without a long line), my wife remarked that she didn’t like the place.  The cliffs and falls are unarguably beautiful, but the crowds and the speeding cars racing by meant that none of it could be enjoyed in silence or solitude.

Lower Falls view, Yosemite Falls, March 22, 2016

Lower Falls view, Yosemite Falls, March 22, 2016

The most satisfying views I found were quieter ones, along walkways, into groves of trees.  And, yes, I know, these too have been photographed to death, but at least they felt a little more private than the grander views.  And, besides, my wife was looking for a tree.

Forest near Yosemite Falls viewing area, March 22, 2016

Forest near Yosemite Falls viewing area, March 22, 2016

 

 

Susquehanna River at Pequea, 1/9/2016

Susquehanna River at Pequea, 1/9/2016

Been back on the east coast for nearly a month now, back to the landscape of my childhood. The time here has been filled with emotion—dealing with the ravaging’s of aging and cancer, while at the same time, enjoying the comfort of family and old friends.

 

Susquehanna River at Pequea, 1/9/2016

Susquehanna River at Pequea, 1/9/2016

 

Yesterday, I had a few hours of uncommitted time. The day was gray and misty—typical winter weather here. I decided to head to Pequea, on the Susquehanna River, not far from the farm I grew up on, a place I saw every school day from the bus for 12 years. My recollection is that the river was, even then, a place of stillness and mystery. After moving away from the county, I returned to the river to photograph many times.

 

Susquehanna River at Pequea, 1/9/2016

Susquehanna River at Pequea, 1/9/2016

 

Yesterday on the river, the light was ethereal—not a word often used—but the only word that I can think of to describe both the landscape and my state of mind.

 

Susquehanna River at Holtwood, 1/9/2016

Susquehanna River at Holtwood, 1/9/2016

Since moving to Spokane, I’ve felt just a hair smug about my situation—at 2,000 feet above sea level, there isn’t much danger of flooding from sea level rise—and we’re pretty far removed from both hurricanes and tornados. Wildfires happen, but usually at some safe distance from the urban area where we purchased a home.

Spokane Storm, November 18, 2015

Spokane Storm, November 18, 2015

So the storm of last Tuesday was a bit of a shock—winds of up to 70 miles per hour and heavy rain persisted for several hours. Which on the face of it doesn’t sound too bad—we had storms like that every year in Kotzebue—but Spokane never gets weather like that.

Spokane Storm, Smashed House, November 20, 2015

Smashed House, South Hill, Spokane, November 20, 2015

 

What happened was that the majestic Ponderosa Pine trees that grace our neighborhood fell in large numbers—some of them uprooted, some snapped in half—but all of them falling in thunderous crashes.   My son and I were watching a movie during the storm until the power went out—about 4:30 in the afternoon—I then moved to the kitchen and was on a call to my wife (who is on the east coast) when a tree in our neighbor’s back yard split and fell.

Fallen Trees, South Hill, Spokane, November 18, 2015

Fallen Trees, South Hill, Spokane, November 18, 2015

 

The next morning, the extent of the damage became a bit more clear—the radio station I usually listen to for local news was off the air. I drove to a local department store to purchase a propane lantern and propane for a camp cook stove—the store was open, but operating on emergency power—and the shelves of batteries, lanterns, were quickly being emptied. At the cash register, people were purchasing a variety of items—hot coffee, ice, and a 1.75 liter bottle of vodka were on the non-moving belt in front of me.

My son, attending a local community college, found his normal path to school blocked—I drove with him to find an alternate route. Along the way, dozens of trees were downed, many with power lines tangled in them.

I’ve done several short walks in our neighborhood since the storm—something I’ve done frequently since moving here—but now the walks are a bit more interesting.   A number of homes along routes I often walk have been damaged by fallen trees. Crews of men have been clearing the streets, replacing power poles, and repairing wires.

View from my backyard, November 23, 2015

View from my backyard, November 23, 2015

 

More than a week after the storm, we still do not have power at our house. I reported the outage at our home to the utility early in the morning after the storm. The utility, to date, has not acknowledged my call, nor have they sent a crew to even observe the damage. I’m trying to be patient, but the utility PR department keeps saying that “all power will be restored in 2 days”—they’ve been saying that for a week now.  I no longer believe them.

We have a gas hot water heater, which is working, and so have hot water for showers and washing dishes. However, the furnace is not operating, as the circulating fans need power. Our house is holding steady at about 48 degrees inside—not exactly comfortable, but not close to freezing pipes (yet).

I’m trying to maintain my sense of humor—but my reserves in that department are wearing thin. I try to think of people who have lived through real disasters—Katrina, Sandy—storms where whole communities were destroyed—and know that we are doing fine.

