A Murky View

Keeping your photography gear clean is an art. So they say. To me personally it feels more like a task, like washing windows or meticulously folding laundry.  I treat my camera like I treat our rust-infested car or garage full of toys and tools. I use them because they are meant to be used. My photo gear gets thrown in the dirt when I switch lenses in a hurry. I prefer sturdy gear that doesn’t crack open after a day on the slopes or a rainy day in the bottom of a kayak.

 

As a result of my (perhaps careless) nature, my photo gear is prone to wear and tear on a regular basis. And I am not even talking about backpacks accidently rolling down mountains and tripods falling into creeks. Filthy water drops get magnetically drawn to my lenses like flies to a cow pie. Dust always lurks in the corners of the sensor. And since not too ago I now wear grease-covered glasses too. All added up, you could say my photographic view of the world is often not crystal clear.

 

In life in general, what I see through my viewfinder is not any different.  My window to the world is sometimes clouded, obscured by dirt I have kicked up myself: my attitudes, beliefs and perceptions. Recently, after a period of gray and clouded thoughts my window got downright dirty. My picture of the world, the world we live in, was murky to say the least. My focus was on a long list of troublesome developments, especially the numerous examples of greed and ignorance destroying our world at a staggering pace. Once noticed this muck on the lens was hard to keep out of my line of sight. I tried hard to wipe it off and start the day with a crystal clear view, but like a magnet the dirt always returned in days to come.

 

On days like that I feel uneasy, seeing the glass so half empty, my mind so filled to the rim with this uncomfortable awareness, at times unable to shift into an attitude that is soft and forgiving. I tried positive thinking, avoiding the news, distracting myself with a shopping cart of spiritual practices to be more present. Some days it works wonders. On other days they feel like band-aid solutions to something larger that has opened my eyes. Every now and then, in order to shift my perceptions, I need to see some real hope in action, experience true selflessness, capture the stories, digest and write about them.

 

Recently our small mountain town and pretty much all of southern Alberta got hit by floods. Torrential rains battered mountain slopes forcing statistically impossible volumes of water through under-sized culverts, dormant creek beds and onto comfortably-grown flood plains. The raging water bread-knifed its way through layer-cakes of stone and gravel. Highway asphalt peeled off like old paint from a prairie barn. For a short while our small town turned into a disaster zone. It exposed people to a short-lived but intensive spell of anxiety, uncertainty and isolation.

 

Then, in the weeks to follow, it offered an opportunity for connection, compassion and selflessness. Neighbours reached out, opened their otherwise locked doors to strangers. Volunteers worked countless hours to repair and clean up mud-logged houses and inundated basements. Community efforts popped up like flowers after spring rain. Unsung heroes and new leaders rose to the occasion and mobilized a wonderful force of nature I had already written off: us humans.

 

aster-floodThe event offered me an opportunity to see my narrow world anew. It forced me to change lenses and widen my perspective on hope for the world. It was exactly what I needed. It flooded me and washed away the rigid foundation around my hostage-held heart. My half empty glass quickly filled with floodwater. Now, seven weeks after the unexpected event the murky water has settled. I am left with some dirt and a column of crystal clear water. The combination will offer me some choice in days to come; to stir the dirt back up or leave myself with a clearer view of the world.

Properly Exposed

It’s been five weeks or so since my camera took the plunge and my backpack went frolicking down a mountain slope. The damage is assessed. Expectations were low. Miraculously, after adding rice to the camera and slow cooking the concoction in a sunbaked car for days, the flat-lined camera surprisingly spit out the moisture and starting showing vital signs again. After doing my ABC’s (checking Airways, Breathing, Circulation), I found out the camera is still usable, although somewhat beaten up, much like my own body. The submerged lens just came out of the intensive care and surgery was successful. So you could say I was lucky. Still, my photography took a small dent this month. The timing is interesting to say the least.

 

Like a backpack tumbling down a mountain, life sometimes takes you on a sudden rollercoaster. It accelerates for no apparent reason. It turns upside down and leaves you stranded in a completely new environment, leaving you clueless as to how you actually got there. My last couple of weeks were a bit like that. I look up to the sky with a questionable look on my face. Call it the universe, god, or whoever runs the grand show up there and down here, he sure has an interesting sense of humor.

