January 10, 2007

And soon I heard a roaring wind

Filed under: Story Posts, Thinking about Photography and Art — Tony Bridge @ 1:04 pm


And soon I heard a roaring wind:

It did not come anear;

But with its sound it shook the sails,

That were so thin and sere.

The upper air burst into life!

And a hundred fire-flags sheen,

To and fro they were hurried about!

And to and fro, and in and out,

The wan stars danced between.

The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner -Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“Remember what Bilbo used to say: It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to…”;

– Frodo to Sam

Sometimes you just have to go with the flow, to follow the wind. Sometimes a chain of events flows from a single decision, from a single choice, and sometimes that choice isn’t really one at all. (more…)


October 31, 2006

Of Ruth and Zen

Filed under: Story Posts, Thinking about Photography and Art — Tony Bridge @ 7:15 pm

A very receptive state of mind… not unlike a sheet of film itself – seemingly inert, yet so sensitive that a fraction of a second’s exposure conceives a life in it.
-Minor White

It was one of those serene mornings that yawn and stretch into life on the West Coast. After a day of rain, the weather had come to a standstill while the high rolled gently onto the land. A sense of expectation and an eerie calm had settled over everything. It felt like the weather was holding its breath.

I had meant to be up before dawn to follow the transition from night to day but I overslept and wasn’t ready until after 7am. I went out anyway.

As often happens for me, I wasn’t sure quite where to start, so I stood there and looked around, waiting for the image to come to me. The great American photographer, Minor White, once said “Be still with yourself until the object of your attention affirms your presence.” Over time I have learned the truth of what he said. Sometimes an image has to come in its own time and we have to be willing to wait for it. Rushing around will only keep it at bay. So I waited.

I went and stood down by the water’s edge. Ruth, the elderly whitebaiter in the deerstalker hat and bushshirt who has been coming down there for many years and continues to do so after the death of her husband, looked sternly at me.
” You should have been here earlier,” she said. “The light was really nice then. You missed a good show.”
I got the point. But the photograph was still eluding me, even though I sensed its presence nearby. I didn’t even know which lens I would use. No clues at all.

Then, as if accepting my contrition, the image began to show itself. I looked up at the sky and the early-morning clouds dawned on me. A jetstream far above was drybrushing the clouds into koru-shaped wisps that tumbled and frolicked like carefree children across the sky. At my feet the sky checked itself in the mirror-calm estuary. I felt as if I was standing on the edge of eternity. Land and sky had become one. Now I began to understand why Tane and his siblings might have wanted to push apart their parents, Rangi and Papatuanuku. All that eternity could get to you. The view was huge and wide and all-encompassing, and I felt at once elated, at once diminished by it.

I wondered where to begin. Then the scene told me what to do. It was both intense and panoramic, wider than it was tall. It seemed to go on forever and draw me into some sort of limitless zenlike being, where sea and sky had become one, and the only link with reality was a thin line of darker-toned land forming the horizon.

I went back to my vehicle and got my camera, the 24mm shift lens and my tripod. I slopped through the mud to the water’s edge and set up my equipment. As so often happens, no matter how hard we work to narrow the gap between what our eye sees and what the camera exposes, the viewfinder will often reveal a different truth. (I learned a long time ago to always look through the lens when there was a story to be told; the hard part is knowing which lens will best tell it). I wanted to make a stitch panorama with enough information in the file to make a really big work, at least A0, so I made two overlapping images, shifting left for the first one, then right for the second, and using identical exposures for both.

After working for several minutes, I stepped back, and Ruth, who had been obviously watching me, commented on how much effort I seemed to be putting in, and how she could have done it in much less time. Helpful soul.

Taking a break, we talked about the whitebait season (bloody terrible) and the spring weather (also bloody terrible) and the sandflies( becoming bloody terrible).

Then I saw her net.

It floated there, a drawn-out piece of material reality lying contentedly between sea and sky. Its gossamer tail rested, ethereal, sublime and serene, in the translucent waters, while its glowing, skeletal head basked in the morning sunlight. I went back to The Zone. Lost in another Place and Time, I roamed, making more images, using the same laboriously technical but absorbing shift-lens-stitch method.