But still—I just want my damn power back.

Some previous works from my collection:

For Halloween

Collage #1

Collage #2

Collage #2

DSC09917

Abstract #1

DSC07550

Abstract #2

Abstract #3

Abstract #3

The joke being, of course, that most of these works of art were found in the wild–on the street–not in a gallery.  I collected them with a camera–mostly.  There is one in the group above that is a “real” painting, signed and dated by the artist.

The paintings in the previous post from October 16 were all “collected” from downtown Portland.  The paintings above are from Korea (2004), New York (2009), Fairbanks (2000), and Spokane (2014).

While I am a photographer, my first art purchase was of a painting.  Of course, there is a story.  My wife Rachel and I were traveling in Europe, intending to do a bicycle tour of Denmark and Norway–a five week vacation.  We landed in Homburg, Germany (I think the plane tickets were cheaper there), and took a train to Aarhus, Denmark, our bikes in the baggage car.  My bike made it, but Rachel’s did not.  We waited in Aarhus for the better part of a week, waiting for the bike to show up.  To make matters worse, the bike was my wedding gift to Rachel–so there was sentimental value in addition to the monetary value.  While we waited, we walked through Aarhus, looking at stores.  We found a “good used painting shop”–something we had never seen in the US–something sort of like a cross between a gallery, an antique shop, and a thrift store.  Most of the paintings were drab and dreary landscapes of Denmark–the owner seemed to have a fondness for them.  But one painting caught our eye–a painting of Greenland–and the light in that landscape resonated with our recollection of the light over the water in Kotzebue, Alaska.  The painting was priced well beyond what we thought we could afford–but we went back to look at it several times.

Greenland, 1953, G. Thorbjorn

Greenland, 1953?, E. Thorbjorn

When the bike failed to be delivered after a week, the railroad offered to pay us for the lost bike.  We protested the pittance they offered at first, but when the offer rose to something close to the price we paid, we accepted–an amount which was sufficient to purchase the painting.  We took our cash from the railroad station to the used painting store and watched as the proprietor removed the canvas from the stretcher and rolled it in a tube.  We now had our first painting–and a new wedding gift.  The twist to the story–within hours of completing the purchase, we got a call from the railroad station–the bike had arrived–so we went and bought the bike back–but kept the painting.

The proprietor gave us a small slip of paper with information about the painter–in Danish, of course.  A few years later, we had a friend translate the slip of paper–my recollection was that the painter was a man who made a living painting houses.  Of course, now we have the internet–I just did a search of G. Thorbjorn–and discovered that I either have a bad memory, or had a bad translator–the painter is Evelyn Thorbjorn–1911-1985–and a woman.  I managed to find some auction records–the prices paid clearly indicate a lack of interest in her work among the hedge fund set–all the records I found were less than the price we paid for the painting more than 20 years ago.  In other words, not a great investment, at least not from a financial perspective.  But we’ve owned the painting for 22 years–and I’ve looked at it almost every day–it’s been hanging in our living space all that time.  It still brings back the memories of the light and space of the arctic.

Which perhaps leads to what I think the function of art is, at least in my life.  It permits my head to go to places I want to be.   I like having it because I can look at it often.  It makes the bare walls of my house into a space that is mine.

Wild Painting--Graffiti under highway bridge, 2014

Wild Painting–Graffiti under highway bridge, 2014

And I love the act of collecting “wild paintings” off the street using a camera.  I am certain that some of the paintings I have found this way were created intentionally, by artists working with surfaces other than canvas in a studio, put on public display until some “beautification project” destroys them.  My one regret is that I have no knowledge of who created the work, or why, or where to go find more of their creations.    Other “wild paintings” have been created more by accident and aging than intention, like the layering of posters on a wall, or paint splashes on the side of garbage dumpsters.   Either way, I feel like my role, as a photographer, is closer to that of a collector than a creator.  I see something I admire–something I would stop to look at if it were hanging in a gallery–so I frame it in the viewfinder, and take it home.  It is now mine, but only in the way of owning a painting.  It is part of my collection.

Yesterday, I traveled to a big city (by my standards, anyway–good bookstore, good galleries, good food)–spent time looking at books, looking at art, and eating…

This morning, I acquired several paintings.

Untitled Painting #1, 10/17/15

Untitled Painting #1, 10/17/15

Untitled Painting #2, 10/17/15

Untitled Painting #2, 10/17/15

Untitled Painting #3, 10/17/15

Untitled Painting #3, 10/17/15

So, as a collector, did I make any mistakes?  Someone once said that the way to not make any mistakes as a collector is to look at a million paintings and you will never make a mistake.  I may be a few  paintings short of that mark, so maybe I missed.  But I think these three are worth at least every dollar I paid.  Maybe more.

