A Blind Spot in the Camera

 

At the end of a dry fall season, the golden brown grasses of the steppes sweep across the plains met in the distance by even drier looking, more rugged mountains. The monolithic Fitz Roy and the crystalline-looking spire Cerro Torre rise up at the distant opposite edge of the fifty- mile long linear Lago Viedma, like a woman admiring her newly polished fingernails on the back of her outstretched arm.

 

The charismatic mountains overlook the glacial waters of the Rio Fitz Roy, overshadowing a slight hill covered with what looks like a landscaped yard: rounded blue-grey shrubs, blades of grass waving their inflorescences in the chill breeze of sunset, dime-sized star-shaped clusters of green hugging rocks like tight fitting clothes; orchestrated in a pattern that repeats itself up the slope of the hill, each repetition of the pattern separated by sharp black rock trim, with colors slightly muted in the twilight.

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Emptied knots,
twisted, bent,
the forensics of a lifestyle that I can’t imagine,
or a death that I don’t want to ,
repeated in a ghostly grey and charred forest graveyard,
in the golden remains of the summer grasses.
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A new tree, growing out of the skeleton of another tree, its former self.

A thick trunk fanning out into a dozen thick arms, their joints swollen into a spherical knobby basketball-sized nodes at its many bent elbows, signpost thick forearms extending to the sky, infected with incurable disease to yearn for the unreachable.

 

Brilliant yellow leaves stitched together like an open hand, contrasted perfectly against its black trunk.

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A two-toned tree: thick black trunks, light grey branches, a tree trying to find a new identity for itself as it grows.

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Dead trees, twisted and barren, the pain of their death still on their faces, standing as monuments to themselves.

Wind blasts the rock covered with orange splotches and black hand-shaped dendrites of lichen, shrubs turned into dwarf bonsai versions of themselves under the constant assault of the weather. Heroic miniature plants grow in  overlooked crevices, living in their own moment of zen with the mountain.

 

Proposed definition for Logogenic: like photogenic. Photogenic subjects look good in pictures, logogenic subjects sound good in words.

I add the nuance that the subject is difficult to capture in a photo in any way that is interesting or charismatic. I did not try to photograph most of the images described above as they don’t frame well in a photograph. The couple I did try, the experts all looked at me like I was an amateur.

 

Midair Collision

I was hoping that a Victoria Secret’s model with a fetish for lost cause middle age men heading to South America would occupy the middle seat. I ended up sitting next to a giant of a man, pinning me against the armrest and window for the duration of a four hour flight, my body pressed to the curved wall of the fuselage.

He is a former professional basketball player in B leagues around the world, now training his three time gold medal winning, Olympic-aspiring, WNBA-hopeful, daughter to play at the elite level, We talk about his career and all the unusual places he played. The conversation wanes. He knows that I am squashed and uncomfortable. He offers me a granola bar that he has unstashed from his carry on. I politely decline.

He turns his attention to the digital collection on his iPhone. In my cramped position, I don’t have the option of averting my attention. I watch picture after picture of his family, of his grandson, of his daughter shooting baskets, of family gatherings, as he scrolls through the photos and videos, chuckling and smiling as he pauses at each one. On and on he scrolls through what must be years worth of digital memorabilia.

I can’t help but think of all the pictures on my iPhone: mushrooms, white boards, trails, plants, winemaking projects, woodworking projects, and the occasional dog. Surprisingly, he pauses at a picture on his iPhone of the constellation Orion. Finally, a shared experience, an intersection, something that we might both have on our iPhones, we share a common interest in nature.

He promptly deletes the photo and scrolls on. He offers me a mint.

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Sublime

I pause, spot a good foothold, set my hiking pole, DSC_0300fix my foot on the spot, and lift myself up the next rocky stair. I’ve been stair climbing for the last forty five minutes for nearly a kilometer, not switchbacks mind you, but uneven makeshift boulder stairs, ascending past the red and yellow and green and orange lenga beech forests, past the underachieving lenga beech shrubs that hide dripping little brooks of ice melt, onto slippery boot packed snow passing the tree line, and into a debris field of broken grey rocks like god accidentally dropped a mountain that splattered like a broken dish. I’ve shed my hat, gloves, neck cover and a couple of shirts on this thousand foot ascent, still heating up as the air cools with altitude.

