Walking the spiral back to the Beginning
I have long come to believe that our life journey is a spiral rather than a linear chronological journey. From time to time we arrive back at a place similar to but not exactly the same as one we have visited before. And the winds blow us around the spiral until we arrive at the same place again. And yet again. we are walking the spiral of our life.
About 30 years ago, this journey (one of many parallel ones, for all journeys on the spiral are parallel ones), began with encountering Ansel Adams’ Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite. I fell in love with that photograph (and I am still in love with it). It was the fuel poured on the fire of my heart’s secret longing. It was that picture which set me out on a road I could never have imagined, to encounters I could never have foreseen.
It led me into the tricky and difficult-to-navigate fastnesses of the darkroom, into the arcane world of the Zone System and chemical formulae, of N- processes and amidol developers; it distilled in me the importance of craft and an unremitting desire for technical mastery. I noted with some care the Great Man’s admonition that
The way to art is through Craft and not around it.
That whakatauki became a mantra for me, one which has lasted to this day and informs my artmaking practice.
One day, I told myself, I am going to make my own Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite. One day.
Some years after the journey began, I had to leave the darkroom because I began having an anaphylactic reaction to darkroom chemistry. My (chemical) black-and-white days were done. I parked all that hard-won knowledge out the back of my memory’s parking lot and switched to digital photography. I consoled myself with the thought that a glass of wine and File>Print was much more pleasant than standing in the dark for hours, working with now-toxic chemistry. However, digital photography was in its infancy, and somehow and inkjet print just didn’t look as good as a fine silver halide work.
Then I moved away from black-and-white. A new journey had begun. I wanted to develop a relationship with colour. I studied it formally and informally. I took it out on a date, and then another one, until eventually we married. After that I could never look at a B&W photograph in the same way. It didn’t help that so much digital B&W I saw then (and still do) looks like a colour photograph with the colour removed. So much photography purporting to be B&W, it seems to me, shows little or no understanding of tones and tonal relationships. They are either bland and lifeless objects, with all the tonal joy of wet tissue paper, or they have abrupt tonal transitions out of keeping with the intention of the image, hissing, ugly things crowded together like angry Ringwraiths in a Tokyo underground.
Time passed, nearly 20 years, and then one day in 20098 I recognised the opportunity to realise this long-held ambition. There I was, in Fiordland, high on the Borland Saddle, with a clearing autumn storm in front of me. Now was the time to see if all the learnings around craft which I had learned along the way were up to the test. They were, and I made a work that seemed at the time to be the fulfilment of that journey. I rested on my laurels and looked for the next big roadtrip. I wrote a blog post about it at the time. If you wish, you can read it here. And I thought that journey was done, that I had completed the necessary lap around the spiral, so I put all the acquired knowledge in a larger box and put that out in the parking lot with the black-and-white material. I wiped my hands and moved on, convinced that it was over.
Until last week. Some ten years later.
It was raining in Milford. I could see the glowering eyebrows of cloud far to the north, beyond the end of the lake. I wanted to make some more images before I sent the GFX50r home, one last opportunity to make work with a camera I had fallen in love with, but which was out of reach for the near future. I set off for the day, following the serpentine route to Milford. The light grew darker towards the Homer tunnel. It looked promising. The mist and cloud lowered and the tyres on my car hissed on the wet tarseal. By the time I reached the beginning of the tunnel, stern eyebrows of cloud had lowered gloweringly over the cliffs. My hopes grew.
When I emerged, the westerly front was pushing cloud and rain up the fiord, ramming it up against the sheer walls on either side. Way above me, up under the roof of the churning sky, shimmering threads of water spilled out and over the edges of the massif, leaping downwards in silver strands against the black, wet granite.
I pulled the car over to the side of the road four hairpins down in a slight layby and got out. I looked. I felt. I waited until the place declared itself. Then I got out the camera. Behind me, on the other side of the tonal dream I had fallen into, buses and cars hissed cautiously by. The land breathed in and breathed out as I worked. Energy ebbed and flowed.
And then it was done.
I went to Milford anyway, but Mitre Peak didn’t want to know me that day. It hunched itself away behind a curtain of cloud and turned its back. No matter. So be it. I turned around and drove home. I kept looking for more work, but the land seemed to be saying: that is enough for one day. Make something of what you have been given. Be grateful.
I sat in front of my computer and watched the result tumble out onto the screen. I watched as it took me down a path which I thought I had long since left. Somehow, I had come around the spiral yet again, to a place at once strange and yet somehow familiar. While I had been driving home my memory had slipped out into the parking lot and gathered up the dusty boxes of yesteryear, blown off the grime of the past, and reopened them.
My mind leaped ahead to an encounter with the past.
I could see the finished work printed on baryta paper, the familiar smell of fibre-based papers coated in barium sulphate, but this time with ink receptors rather than an emulsion layer of silver bromide and silver chloride. I could hear Ansel whispering in my ear about tonalities and D-Max and N- development.
The synchronicities were too numerous for coincidence. 30 years ago, I was making exhibition work on Ilford Galerie Baryta Papers. This time I would use Ilford Galerie Mono Silk, an inkjet baryta paper. And for the first time in years, I was thinking tonally, in black-and-white, calculating Zones and mid-tone transitions.
I had walked around the spiral and arrived at the same place.