prairie waters

Questioning the Ideal

When I looked back at my photographs from 2014 the urban ones didn't seem as cynical as I thought they might be.  On reflection, I think it's just less overt.    

My Vancouver photographs seem motivated by the contradiction between an idealized version of Vancouver and the reality on the ground (which is perhaps a clever turn of phrase given how that idealized vision incorporates towering condos). 

Looking at the photographs (yet) again, I concluded that even the ones appearing to be a straight-up representations of an idealized Vancouver are still questioning that ideal in some way.  Consider this photograph:

Dwelling, Vancouver, 2014

It’s a view of an attractive townhouse entrance.  But my interest lies in the contrast with the tower sitting above it.  The towers are striking, but their scale is alienating when experienced from the ground.  The homes in the sky are financially out of reach for most people.

The questioning appears in other ways.  Vancouver, like most Canadian cities, is very young.  Yet, there are signs of decay and neglect.  Rather than acquiring character buildings simply wear out.  They are disposable.   

Shrouded, Vancouver, 2013

Claymore Parking, