In February and March 2008 I led a workshop called Winter Light: Photographing Concord Massachusetts. What follows are my journal entries, in part grappling with the question of what is winter light and how is it photographed?
(All quotes are from Henry David Thoreau, sage of Concord)
I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.
In the morning I led the first Winter Light session to Concord, concentrating mostly on West Concord starting from the train station, walking west about one mile to the Assabet river bridge and a mill I’d not expected to find, then hurriedly back to meet the lost 3 students who’d taken the wrong road, and finally to drive SE about 2 miles to a crossing of the Sudbury river where we swarmed among the canoe rental landing, bridge, and railroad trestle. For most, this site was the highlight. As it was for me, discovering frosted ice encasing oak leaves.
I’d simplified the assignments to include 1. Use the cameras Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual modes appropriately, finding reasons to try each (on the way to the Assabet crossing) and then 2. Pick a spot and make a series of photos swiveling, panning, tilting, etc, and photograph one thing at least 10 times (at the Sudbury crossing).
The group of 8 (including 4 repeating students) seemed pleased with the workshop, despite my initial clumsiness leading them on a long walk without much payback. I’d intended to begin at the site where I’d taken my daughters, Joey and Kate, when they were young many times but this turned out to be at the first Concord train stop, not West Concord. I’d never been to this area before, a completely new experience, one I’m now grateful for.
Being a Winter Light workshop we couldn’t ask for a more suitable sky: thick dark clouds alternating with lighter filmier ones, the sky gradually clearing, but never totally, the day chilly and windy, the light constantly changing, offering challenge and opportunity. I might wish the sky were a metaphor for my relations with women—challenge and opportunity, constantly changing—but I’m afraid I have to conclude the more apt metaphor would be cloudy sky, stratus or alto stratus, dull and unremitting. Or so I feel at the moment.
—February 3, 2008 Sunday
All endeavor calls for the ability to tramp the last mile, shape the last plan, endure the last hours toil. The fight to the finish spirit is the one… characteristic we must possess if we are to face the future as finishers.
The day would not be complete without a new blog or web entry. So I sorted thru the West Concord photos, processed about 25, printed them for our review tomorrow evening and them uploaded to my website. Feeling satisfied, for now, a respite from my more political work. How can I be happy photographing life in Gaza and at the same time diamonds on the Sudbury and Assabet rivers?
After the upload I collated my 2007 recent photos on the web, putting them into an archive, and freeing the home page section for new recent photos, yet to be made. Making these, will I also make discoveries about photography, about myself?
—February 7, 2008, Thursday
An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.
Sudbury River, near Concord Center
Winter Light’s circumambulation of Walden Pond yesterday was special. I’d prepared better than usual, digging into Henry David Thoreau more thoroughly than usual, featuring his experience there over 150 years ago by telling parts of his story and reading from his book, Walden. The weather was variable—snow squalls, wind, plunging temperatures, the sky transforming itself moment to moment, at times clear, at times deep dark gray, at times speckled with ballooning cumulous clouds. Students seemed eager to participate, despite the fact that 3 of the 8 were missing for various reasons.
The exercises included observing in the four directions, then making use of discoveries to photograph (at the main shore, by the bath house), more awareness exercises, such as the blind faith walk and walking backwards (northern shore, to the right of main shore with back to main shore), light on dark and dark on light (northern shore to the hut site path), extreme angles (from hut site further), documentation (at the hut site), and free time for the last half of the walk. At the RR tracks snow hit us hard, I thought this might either break and let the sun punch out or continue to occlude sky and block photography. The former was true.
Needless to report, few others were at the pond, in sharp contrast with a typical summer day. One family valiantly trudged thru the snow. A few couples found their way around the circular path. One or two solitary men hiked. One couple dared the ice and traversed the pond.
Memories flooded into me. I announced a few to my students: ceremonially depositing my mother Pearl’s ashes into her beloved pond one early summer morning, camping here solo and relishing the morning mists, but I did not admit to a highly charged romantic liaison with C in the pond, while others swam around us and either saw nothing or pretended not to see. The water hid our private parts and delights. Later I confided to B my experience with L, the ice cracking, “singing the world into life,” as her friend said. So birth and death merge for me in this water—as Thoreau awakens from his deep endless sleep where I imagine him hammering nails into his boards to make a home, bathing ritually every morning, sounding the waters, and freezing in mid winter before he lights his fire.