When I returned to the Now, I looked around, hoping to talk to Ruth, but she had lost interest. Her back was pointedly turned away from me, the tails of her bushirt, flapping disdainfully, and she was bent over, fiddling with her spare whitebaiting equipment.

One day I am going to find Ruth. I want her to see this image.

October 28, 2006

On Maniototo Station Road.

Filed under: Story Posts, Thinking about Photography and Art — Tony Bridge @ 3:22 pm

The Norwest wind has been buffeting the district all day, throwing its weight around, thumping the buildings like an out-of-sorts and grumpy bully, who, because he can’t get his way, stomps scowling away down the street, knocking over all the rubbish tins as he goes. He has managed to do some damage. A friend, who lives just around the corner, shows me the sagging remains of a brand new tin garden shed, punched out by the strength of the wind. The cloud cows are back, ruminating their way across the sky, casting vast pools of shadow as they meander east.

As the day draws on I find myself getting increasingly itchy, moving outside to stare at the sky, to watch all the action and wonder how I can participate. In the end the day gets the better of me and I have to go. I pack my equipment and head out of town, moving up towards the light. The truck is lurching and shuddering in the wind, and when I stop by the Shoe Fence and get out for a look, it seems as if the whole landscape is on the move. To the south, the clouds are moving much more slowly across the Lammermoor Range, dragging their wispy, diaphanous rain skirts. The ones above the Old Man Range are much more impressive, big bloated pompous things with puffed out chests, while those off to the north linger, thin and anorexic. Around me the grasses are hissing angrily, furious at being treated in such a fashion. But it is still early and the sun hasn’t sunk low enough for the shadows to bring texture to the land. So I drive on.

Then I am back at Wedderburn and this time I turn left onto Maniototo Station Road. It stretches emaciated and barren away to the South, a line of pale yellow splitting the landscape. I follow it down, my vehicle hardly raising any dust from its bony surface. The road lingers along for a bit then abruptly arises onto a small plateau, trickles a little further then abruptly splits in two. Ahead of me, shrinking into the distance is Maniototo Station Road, veering off to the right Highfield Road. Either way looks just as good, either way is full of possibilities.

At first I ponder which of these two roads I should take, especially since the light is now getting to the point of being critical. I know that whichever one I choose will dictate the pictures I am able to make: take the wrong road and the results could be disappointing. The secret then is to choose the correct one. I ponder this for a time as I look around myself at the landscape, the light, the weather and the day. It occurs to me that life is like that; a series of intersections or choices. Each decision we make will have ramifications for the rest of our lives. So I need to choose wisely. In the end I do neither and begin photographing the intersection itself. Somehow there is something iconic about this place, a kind of visual metaphor for Choice and Consequence.

Later, as I edit the image, I realise that colour does not suit it, that the binary nature of Choice dictates it should be black and white.

Art imitates life imitates art.

October 26, 2006

They say angels talk to a man when he walks

Filed under: Story Posts, Thinking about Photography and Art — Tony Bridge @ 2:04 pm

I have been travelling across the tail end of the night, crossing from west to east, under a sky littered with stars and the untidy splash of the Milky Way. To left and right, the mountains loom up, ghostly and sepulchral, immobile stone trolls, noting my passage but making no comment.

I left the West Coast shortly before midnight, driven by a requirement to be back in time for a meeting in Ranfurly. Travelling in the dark can be a very personal and surreal experience. They say angels talk to a man when he walks, and I have come to realise that they do the same thing when he drives. It is a time to reflect and review. Perhaps it is something to do with being alone in a space that only extends to the limits of the headlights.

The truck and I know each other well, and we are attuned to the rhythm of this particular piece of road, but somewhere above Lake Hawea I know it is time to take a break. The road is becoming a little bit difficult to control, wrestling to get away from me.. I’m worried about the potential for having an accident, although I haven’t seen a single car in two hours. So I pull up at a photo opportunity lay-by high above the lake, and sleep for a couple of hours.