This is neither a misspelled movie review nor a comment on Japanese comic anti-heroes—rather a reminiscence of a few days I spent in the western brooks range with a small mammal biologist named Dwight Bradshaw, but tagged as “Ratman” due to his work in more southerly climes.

De  Long Mountains, Brooks Range, Alaska, 1989

“Small mammals” is not a common term—one evening during our adventure, a small airplane landed next to our camping site, and a grey, bearded, suspendered man climbed out of the cockpit—a local game guide–and asked, in a less than polite voice what the hell we were doing on his landing strip. Ratman, being the senior member of our group replied “trapping small mammals”. There was a very long pause. “Mice, really” I added. The man harrumphed. “Sure must be easy to pack out,”   he said, before moving on to check his (illegal) stash of supplies cached by the landing strip.  He was right–mice are a lot smaller than moose.

Trapping mice isn’t exactly glamorous—it hardly seems like a job at all—unless you are an exterminator—but mice are the base of the food chain for many animals—a we were in the Brooks range looking for what might be there. Voles (3 species). Shrews (5 species, and all of them covered in their own shit and digesting in their own stomach acids after a few hours). And maybe some lemmings, though certainly not in the abundance suggested by the famous TV footage from the 1950’s, when a swarm of lemmings was pushed over a ledge by a bulldozer for a waiting TV cameraman, manufacturing the myth of a species so prolific that it stripped its food source before stampeding into the Arctic ocean.   We set snap traps (aka, mouse traps) and pitfalls (aka, coffee cans buried to the brims so mice would fall in them) in straight lines, baited them with organic peanut butter (which contained DDE, a breakdown product from DDT when we tested it for contaminants) and waited overnight for the mice to find them. In the mornings, we checked the traps, counted the dead, measured them, and stuffed and labeled the best specimens for the Smithsonian.   That took until about 2 in the afternoon.

rooks Range, Alaska, 1989

So that left the rest of the day for “exploring”. I’d been in Alaska for a season or two, and liked taking little hikes, usually with a camera, not too far from camp—you usually didn’t need to go that far to find something worth looking at, pointing the camera at. And after an hour or two, wandering back to camp for supper and rest.  That was my idea of a little hike.

But Ratman had different ideas of what “exploring” meant. After looking at the topo maps, he’d suggest a route—“that peak looks not too far” he’d say, and we’d head off in that direction.  Once at the peak, another would present itself—not far, not far—just a little higher—and we’d go further. After a while, the sun seemed lower on the horizon—check the time—hell, it’s 11:30 pm, time to head back to camp, in bed by 2AM, exhausted.   Then up at 7AM, to repeat the process. Check the traps, record the data, and then, a little exploring—this time, no so far—but it always turned into a 10 or 12 hour “hike”.

Other memories—one morning, washing the dishes in the creek, I looked up to see what I first took to be a caribou crossing the creek just below me—but no horns—it was a wolf, long legged, far bigger than any dog—it stopped to stare at me for a few seconds before disappearing in the willows. And the last day, a sow grizzly with two cubs wandered up the creek towards our camp—caught our scent—turned away—we snuck back to the tent were Ratman found the bear gun—which gave us courage—we started yelling at the bear to try to drive it away—instead it turned back on us, charged with teeth chattering—we backed up, looking at the ground—it turned and ran off with the cubs.

rooks Range, Alaska, 1989

Now, looking back, those hikes were some of the most amazing hours of my life. Walking along ridges high above the tree line, surrounded by naked mountains, loose rocks, and clouds. I made some photographs I treasure still.

OK, so picnics are ruined by rain, and so are camping trips, but I still have the farm boy’s memory of the delight in rain—too wet to work the fields, and, besides, we needed the rain…

 

Road and Rain, May 25, 2015

Road and Rain, May 25, 2015

I’m happy to note that Ben Huff’s “Last Road North” is now available for sale on Amazon.

I must also confess that I am not an unbiased observer when it comes to this book—Huff is a friend—and I watched this project develop over the years. I first met Ben in about 2006 in Fairbanks, he was photographing the grit and grime of town, but wanted to get out. He was also completely taken with the work of photographers working in large format color—but too broke to even consider buying a camera or film. I’d been working with 8×10 for about 20 years at that point in time, and offered to loan him one of my cameras, buy a few sheets of color film, and see what happened. What happened, of course, was that he came to his senses, and settled on 4×5 as a more manageable format—I briefly loaned him my 4×5 to give that format a try.