About half way around the pond, while at the RR tracks, we experienced an aspect of the day that many felt was a faux or simulated danger: snows suddenly whipped around us. We could pretend we were in the arctic, explorers, finding our way to the North Pole (before the ice there melts), caught in a blizzard. We’ve lost our way, batteries have run out on our cell phones and global position indicators, no one knows our plight, we are destined to perish. Only for a moment, then: the parking lot, our cars, turn on engines, heat up interiors, drive off, arrive home, make a hot toddy or hot chocolate, pet our dogs, relax with our loved ones, turn on the TVs, snooze before dinner. Safe at home, at last, the trek over.
This same squall painted the trees with a short lived white veneer, attracting attention, cameras.
What is winter light? we might inquire. It is the title of a film by Ingmar Bergman about a minister losing his faith, about one of his ministrants killing himself at his own loss of faith. Winter light is cold and dark, and it is sun bright and hot, if one is seated in the right location in the church.
Winter light is long shadows, gray black, bright highlights when the sun shines. It is heat married to cold, the memory of warm evenings, the expectation of long days returning. It is a sustaining light that carries us thru the long frigid midwinter nights with a promise of thawed earth, germinating seeds, buds, flowers, and fruits. The earth springs back once it tires of the winter light.
—February 11, 2008 Monday, Cambridge
The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.
On Sunday afternoon the 3rd session of Winter Light, photographing Concord concentrated on main Concord, the center, beginning at the RR station, the correct station from my family memory, from which I departed with Jo and maybe at times Kate to the nearby Sudbury river for a picnic. Last Sunday the river was flooded, lapping over the fences separating private back yards from river. We practiced walking mindfully from the parking lot at the station to the bridge, then spoke about themes: shadows (the day was sunny), reflections, trees, water, and snow and ice. Much of the snow remained from the storm on Friday.
I found a copse of trees delicately outlined by snow, feet in the water, and made a series of photos. I also found sharp reflections of bright sun which I tried to expose properly for maximum effect.
A quick walk back to our car pool, drive to Concord Center, the assignment here was one frame, multiple moments, practicing one use of time, the decisive moment after Cartier-Bresson. I entered a popular coffee shop, photographed discretely and surreptitiously, holding the camera at my waist and viewing thru the fold out screen, much the same position as Dorothea Lange used. Eventually I noticed a pair of young girls eyeing the pastries, moved up behind them, framed and shot.
A woman stopped me, said, “Are you photographing those girls without their permission?”
“Yes, and I’m not showing their faces so they can’t be identified. What do you think?”
She rocked her head back and forth, indicating uncertainty but probably condemnation.
Third and last activity was about meta photography, symbol, synecdoche (part standing for the whole) and metaphor primarily. Location: Sleepy Hollow cemetery, appropriate spot, burial site of the Emerson’s and Thoreau’s (altho I never found more than an Emerson son grave site). By now the light was waning, the chill increasing, the fatigue enveloping. I strolled about for a while, mysteriously paired with fellow student M who complained about not finding anything much to photograph here, certainly nothing of symbol and metaphor. We then chanced upon a stream of tracks heading into the setting sun.
“How about this?” I exhorted.
Later he reported that he’d made a symbolic photo of the instructor walking into the sunset.
And free time, walking from the cemetery to the cars, I suggested wild mind photography and something else I’ve now forgotten, maybe extreme angles.
Too late for this episode in my teaching-making experience, I picked up my Nikon camera and lens from Sanford Repair yesterday. The long bike ride there, much of it slightly uphill, requiring about 30 minutes, and then coasting for the most part back, returned to me my prized SLR which I’ve not been able to use since first the lens, then the shutter broke in Gaza in January. Cost: $378. Repair: new shutter, reinserted screws in the lens, all systems checked and cleaned. I love this camera, not only for itself but because Joey gave it to me. By this gift she reenacts the arrival of my first camera: given to me by my father Fran.