I awake and push on. The road slips and slides and winds its way down to Alexandra. The needle has slid to near- empty and there are no gas stations until I get to Ranfurly, so I pull over again on the main street, and wait for the pumps to open. It’s five o’clock now, and my best guess is they’ll open around 6 a.m. There will probably be workers, contractors and farm people wanting to fill up. I drift off again, and wake just as the signs come on at the Caltex station across the road. Sure enough, as I pull on to the diesel pump, a guy in a Mitsubishi ute stops on the other side, and fills first his truck and then the petrol cans for the collection of chainsaws in the back. His pointed comments on the frost explain the sullen muttering of the helicopter I’ve been hearing in the distance since I got here. Frost on the vines. Of course.

The first glimmer of daybreak is throwing the hills to the east into relief as I head up the road towards Omakau. Off to the left, the brush of snow swept across the hills by the weekend southerly storm is beginning to light, pink and blue, as the light strengthens to the east and the sun begins to appear above the horizon. The contented murmur of the diesel plays almost a counterpoint to it. As I wind my way up a road I’m beginning to know well and which is beginning to know me well, I begin to reflect on the road my life has and is taking. There have been some hard lessons to learn, and some hard lessons I’m still learning.

They say angels talk to a man when he walks.

There has been a heavy frost (hardly unusual round here), and the semi-frozen water races and streams of water on the rocky ground squirm and shimmer in the early morning light. I pass an irrigator, one of those black circular ones like an oversized cowpat which has been left on all night. Around it a circle of white frost has built up in layers, ice upon ice upon ice like thick icing. A lone weed inside the circle has multiple coatings of hoar frost, and now points an ice-gloved bony finger towards the sky.

Then, as I climb up the past Becks onto the plateau by St. Bathans, I see the fog bank ahead of me. Oh great. It does nothing to lift my spirits, which have been hovering on the fine line between reflective and dour. It writhes and slithers and fidgets its way over the hill, picking at the landscape, pouring into the hills and gullies, shrouding the trees and buildings in a grey mystery. The just-out-of-reach sun, maybe a valley or two further east, has turned the upper edge of the fog bank a wild pink-magenta colour, which provides a line of contrast between the sullen grey beneath, and the dharmic yellow-blue gradation above. It makes me think of that Stephen King novella, the one where the people are locked in the supermarket while prehistoric creatures roam outside. As I drop down into the murk, I can almost imagine dinosaurs roaming, indistinct and shadowy in the fields to either side.

Passing the Wedderburn hotel and the railway goods shed brought back and restored after Grahame Sydney had painted it and made it famous, I see the old stone shearing shed off to my left, sitting solemn and somehow forlorn in the mist. The power pole beside it is adorned with birds, socialising along a single wire. There is a composition here, so I climb down from the artificial warmth of the truck. I zip my jacket up to my chin (wish I’d remember to bring that beanie) and break out my camera. By the time, I’ve made for or five exposures, the mist is starting to lift and the hills in the background are moving into the frame like uninvited guests. So I pack up, and drive further up the hill.

Then, as I am almost at the top of the hill, the light explodes in my face. Ahead of me, on the ridge line, a stand of old man pine. The mist is beginning to thin, breaking up into shreds, beginning to drift apart like friendships beyond their use-by date. The rising sun, much more confident now, is sitting just behind the trees and pouring light through them. Great shafts of light and shadow are spilling out of the trees, and from where I am parked, it’s as if they have exposed their heart for all to see. It is so dramatic that it blows away the goblins of melancholy and self-doubt that have been picking at me all night.

This time I manage somewhere between 20 and 30 exposures before the moment has gone.

Following the long curve of the road down into Ranfurly, I can feel the fire lit inside me again, the itching expectation of what will appear on my computer screen. I give thanks to my travelling companions.

What I have seen is, in a way I have yet to understand, an affirmation.

