travel

Autumn Train

Once upon a time, in the days before Covid-19, there was an afternoon train trip from Portland to Seattle. It strains credulity to say it now, but the train was bustling — or at least, busy enough that if two people wanted to sit together they might have to settle for their less-favored side of the train. The east-facing windows do not look out at Puget Sound (when the Sound arrives), and so one must expect to look over and around the heads of others.

So it was a terribly terribly difficult trip, looking east rather than west, but nevertheless, my camera came out. In fact, my camera had come out even in the waiting area of Portland’s lovely old Union Station. And I used the camera throughout the journey, window shots grabbed from a moving vehicle, a personal subgenre of landscape photography that I’ve been exploring for a few years now. There are many games to play, many points to explore on the exposure triangle, anticipating open shots, steadying the camera or going with the unavoidable blur, fitting the window frame into the image frame or not. The autumn afternoon light was gorgeous. Colors were distorted by the tinted windows and the train’s indoor lighting, but in working up this selection of images I decided to magnify rather than correct those distortions, and maybe to suggest a certain look from a certain era of film photography.

I recommend the Portland-to-Seattle train route to everyone, photographer or not. It will be possible to plan such a trip again — perhaps not soon, and yet, in the grand scheme of things, very soon. Try to get the west-facing windows. But if you can’t, no harm done.

Ambivalence

The morning after the storms passed in late November, I took my camera to the hills near my Inner Sunset home to capture views to the north, east, and west. I was feeling grateful, for many reasons. First, the storm’s tail-end spawned fantastic cloudscapes; this photo-ready drama, common elsewhere, is relatively rare in San Francisco. Second, the storm stirred hope for a good rainy season, which we still need after years of drought. Third, the clear sharp air was the first after nearly two weeks of smoke — breath-stealing, eye-stinging, school-closing smoke — that had drifted to the Bay Area from the tragic Camp Fire hundreds of miles to the north and east.

As my camera shoot progressed, this last bit of gratitude slowly opened itself to question. Yes, the skies dazzled, and my lungs sucked in cool fresh air, and I was grateful, even exhilarated, that the smoke was vanquished. But to our north and east, the dead were still being sought and counted, and beneath these same brilliant skies the people of Paradise were slowly returning to … nothing.

So I felt a mix of sorrow and gratitude. I can’t call it survivor guilt, because I was not in the midst of the fire, and what we survived here was by comparison a mere nuisance. I don’t know how to label it, and grammar-themed websites aren’t coming up with answers. “Cognitive dissonance” feels too removed. “Ambivalence” may fit the bill, but in some ways even it seems too weak a term. All I know for certain is that, for me, the images from that morning will always carry a weight beyond their blue skies, sun-struck buildings, and billowy clouds.