I’m reading The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer, recommended by Larry, a fine fine book. The title comes from the idea that certain themes, things to photograph and styles, repeat and vary. The hat for instance. He traces this item thru Steiglitz, Lange, and into contemporary photography. The cloaked figure as well. And the bench. Showing how these items and figures predominate, wane, seem to disappear, and then magically resume. The Ongoing Moment.
Each photo has a predecessor, each photo has a successor. No photo exists isolated from all the others. Same with the photographers. We are all connected.
I’d say this book is a profound demonstration of that interconnectivity.
Dyer also has a gift for the turn of phrase. Writing about Evans and Cheever—were they lovers, were they gay?—he quotes Cheever about Evans: “He had an enormous prick which barely showed signs of life.”
—February 26, 2008, Tuesday
I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.
Assabet River, West Concord
The 4th and final winter light photo session: Great Meadows, beginning at 6 am, sunrise and moon set at about 6:45, on a cold windy morning, the meadow flooded. Which meant we could not walk the dike trail across the main lagoon, nor could we circumambulate the pond and reach the Concord River. We hiked east on a trail until reaching floodwater, returned to our starting point, walked west and reached the Concord sewage treatment plant where we ended the 4-session excursion. Not where I thought we might end but significant nevertheless.
I’d hoped to reach the river via the dike trail, walk upriver west to the Minute Man National Park and the North Bridge, walk west further to the confluence of the Assabet and Sudbury rivers making the Concord (ah, the word concord: 2 rivers meeting. Or the ideal of concord, vs. discord).
A highlight-lowlight for me was the moon. I tried to photograph it first with my long lens (I carried wide, telephoto, regular, and Nikon body, reveling in having it back, so loving the camera.). The long lens only produced the usual full moon picture, if that, since I had no tripod and these photos may have been blurry. Then the wide, and here I think I may have something. The sun was slowly rising, but the sunrise manifested more in the emerging glow on the meadow—an eerie deep blue—than the sun itself. With the moon tiny, rather than huge, I might make a more remarkable picture.
Once up, the sun only lit a clear sky, no clouds, one of the hardest skies to work with.
Exercises were few, free time long: shoot Raw files for high dynamic range (promising more about this when we meet for review), try pretending you’re using a view camera, only one take of each scene (planning to introduce them to “One Shot Harris” later). This is an odd and unexpected juxtaposition: exploiting digital, rejecting digital.
My main physical problem resulted from a combination of enlarged prostate, too much coffee, and the hot chocolate J, driving me to the site, bought me. I had to pee constantly. I’d not shat properly, so I could feel one need mixing uncomfortably with another. Until: I discovered the toilet was open and heated, had soap. There I relieved myself completely, felt I was a new man, praised my aching wobbly weakening knees for carrying me so diligently around the area, and returned to complete our self-assigned walk about.
—March 23, 2008, Sunday
Aim above morality. Be not simply good, be good for something.
I’ve made a few minor discoveries while assembling photos for my Winter Light-Concord slide show. Using Lightroom for the initial selection, processing, and putting into slide show form, I exported each section as a PDF, numbering 4 sections, West Concord, central Concord, Walden Pond, and Great Meadows. Then I learned how to hook them together as one large PDF, at about 70 MB. Unfortunately, altho I can control the duration of each slide in Lightroom, I can’t in Acrobat. They zip by, 2 or so seconds each, with dissolves. And adding titles, so far, is not simple, not as simple as with PowerPoint or Keynote. Much to learn.
Showing it last night to the 2 who remained from the winter light workshop, B and M—others had good excuses, illness, business, and the like, none dropping (except O, from Israel, after the first session)—the show seemed to flow fairly well. My filmmaking skills, such as they are, helped in the editing. What to place first, last, and in the middle, how to sequence generally, how to pace, all from filmmaking. B noted that flow, and how surprising some of the juxtapositions were.
We all chose screen formats for our final projects, B a webpage, using Lightroom for her first time, and M showing PSD files with Preview. I’d hooked my computer to the LED projector and we kicked back and enjoyed the show.
—April 5, 2008 Saturday, Cambridge