October 20, 2006

For the Memory of Trees

Filed under: Story Posts, Thinking about Photography and Art — Tony Bridge @ 5:26 pm

The oaks and the pines, and their brethren of the wood, have seen so many suns rise and set, so many seasons come and go, and so many generations pass into silence, that we may well wonder what “the story of the trees” would be to us if they had tongues to tell it, or we ears fine enough to understand. ~Author Unknown, quoted in Quotations for Special Occasions by Maud van Buren, 1938

Us sing and dance, make faces and give flower bouquets, trying to be loved. You ever notice that trees do everything to git attention we do, except walk? ~Alice Walker, The Color Purple, 1982

And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. ~William Shakespeare

Just up the road from Ranfurly, on the edge of the Nasby Forest, about 10kms away, there is a curiously named grove of ponderosa and douglas fir called the Black Forest. The sign pointing in is half-hidden, difficult to see, so it is easy to pass by and miss this treasure. It is almost as if the forest doesn’t want just any visitor. Its stories are for the sympathetic, for those who will pay attention.

I pull up, get out and listen. The nor-west wind is brushing its fingers through the treetops, tousling them playfully, teasing, an affectionate big brother with a ready but rough hand. It has been doing this for three days now, so a cold front can’t be too far away. The lenticular clouds rambling across the vast blue dome of the sky are pointing to a coming change.

These are old trees, planted over a century ago in a time when timber was a precious commodity, when the landscape was the home of solitary, aloof rock outcrops and gossiping grasses. They were foreigners back then, imported to see how they would adapt, whether they would learn the language, identify. They have. They are now so assimilated that is as if they have always been here. They speak the language, they know the customs. They have stories to tell.

The path twitches and turns among the trunks jinking its way deeper and deeper into the grove, and as it does so, takes me further and further way from the outside world. The occasional hum of a passing vehicle diminishes with each footstep until I am lost to civilisation. Willingly so. My feet whisper on the pine needles, the memories of past seasons strewn across the ground like discarded notepaper. Now there is silence and the trees are free to speak.

I am back in my childhood once more, a part of the forest, away beyond the demands of my family, beyond my responsibilities, integrated into a Time Before. The trees that have whispered each night outside my bedroom window, beckoning me to come and share, are all around me and in need of conversation.

So I find a place among them, where a small patch of sun with a look of utter surprise and joy on its face at having found a way in and down, is resting. I sit and listen, travelling back. I can hear my sister’s Peter Pan laughter echoing, bouncing from trunk to trunk, and running away into the distance. Occasional birds warble, magpies away up in the treetops somewhere. I can see myself wandering round, playing with fallen branches, some with a pine cone or two on them. A sword to help me defeat the pirate hordes come to find me, a club to hold the ravenous T-Rex at bay, perhaps a defence against the Monster-under-the-Bed that will surely be waiting for me when I get home. I am riding a camel across vast elephantine dunes; I am bringing order to the infidels. I am travelling many worlds, living simultaneous adventures, where I will never be defeated, never be killed, where victory is certain.. And I will come home with enormous mounds of glittering, exotic treasures.

The trees know. The trees know the secret heart of a boy, and they collude willingly and freely. They tell me stories passed by treetop and wind across the roof of the world. They talk of Yetis lurking in the rhododendron groves of the Himalayas, of jaguars prowling intently in the rainforest of the Amazon. I hear of the first waka arriving in New Zealand, and the misty, softly-rustling brown figures from my whakapapa slipping carefully through the pohutukawa groves, alert to any threats in this new land. I hear of famine and disease, of whole villages taking sanctuary in the forest to avoid the Evil King’s Men, and then quietly returning when danger has passed. I learn that Trees have befriended man since the very Beginning. It hasn’t always been the other way around. But they patient and willing to wait. Their time will come again.

I can smell the heady tang of pine needles and feel the rough warmth of the bark comforting, protective but brusque. This is the incense and myrrh of the Three Kings I learned about in Sunday School; this is the feel and smell of tar and pitch and canvas and salt spray that Odysseus experienced on his way home to Ithaca. Past, Present and Future all meet in the crossroads of the forest. Reality and Imagination shake hands at this point. And I am here. Part of it. For an eternal Moment.

But Time and the sun-patch have moved on. In the distance I can hear my mother’s worried calls, along with my sister wondering where I am. They come steadily closer, circling around my now-cold sanctuary. It is time to emerge. It is time to go back to the outside world.

