Important Photos – Iris
Breakthroughs and moments of clarity are precious. “Aha” moments can catapult us further in our art and our understanding, and yet they can be elusive and infrequent. We wonder “How come mine don’t look like that?”, and sometimes look in the wrong direction, like towards software. Truth be told, a commitment to the journey is the first step, but then comes the nebulous idea of paying attention, being awake when the time is right. You might get nothing out of a line in a movie, whereas the person next to you just had an epiphany.
“Iris” may be the first image I made where a couple light bulbs went off. Up until then I was pretty much taking landscape photographs that had no soul, that felt compressed and inaccessible. The setting was an Artist-in-Residence experience on Isle Royale National Park, a fifty mile long boreal forest island in Lake Superior. Three weeks alone in a cabin to write and shoot. I took this opportunity very seriously. I was going to a place I loved, to immerse myself in a dream about expressing myself about the natural world. I was new to photography and writing, but seasoned in exploring, wandering, and thinking about the natural world. On one hand I was well read, with John Muir, Also Leopold, Alan Watts, Rachel Carson, Barry Lopez, Sigurd Olson, and Ed Abbey assimilated into the way I thought. Mentors in ecology and education instilled a thoughtful, holistic, and journey-focused, not destination-based, mindset. Yet photographically I was weak. My historic appreciation was shallow, my vision young, and skills mediocre.
My first several days on the island were pummeled by a powerful Northeaster. The cabin rocked, the old pane windows shook in their gutters, and the fire crackled. I love storms, and I ventured out several times a day, without my camera, and explored the water inlet and rocky peninsula that the cabin was perched on. One afternoon I noticed a little pond sunk in the granite, a stone’s throw from the lake. Along one edge was a little clump of irises, not yet in bloom. The rocks were covered in beautiful lichens and lavender harebells, and I made it a point to pass by each day during the storm. On the morning of the fifth day I awoke to silence. No wind, no rain. I wiped the sweat off the window above my bed, looked out, and everything was enveloped in fog and stillness. I grabbed my gear and walked over towards the rocks and the pond. And there was the iris, in bloom. Now a familiar stop, I hunkered down in front of it and smiled. But here is where I responded differently than ever before. Instead of coming in so close to only get the flower, or pulling way back for a snapshot of too much information, I walked into the pond and made a photograph that for the first time captured the feeling of where I was. The essence. I remember moving up and down to get the iris by itself, not colliding with the distant background rocks. My years of wandering into water, lying down on the forest floor, and scrambling over the world, eliminated the hesitancy I have since witnessed when people stand away and zoom in, keeping intimacy at a distance.
On this important morning I learned about going back to a place, I started to embrace the idea of essence, I immersed myself, and I had a moment where I saw the relationship between a subject and a background. It was a morning that would have profound importance as long as I made sure to stop, take notice, and do it again. I needed to make these insights part of my new photographic work habits.