I see the spires over the debris; I know I am close to my reward. The path levels cutting in front of some large boulders following the contour of the mountain. I feel the distant slope of the mountain on the other side of the valley following me as I move along the high trail, the same way the moon follows your car on the road at night. DSC_0291The trail cuts left, through a doorway of two boulders, past a position marker that tells me latitude, longitude, and altitude and finally out into an opening. I made it! My ascent is complete. I raise my hiking poles over my head pumping in exultation.

As I walk towards the green silty waters of the lagoon gazing across the lagoon to the steep embankment on its far shore, to a patch of snow on the shoulders of the embankment, and on up to the top of the three spires, I am overwhelmed by the jaw-dropping beauty and immenseness of this place, pausing for a moment, my eyes moistening ever so slightly.

My mind reflexively reviews the photographic possibilities and I quickly move to the spot where I want to shoot from. The wind relaxes for a moment; the water, smooth. The tops of the spires are visible with just wisps of clouds at their summits, the more ominous clouds visible in the background ready to obscure my shot. DSC_0269I don’t waste anytime getting the shots. I compose shots of the lagoon with its reflections and the spires in the background. I think it is a beautiful composition, a photographer’s dream.

But this place is too big. I can’t capture the feeling on a photo. I close my eyes and try to picture the scene before me in my mind’s eye. It is still too big for that.  You have to see it for yourself. I hear the cascading of an avalanche, the sound rumbling down the embankment and over the lagoon. The sound is too big. You have to hear it for yourself.

How easy I could have missed this hike! I only found out about it eavesdropping on a conversation the night before. I overheard the words “premier hike of the park” and jumped to my feet to find out about it. I couldn’t resist this hike, even knowing that this would be a solo effort, that I would have to be on the trail at the crack of dawn, to complete it.

I hope that I have taken some pictures that hint at the magnificence of this place. Pictures cannot capture it but I offer them as an invitation to those that appreciate such things, because there is no way my camera can bring it back to you. I hope you accept the invitation, that the skies are clear for you and your footing sure should you undertake this pilgrimage, to this very special place.

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P.S. The described hike is the Mirador del Torres, at Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Chile.

Photo Hunting for Big Game

I hunker down far from the trail behind a jagged black rock that I have chosen as much for protection as for position holding onto the base of the camera tripod riding out a strong gust of wind that lifts the water off the cascades of the stream, numbing my fingers and clouding my lens. The draft of wind and mist pass, I ease my grip on the tripod, wipe off the water droplets from my lens, and busy myself setting up for the next shot.

Our quarry, our big game trophy, the prize I would hang proudly on my wall, this chill morning, as the darkness of the evening slowly lifts, the stars fade, and the sun tries to make its grand entrance, is to catch the orange-pink reflections off of the “Torres del Paine” and pink hues of the surrounding shroud of clouds, with the cascading river serving as the foreground element, in this dramatic composition that is the lion, the elephant, the water buffalo of the hunt, on this photographic safari.

All elements of the composition have to come together, to catch big game, the perfect picture. Too many clouds would obscure the mountain and the morning sun preventing illumination of the face of the monolith and spires in front of us. No clouds or too few clouds would omit a key element of drama. The hunter must be as impeccable as nature. Droplets on the lens would splotch the image. Strong winds shaking the mount could blur the image. Wrong exposure, wrong filter, bad timing, failure to clean the lens, wrong lens, battery out of power, memory card full, inattention to changing conditions could spoil the hunt.