 

otello-tunnels-BW-logoAs I mentioned in my first blog, I’m a sucker for the word authenticity; to be real, sincere and full of integrity. I am not a textbook example portraying this character trait, but it is something that I strive towards. While my dominant mind tries to judge everything around me, including my own photography, my heart often softens the view like a filter on a lens.  The result coming out of my mouth is often a cocktail of my true self and what my mind has decided people want to hear. For a long time I’ve been longing to put this blended, tiring behaviour to bed, by finding my own authentic voice and getting comfortable with it.

 

The first blog about four months ago was an encouraging start. I felt inspired to write more in the days to come.  I kept very private matters such as health and personal life to myself. There were enough stories to spread, inspiring insights to share, funny tales to tell. Everyone would go “Wow” at my photos.  I was encouraged and motivated. The great feeling lasted a short while. Then life just went back to being life. My new voice retreated back to a familiar sound. One thing I forgot was that the big word authenticity also meant sharing the not so hilarious days; the days I wrestle in the shit that life sometimes stirs up.

 

The term exposure came to mind. Exposure is one of the first topics covered in any beginner’s photography course. In very general terms, under-expose a photo, it will be too dark. Over-expose it and it will be too light. The trick is to shine enough light on the subject that you want to stand out. You could say the picture of my personal life has not been properly exposed. My personal story remains predominantly in the dark, hesitant to step forward into the light.

 

My quest for health is now entering its eighth year.  It is too colossal of a topic in my life not to be addressed in my writing. I typically share my story with close friends and family, but don’t hang my laundry to dry at someone’s birthday party, nor do I splatter my food choices and emotions on the Facebook wall. Instead, I usually take lots of Pepto-Bismol and try really hard to digest my food as well as my thoughts. Not sure this is a much better approach.

 

In the last few weeks photography outings were scarce, short and close to home. With a brain fogged up in a low hanging cloud, writing takes more effort than usual. My body frequently forces me on the couch or in bed. With a bit of effort I meet with a close friend over tea. The luminous hours of the day, when the sun breaks through the mist, are limited to a few that I want to make count. I’ve been here a hundred times before. And a hundred times I’ve hidden it from the world.

 

tunnel-mtn-shot-2-logoSo once again I am aiming to adjust the tone of my voice and the contents of my writing. I’m cautiously learning to be open about where I am at and who I really am, not just open about the aspiring photographer or educator in me. You could say I’m experimenting to find the proper exposure in the big picture.

 

Therefore, I have decided to more consciously introduce another topic in my writing. It’s a reflection on getting comfortable with being exposed to the elements of this entity called life. It’s about taking the insights and gifts that show up on your path when you’re forced to slow down and sharing them with the world.

 

I am committed to making this new aspect of my writing constructive, inspiring, funny, and most of all real. I still have to find a proper broadcast channel, a second blog, a book perhaps. Filling twenty more journals is not going to cut it. I will keep you posted on what lies beyond the next bend in the river. At the same time the photography blog will continue as it is a great medium to reveal and make sense of life, nature and us in the middle.

How to embrace a lemon

On my photography outings I often try to adopt a mindful approach. I say try, because I regularly fail like a chicken trying to lay a perfectly round egg. The last week was not any different. My head was full of good intentions; to take some time to relax, not judge the outcome and let the photography process unfold organically -whatever that means. The result was slightly different than anticipated. Sometimes when you’re looking to savour a juice peach, life hands you a lemon.

 

A few days back, a sunny spring day, was a good day to go exploring, find something new, and shift creativity from neutral into first gear. I’m on a ridge overlooking the Bow Valley. The ridge is exposed to the southern sun. As I walk I feel the heat of the early season sun linger in pockets around me. I sit down in a hotspot and let the world around me unfold. Inspiration will come, I think. If not, it is pleasant relaxing my eyes on the distant mountain panorama. I sit down and focus on my breathing. Deep breath in, long breath out. It’s the start of my long-intended and long-anticipated meditation sessions in the wilderness.

 

After a minute I get bored. It’s a common pattern. My mind wanders off, thinking about a stealthy cougar approaching, ticks crawling up my legs or amazing photography opportunities waiting just around the next bend. To sit down and stop my mind from going in circles often turns out to be a real challenge.

