trees

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.

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.