Nature delivers, the clouds do not obscure the peaks nor block the sun at the horizon, the sheer face of the monolithic peaks illuminate. I fire off shot after shot, setting the timer, waiting for the gusts of wind to pass, taking care to wipe the lens, changing exposures methodically so each image will have a slightly different amount of light. The spectacle only lasts about ten or fifteen minutes. The mountain face returns to its granitic colors, the sun rises well above the horizon, and the big game turns from lion to a hyena, an elephant to a gazelle, a water buffalo to a warthog. The hunt is over for this morning, there is nothing to do now but retreat from my off the trail outpost, and hunt for photographic game more subtle and subdued, looking for the extraordinary in the more ordinary.

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Moment of Zen

Standing on a ledge overlooking the silty shore of Lago del Pato, watching the rippled surface as ghostly wind shadows race across its surface gusting into my face ruffling my hair,

trying to shake me from my attention,

looking to its opposite shore at the bright primary palette of green, yellow, orange, and red quilted lenga forest,

that turns up into the maroon skirts of topless mountains,

following the line to the aquamarine fractured ice of a glacier receding into the cut that it has carved for itself,

my eyes walking up the jagged edges to snowy shoulders and long icy runs, to the sheer face of Fitz Roy too steep to hold snow,

a monolithic stake driven up from underneath the ground breaking through the skin of the earth towards space,

the sheer walls of Fitz Roy topped with a wig of a dark grey cloud that it refuses to surrender to the gusting winds,

that looks down in satisfaction to all that I take a moment to see.

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Snap! Fishing for footage.

Like a patient fisherman watching his line in the water, I scan the forward wall of the glacier, my fishing rod a D3200 Nikon camera, my quarry a calving glacier. In the afternoon sun, I’ve shed my jacket, one layer in my three layers of shirts, my hat and gloves; I hope the glacier will shed some of its turquoise ice to the silty green lake water below. My fishing rod at the ready, tuned to a setting of 1000, a fast shutter speed to catch the ice falling and the subsequent mini-tidal wave of water.

In the distance, I hear the thundering crash, some ice has calved out of sight, just around the corner. I can see a splash, the water dips and rises. My time will come soon. I resume my vigilant watch of the sheer face of the glacier taking time to admire the distant snow capped craggy peaks, the dimpled surface of the glacier enclosed by the maroon lenga forrest-skirted mountains.

I hear some cracking and crashing close by. I hurriedly raise my camera hoping to catch the plunge into the water. The initial crash is just a precursor.

Snap! As the ice cracks.
Snap! As the ice separates from the wall.
Snap! As the block starts its plunge.
Snap! As the block slides downward into the green water.
Snap! As the block just peeks out over its spray.
Snap! As the spray of water gushes from the wall.
Snap! As the drowning block hollows out the water.
Snap! As the returning water geysers into the sky.
Snap! As the spray fans away from the point of entry.
Snap! As the spray collapses back to the water.
Snap! As the water crater expands.
Snap! As the water crater center refills.

I pause but hear more cracking. The first calving has weakened the ice’s purchase on the wall next to it. It starts to crack! I can’t be this lucky!

Snap! As the wall begins to crumbles.
Snap! As the ice tears away from the glacier.
Snap! As the blocks of ice start their plunge.
Snap! As the water explodes from the base.
Snap! As the water reaches out into the lake.
Snap! As the mound of water and spray starts to collapse.
Snap! As the water rushing to fill the hole geysers into the air.
Snap! As the geyser stretches over a hundred feet into the air.
Snap! As the spray starts to fall back.
Snap! As the wave tsunami’s away from its center.
Snap! As the water and spray come back to meet each other.
Snap! As the water and spray flatten.
Snap! As the aftershocks of the undulating water spread out.

I feel the deep crashing sound viscerally in my gut but I am far enough away to feel awe instead of fear. I’ve caught my quarry, two huge fish with one bait, my camera drops in front of me as I survey the after effects of the event and check the blueness of the freshly exposed glacial ice. I watch the ripples of water doppler away,  the concentric waves move out into the reflection of the sun on the lake, sparkling like diamond studded bracelets. I catch my breath. Wow! I fix my grasp on the camera lens and wait, my gaze again moving up and down the long horizontal wall of the face of the glacier.

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