 

triangular-crocus-logoToday is no different. I’m happy to be out in nature. My body is calm, but my mind is restless. I pride myself on the intention of just sitting and being.  “Here’s a high five to myself for even trying”, I think. My eyes are already scanning the area around me for a photo subject. I soon discover a flower that peaks my interest. The sun sits high in the sky, so I use my backpack to create some shadow on the flower. The backpack is shaped awkwardly- a flat back and round front. It’s not unlike my own waist these days. The pack does not easily stay in place on this moderate slope, so I wiggle it into a juniper bush. Finally it sticks. I lean forward on knees and elbows and start the interactive game between camera, flower and elements.

 

Suddenly the light is back on. The backpack rolled over like a helpless beetle. I don’t care and keep going. “Thump”, the backpack makes a sound again. Now I look up. Only a meter away the backpack has taken another tumble downhill. With my camera in hand I sit up and observe. The backpack flips once again, gently limping down the hill, taking a quick breather after every somersault. “The next juniper bush will grab it”, I tell my dog. Wrong. The pack’s round front leaps gracefully over the bush. “Thump, thump, thump”, the backpack is now gaining momentum. My world stops for a moment while I witness the pack transform from a leaping gazelle into a cartwheeling rock. It seems to be enjoying itself. My lenses inside the bag have come along for the joy ride to the valley floor.

 

Deep breath in, long breath out. To my own surprise I don’t respond; I just watch in awe. My thoughts have come to a four-way stop as my backpack shamelessly runs the traffic light. Like a Buddhist monk I sit and watch. Ten seconds of mindfulness. The backpack has by now disappeared into the trees some fifty meters below. As in a sudden awakening, I jump back on my feet and start running down the ridge with my camera in hand. Soon I stumble, plummet and tumble headfirst through numerous juniper bushes. Acknowledging my camera survived the first beating,  I get up again and navigate the steeper part of the slope with a lot more awareness. In the trees on the valley floor I find my pack. The lenses, packed in soft, foamy cushions, are shaken but not stirred. No damage at first sight.

 

My lenses have taken a beating, but two days later I’m outside again, drifting through the woods with no particular plan other than to test the lenses. My dog Charm is again by my side. I’m surprisingly calm today. The rushing sound of a creek pulls us in. The sun plays with rays of sparkling white water as it rushes over a log. I find a nice angle and set up a tripod along the creek, aiming to take a long exposure shot. The shore is rocky, covered with soft, slippery sphagnum moss. Charm finds a soft green pillow and wallows in the sunlight. I set the exposure time on my camera to thirty seconds, press the shutter button, step back and let the camera do its job. I relax, sit down and continue where I left off a few days ago. I am relaxing my muscles, smelling the woods, feeling the sun on my skin. Deep breath in, long breath out. I can’t believe I am actually doing it.

 

creek-camera-logo“Plunk” I hear next to me. I look up. The camera and tripod have disappeared. All that remains are a rock and rushing creek. I can’t believe it. The tripod fell over and landed in a dark deep pool. I can’t even see the camera. Like the episode on the ridge a few days back, I am left stunned for a few seconds that seem like eternity. Deep breath in, long breath out. I am no doubt living in the present. Mind is empty, hollow, vacant. Then, as if a spark hits fuel, my brain starts racing again. “Do I untie my shoes, jump into the creek, scream, just give up?”, I rush from thought to thought.  I decide to reach into the pool with both arms and blindly feel my way to what appears to be my gear. I lift up the dripping mess. “There goes my photography for a while”, I say out loud. My dog looks at me from her mossy bed and silently acknowledges this newly acquired wisdom.

 

For a while I sit on the moist moss and lick my wounds. The camera is water logged and lifeless. The lens is saturated with milky muck. It’s too late for CPR, defibrillation or surgery. Even though frustration is dripping from my face, I realize life has once again handed me perfect little exercise in remaining calm and trusting a good outcome.

