It’s suddenly Autumn. The brutal heat departed, overnight, with the sun. Only this time, this morning, it seems they parted company for good, the heat headed elsewhere. At least for a while. I woke immediately aware of the misty air, the sudden chill and, above all, the shift in light. The first time a friend of mine, who has worked in film most of his life, came to Val Marie to visit, he remarked on our evening walk: “Whoever does the lighting here should get an Oscar!”
My pal Page and I spent the entire day yesterday printing reproductions of my collages for an upcoming visit. It’s a long process, although not as hands on as it was in the old days in the dark room when “light” and “dark” were ever present realities. How long do I let the light shine through the negative? How long do I swish the paper in the tray to let the light come alive? When can I leave the dark and step out into the hall and see the image in the light? These days, when you process images on a computer, you try to bring the colour and intensity as close to the ‘reality’ of the subject in ‘real life’. Despite what many people believe, processing is not, for many photographers, about altering the subject, but about honouring it. These things I learn from Page.
However, you can also have a lot of fun. You can push a colour, intensify a hue, burn away a smudge, pull forward a hidden figure. You can enhance a face, warts and all, even add a few more. Or you can remove all blemishes. Often, if I’m going to go the route of deliberate alteration, I like to “push the brush” far enough to make the changes obvious. I like to make the whole image painterly, allowing the imagination free rein. But mostly i just want to avoid mud.
“Mud” is what you get when you lose control of your colours. And colours are all about degrees and spectrum of light. A very good painter, of which we have more than our fair share here in Val Marie, knows how to put colour to canvas without it coagulating into a mixed up pool of opaque, light-dead gunk. It’s not just about keeping your brushes clean. It’s also about staying in touch with the inner life of all your subjects. The rule of “mud” is one I try to apply to my writing as well as painting and collage making. I try to stay clear as to what I’m trying to say, convey, portray. I’m dedicated to revealing to others the inner glow of people, places and things.
The opposite of “mud” could be called “luminosity”. There’s even a luminosity function in photo-shop, the program used to process digital photographs and get them print ready. Luminosity basically allows the artist to keep the boundary lines between dark and light without getting a halo effect, which can happen when we enlarge or sharpen a small or fuzzy photo. I like the metaphors; I like the thought of revealing a subject’s inner light while at the same time not giving them a saintly halo. It is a metaphor that speaks of keeping clear boundaries and not romanticizing, while at the same time looking for the light in everything.
And so, all day we cropped and tweaked in front of a computer screen, then watched and waited as the printer whined and whirred and slowly spit out the finished prints on archival paper, ready to frame. Slowly, slowly the photo-collages inched themselves out of the machine, revealing anew the stories I spent hours pasting and gluing together. And while the machine chugged away we drank tea and caught up on the news of the day.
“How was the rodeo?”
“Great. Although I admit I cheered on the calves every time they slipped the grip of the ropes. They were pretty zippy. Oh and there was a girl steer rider this year! Yeah! She came in with the second highest score!”
“How was the band?”
“Excellent! We two-stepped til one thirty! They were tight and twangy and the sound was pretty good…for a curling rink.”
“Couldn’t get parking on Main Street, I suppose.”
Then out would spit a newly minted picture. And the oohs and ahhs would follow Page as he delicately lifted the still wet image from its tray. ( Madonna doesn’t get to perform the lifting ceremony because she’s too grubby.) Then we hover and make curatorial comments like:
“I think this size works. You can read the text better.”
“Yeah. And it gives it a kind of poster-intensity. Also the lights and darks are more pronounced.”
Page knows about light and how to work with it. He’s reminded me more than once that photography is all about light. I’ve even recited back to him his own words, from his critically acclaimed book “Wild Prairie”, which is not only replete with well-lit images, ranging from Grasslands, SK to Texas, but is full of some pretty luminous language. After a coyote-busy winter morning in the park, wherein I had to keep returning to the car to defrost all my digits, I remembered why we do this: get up at dawn, stay til dusk. In “Wild Prairie” Page writes about being given “a rare glimpse into a coyote’s world, a reward for all the early risings in a cold house and coffee gulped in darkness with one hand on the wheel, out in the middle of nowhere, headlights cutting a thin shaft through the dim pre-dawn light.”
We go into the pre-dawn and post-sunset light also because, especially in the summer, that’s when the critters are out and about. And as for the perfect light- where shadows create contours and everything takes on an amber beery glow- I think it moves us more than the flat starkness of high noon because shadows evoke nostalgia. The Prairie is a territory of nostalgia, perhaps because it is like an empty canvas of pure glowing light. The open space welcomes longing, which is what nostalgia is all about. In his beautiful book about the pioneer experience of the Prairie, called “New and Naked Land”, Ronald Reese begins with a reflection on the meaning of nostalgia. …”Hippocrates noted that whenever people from one country were sent to another of markedly different terrain, ‘terrible perturbations’ always followed.” From this he concluded that “people absorb topographical influences from the moment of birth and that separation from them could be perilous. These perturbations we now know as nostalgia.” Throughout the eighteenth century nostalgia was treated as pathological because to be removed from one’s territory was to risk being overcome by “lassitude and melancholia”. Today, he writes, with population movements, both voluntary and forced, it is easy to forget how it was possible that shifts in location of only a dozen miles could be disturbing. Perhaps we are more tied to the land than we realize.
In his exciting book “Being a Beast”, hunter, philosopher and biologist Charles Foster writes; “The animals and I speak a shared language: the language of the buzzing of our neurons. Often they speak in a difficult – though never quite incomprehensible- dialect. When it is difficult to make out what is being said, context helps. The context is always the land”. For me, the land speaks also of home. And nostalgia is about missing home. And the luminosity of sunrise and sunset and the few minutes before and after both reveal the land in utmost luminosity. The quality of light, I believe, reflects the quality of the longing. It is even possible that what photographers and filmmakers call “magic hour”, and what my Quebecois friends call “between the dog and the wolf”, is an hour of Holy Longing, wherein our deepest yearning rises to the surface and illuminates our being, sets the tone for our day. We long, but we cannot get close enough to what we long for; sunrise and sunset is the closest we will ever get, and like most magical moments, they are brief.
I don’t know any place with this kind of intimate relationship with light. Lorna Crozier writes about light in the first pages her memoir, saying “…this is where it is most at home”, because ” there are no mountains to turn it back, no forest for it to shoulder through…It is too huge for dreams, too persistent for solitude.” It is this hugeness, this persistence that I am drawn toward when I make collages. Even when their narratives are about Metis ‘sages femmes’, or rejected mail order brides or forgotten native children or wife and husband stooking under a rising harvest moon, I am working with the light. I use my own photographs as backdrops, beds of after-rain light, or borealis light, or end-of-day light for the characters to inhabit. I hope the light adds to the viewers’ own inner luminosity, ultimately setting the room ablaze.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.