They needn’t be worried. They really shouldn’t be.

I am among friends.

October 17, 2006

Ranfurly-a first take

Filed under: Story Posts, Thinking about Photography and Art — Tony Bridge @ 9:34 am

In Ranfurly.

You know I’ve heard about people like me,
But I never made the connection.
They walk one road to set them free
And find they’ve gone the wrong direction.

But there’s no need for turning back
`cause all roads lead to where I stand.
And I believe I’ll walk them all
No matter what I may have planned.

-Don McLean

Well, I am here now.

In Ranfurly, 48 years after I left, maybe looking out the back window of our family’s trusty Humber 80, perched high upon blankets and pillows in a traveling cupboard with all the space squeezed out, and wondering whether I would ever return, remembering running round in gumboots on ground that squished; remembering the dancing shadows in the fireplace and the yellow of the house lights washing across the blue-black of the evening snow; remembering the washing frozen on the line and the lazy curl of my breath in the motionless air.

Well, as time has passed, as the years have clicked across the abacus of my life, I have circled around it like some sort of waterfowl, making passes through it more and more frequently, getting the feeling back, rubbing my mind across the weave of the place, checking the pond for snares, finally settling in to land, running in and flaring at the last moment, putting my feet tentatively to earth. And enjoying the fact that it stays pressed to my soles.

Somehow there is a timelessness about this place, a sort of pause-button-pressed feeling. Purposeful but self-absorbed. Maybe it didn’t look that different back when my parents would come down on Friday nights to buy the groceries for the week. I imagine the buildings were pretty much the same. Why waste money on unnecessary adornment?

I stand out on the street and look around; across the road before me is Foley and Jones, the butcher who cures his own bacon; his smokehouse snores contentedly all night, occasionally flicking the shirttail smell of curing bacon across my nose when I go outside for a cigarette. On another corner I see the Four Square store (are they still around?): restrained courtesy and sensible prices (let’s not give away too much here). Then the giveaway: I see the queue at the checkout backing up while the owner carries out an elderly woman’s groceries to the boot of her car. You don’t see that everyday.

Just down the road the light pours out of Forry’s, the establishment that can’t decide whether it’s a bar or a café or a bistro or an art gallery. So it does a bit of everything. Gotta cover all the bases. Oh, and the pub meals at the Red Lion? Plenty to eat, plates piled high. Value for money, money valued. The same friendly greetings, the same carefully-suppressed interest. Let’s not get too enthusiastic here. It might be rude. Good things take time.

Life here, well life here just is.

Ranfurly sits in the middle of the compass of the Maniototo, the axle for the district, the focal point, sensibly placed. All roads lead here, all roads lead away; across the hills arrayed in a protective circle along the edge of the sky. In the thin air the horizon draws close, and the bones of the land protrude through its spare, sufficient hide like the ribs of a malnourished dog. There is nothing effusive about this landscape. It is drawn in pen and ink, a Durer portrait where every line has a purpose. Only the skies give the lie to this deliberate moderateness; big brash skies with big brash attitudes and bipolar personalities; cloud-filled break-dance skies that swivel and gesture and overawe; big grand Wagnerian Valkyrie skyscapes with towering cumuli.

The poplars are green, shivering and leaning to the north. The southerly storm with its beetling grey-blue eyebrows blows up their Springskirt modesty, shaking their new-found sensibilities. The clouds to the south mope purposefully along the sides of the Old Man Range, shamble with heads down, dairy cattle coming in for milking, dropping their load in the watershed, then lifting their heads and spirits, ambling happily away across the Kakanui’s, relief on their faces. In the morning the hills will be frosted, draped in winter’s cocoon. But the cold is clear here, intense but bearable. The promise of warmth lies expectant in the soil. It is just a matter of time. The twilight is already beginning to linger, a guest hoping to overstay his welcome. When summer comes, he will remain behind; it will be an all-nighter.

As I turn my face into the wind I can feel the twitchiness beginning, the need to be out there with my camera. It’s all beginning to make sense now.

Damn, I’m starting to like this place.

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