 

Deep breath in, long breath out. The universe obviously has other plans for me this week. I decide to embrace more writing this week. Perhaps I’ll buy a lottery ticket. Don’t things often turn out for the best after life appears to go tumbling down a mountain? As I walk back home, I promise myself to apply what I heard on the radio the day before. What do you do when life hands you a lemon? You take a huge bite out of it, knowing lemon is good for you.

 

 

 


 

Focus on Crocus

After a long Canadian winter, I generally look forward to the first signs of Spring. Here in the Rocky Mountains, we typically have to wait until April to witness the first flowers popping up on sunny south facing slopes. As the sun rises higher and higher above the mountain ranges, the snow melts quickly in sunbaked spots while underexposed slopes still cling to layers of snow and ice. The landscape slowly morphs into something new, a transition I have now witnessed many times before. My mind predicts the changes of the season in detail; first this, then that. But this year I am committed to silencing my mind for at least a short while and embrace a concept that is called “Beginner’s mind”.

 

The practice of adopting a Beginner’s Mind starts with taking all your judgments, beliefs, opinions and locking them up in a closet where we can easily access them later again. It’s about investigating something new with curiosity, excitement and wonder, even if we have investigated it before. It’s about recognizing that our great intellectual mind serves a purpose, but also distorts and hides things from our view. I decided to experiment with this concept while wandering the local trails, with camera in hand of course.

 

The exercise I’ve given myself is centered around one flower, the Prairie Crocus. If my locked up mind serves me well, it is the first flower to make an appearance on the local mountain slopes. For a week now, I’ve been keeping an eye out for the first one to appear on the sunny slopes directly behind our house. Even though the objective is to discover the flower as if it was presented to me for the first time, my competitive mind is determined to make a game out of the search.

 

After a few days of scanning the slopes, today, on April’s Fool’s day, I found one brave lonely fellow. It is an unusual teaser of a hot day, as if the weather gods are playing a joke on us, knowing the rest of the week will bring the usual temperamental Spring weather with rain and snow storms. I am surprised to find one small crocus brilliantly reaching for the sun this early in the season. It is not safely tucked in between other plants to hide from a merciless world. No, this flower is committed, wide open and unlike me, living non-stop in the moment. As if in a love affair with the life giving sun, it was not shy about erecting triumphantly in this morning’s sun. Once opened, it’s sunny yellow core and soft lavender colored sepals drew my eyes in. The first insects and butterflies dart around it as if they found a formidable treat. Over the course of the coming weeks, more of this flower’s relatives will no doubt come out of hibernation, having no choice but to be lured by the irresistible heat beckoning from above.

 

As I photograph the flower, I am trying hard to the silence my lively mind and discover it again for the first time. This prairie crocus is not big, it measures only 4 inches. It has an unusually large head compared to its body. Unlike babies, I figure this flower is not really going to grow out of its odd proportions. I swerve back from preconceived notions and judgments to new discovery. The flower is covered with an army of tiny white hairs. To a macro photographer the hairs are perhaps the most fascinating part of the plant. Water drops balance on top of the woolly threads, refusing to disperse into smaller drops. The round bubbles make up their own mini universe and reflect the world surrounding the flower, including the photographer, in an amusing distorted manner.

 

I decide to revisit this gorgeous hairy monster in the days to come, through rain and snow, discovering it in detail with a child’s curiosity. In our rushed, mind-dominated society it is easy not to care about the short lifespan of this flower, but I’m curious to observe it from day to day. It is a liberating feeling to let go of the imprisoning  attitude of “I know” and to embrace “I don’t know”. To be curious and to welcome what is presented to you in the moment can be refreshing to say the least. Even though I have taken lots of photographs of this flower species in previous seasons, I am determined to explore it again and discover something new. Since the Crocus is the sole flower brave enough to populate our fragile slopes and face our moody weather for several weeks, my mind has surprisingly agreed to go along with this approach.

 

 


 

Mind’s eye opener

Things aren’t always as they seem. You can look at a painting and see one thing, and it will be all you see until someone points out something you never noticed before.  There are artists who specialize in deception and optical illusions, giving paintings surreal 3D effects or letting images spin while they really don’t move at all. I find it fascinating. On a smaller scale, pretty much in the backyard of our home I witness optical illusions too, hidden treasures in photos and landscape scenes. Faces hidden in rocks, old wise men disguised in trees. I don’t go purposely looking for them, but sometimes an image surprises me and makes me wonder what else I have missed.

