photography

Unsettled

Life is not a story, a settled version. It’s an unsorted heap of images…images that float to the surface of the mind, rise, fall, drift – and return only to drift away again… — Patricia Hempl, The Art of the Wasted Day

I love photographing and trying to wrangle art from fog. So I say, knowing all the while that fog is not really a subject, like dahlias or dachshunds, viney cottages or vintage cars. Fog is a shifting scrim over any number of subjects that we see dimly, or anticipate seeing, or see and suddenly do not see. If the fog is uniformly dense and still, the subjects flatten, barely contrasted. If the sun yanks the fog away, like a magician with cape, there’s a moment of ooh and awe, and the subject blinds with Wordsworthian trailed glory. But then that subject solidifies into its quotidian self, yoked to its solid task of being a tree, a fencepost, a stuccoed house.

If I’m out shooting, the sudden disappearance of fog saddens me. At the other extreme, I am bored by high or leaden fog. What gladdens me, what fills up my camera’s memory cards and empties out its battery, is fog that briefly reveals the lines of a subject but not, or not yet, the tangle of normalcy surrounding it. It’s the tease I love, the guessing, the hinting and pulling back. It’s not the opened present I love, but its opening.

Yes, it’s ironic that from my life in fog — which, in Patricia Hempl’s words, has no “settled version” — I emerge with still pictures. And yes, I admit, after all this conjecture about the lure of the liminal, that perhaps my infatuation actually stems from photographs my Grandfather took in the middle of the last century, and which I admired from an early age. Grandpa was a farmer, and a shutterbug, and the photographs (I’m including one here) lovingly show a flock of his sheep in the burning mist of an Ohio morning.

Perhaps no one explanation is needed. Anyway, until the truth comes clear, I can produce and share these visual hints, and enjoy wandering through the flux and flow that images can only begin to suggest.

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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.