Ben Huff in Coldfoot, June 2008

 

About the same time, Ben started his exploration of the Dalton Highway. For me, the Dalton highway is “on the road”, and therefore part of civilization—I’d spent several years living on the open tundra in Northwest Alaska—where if you got into trouble, help could be days or weeks away—on the road, there was always someone you could flag down and get help from. But Ben saw the road differently—for him it was a push outward into the wild space that still remains and characterizes Alaska. And he was fascinated by the misfits and misanthropes that seemed to settle at the edges of the road—a group of people I’ve always taken care to leave alone.

 

Ben Huff plays matador, February 2011

Ben Huff plays matador, February 2011

Ben made dozens of trips up the Dalton—I’ve done far less—but we did two trips together—the first a summer trip in my 1984 beater van— memories—the bugs in Atigun Gorge were intense, and I caught Ben doing a selfie with mosquitoes all over his face—we talked endlessly for about 2 days until we were exhausted—the last few hours back into Fairbanks we listened to my 1960s Bob Dylan cassette tape collection, laughing. The second trip was in late February, a weekend with storms blowing through the Brooks range—we intended to leave Friday, but I stayed home after hearing forecasts of blowing snow just north of Fairbanks—Ben tried to go out anyway—turned around not that far out of town. The next day we drove to Coldfoot, halfway, to find dozens of trucks idling in the parking lot—Atigun pass had been blown shut for days—the next day we drove as far as we could—no traffic on the road at all—we stopped where we wanted and set up our tripods in the middle of the road—an amazing day—and that trip, after we tired of talking, we listened to a CD of poet John Haines reading his work.

I watched Ben struggle to arrange his photographs into a book—to find a thread that kept the project together. In the fall of 2011, shortly after he moved to Juneau, I spent an evening at his house, and he showed me his attempt to edit his pictures into a sequence for a book—pictures hanging from string with clips—we rearranged them looking for a sequence that worked—and I offered to write an introduction to define the thread—which I did in about 20 minutes:

 

People come to Alaska for all kinds of reasons, but there is a look that some of them have, a little wild eyed, hell bent towards something, like the third generation bastard offspring of Kerouac, edgy, that identifies them as one of them, that “into the wild” crowd, the refusal to compromise, to take advice, to listen, that occasionally results in death, but mostly just results in pushing things until the wheels come off, or they lose their grip on the road and go sliding into the ditch…

Alaska is full of wanna-be photographers and writers, just one of the forms of madness that drive people north, to find the end of the road, the real wilderness.   John Szarkowski wrote that Americans are scared by a sense of innocence, and one of the places they come looking for it is in Alaska, some of them end up on the Dalton Highway, that 500 mile long gravel ribbon crossing some of the most amazing space left. The road is there because there is oil at the end, and the big trucks that own the road are all there to support the oil fields. But other people come—tourists, hunters, drifters—mostly because it’s as far north as you can go, to get away from everybody else. Most of them never leave the side of the road, never venture off into the empty space.

The first picture I ever saw that Ben Huff made on the Dalton was precisely the kind of picture you’d expect from one of those young men—taken through the cracked windshield of his car—of snow swirling in the doom of twilight—and of course he made it while driving alone in November, coming back from one of his first trips up the road, listening to Mat Dillion reading Kerouac’s “On the Road”. I’d already seen a group of his photographs made around Fairbanks—a little spooky, the color pallet of the failed painter, the intensity of someone intending to make Art.  You knew he was up to something, so long as his tires didn’t shred.

On the Road, with Ben Huff, February 2011

On the Road, with Ben Huff, February 2011

 

But how can one take a space as large as the land this road crosses and make the place your own? It is too big, too cold, too desolate, so much beyond the scale of human comfort to ever be home. It is a place that attracts our eye, but ultimately is so severe that it drives us away. Nobody lives in Prudhoe Bay—the workers come and go on week long shifts, the truckers drive up the road one day, drop their loads, and run back home.   Most of the people that come and try to live along the road give up after a few days or weeks and move on. The place is just too damn hard.

I know, from conversations with Ben, that he thinks these pictures aren’t enough—I’ve watched him plan his “last trip north” about half a dozen times now—but what he perhaps is still too young to realize is that no picture or set of pictures will ever be enough—that place is still beyond his grasp. As it should be—and hopefully will be for generations to come. But I’m grateful for his pictures of the place and the wild men that drift through it.

 

It has taken several years to get the book published—with a wonderful essay by Barry Lopez—and sans my own introduction—but I still think it defines at least one thread that runs through his pictures.