 

My curiosity about the “invisible” world didn’t show up overnight. I started with a simple well-known logo that was highlighted in an educational video while I worked at The Banff Centre. image fedexThe FedEx logo is something we all encounter on the buses driving around town and nothing seems out of the ordinary. Five letters, F.E.D.E.X, that is it. That is until someone pointed out to me there’s an arrow between the last E and X. Not a huge revelation by any means. What is huge, is that the arrow is all I see now, on every package, on every van and even in Tom Hank’s Castaway. Whoever pointed it out to me, thanks very much, but not really.

 

It was an interesting discovery that kind of faded into the background until I recently took a photo that brought the whole experience back to light. A close-up of some ice crystals on a frozen creek seemed a nice enough macro shot, but while observing my mosaic of photos at home, all I noticed was a glaring eye staring at me, like father winter was keep a close eye on me.

Despite the image being composed of some feathered crystals called hoar frost, all I see, time after time, is the eye. My brain is relentless and stubborn. It loves the route it just discovered and is determined not to veer off for a while. I wonder if it’s the same route as the FedEx van drives every day.

 

The big revelation lies in the question what else I have missed in life. What crosses my path every day and haven’t I noticed? What is it my mind chooses to see and what is it, even right smack in front of me, my brain chooses to ignore or label as something it has already encountered a thousand times?

 

On many occasions I tried to change habits or behaviors that didn’t serve me, tried to flick the destiny switch in my life. I decorated the kitchen cupboards and walls of our house with fluorescent sticky notes, reminding me of my newly intended behaviors, encouraged by the common concept that it only takes 3 weeks to make a new behavior your own. As I often found, the new behaviors didn’t last. Like the supposedly sticky notes, they eventually stopped sticking.

 

What if changing a behavior was as easy as seeing the arrow, seeing the eye in the snow and never going back to the old routine. What if an eye opener constructed a new freeway in our brain, like a freshly paved autobahn that whole of Germany has been waiting to use. Can one experience, one encounter with another human being, blast you into a permanent new awareness, cause the bridge to old behavior to crumble behind you, disappear into the vast open space of underutilized gray matter? I do not have the answer, but it sure is an interesting question.

Let it flow

To write or not to write?. The question has been on my mind a lot. As it turns out, it isn’t really the right question to ask myself. The right question is “What to write?”  Cause something is longing to come out.

 

I recently took part in a writing course in which we were taught to start every day with a freewrite. A freewrite consists of spilling your thoughts and emotions into a notebook, keeping your pen glued to the paper for at least five minutes. It’s a warm up tool to dissolving road blocks on your way to free flowing prose. I thought it was useful. So that’s how I started my blog, with a freewrite.  I let words and sentences flow like a babbling brook, which soon turned to a swollen river. Then I deleted the first 3 paragraphs.

 

When I investigated a few photography blogs online, I found lots of talented people residing in cyberspace. And even closer to home- in the Canadian Rocky Mountains – there’s a photographer hiding behind every tree, rock or furry animal. It is not uncommon to visit Vermillion Lakes near Banff at sunrise and find yourself surrounded by a dozen tripods and two legged owners.

 

Though I have sworn on occasion at the sight of a busload of camera owners, it’s all fine really. It turns out that –except from Banff Avenue- there’s lot of space here in the mountains.  In addition, we all look at life from a different angle. What we have in common is a desire to get out there, immerse ourselves in nature and capture its beauty. With a bit of luck we walk away with a picture that speaks partly of a natural scene, but more often than not also portrays a bit of the capturer’s character, life and experiences.

 

This blog will not be about the aperture settings on my camera or carefully calculated shutter speeds. There are many great blogs for that. To hide my true self behind equipment details and technical ladida would no doubt be fairly safe choice, but would not feel -to use one of my favorite words- “authentic” to me. There’s another story to be told that inspires me more, like a spring that longs to be flowing. It’s about exploring life and the natural world that surrounds us. It’s about sharing  and making sense of the sometimes challenging, sometimes downright funny experiences on our path. In this blog photography is the medium, wilderness the playground, life the subject. Hope you join me.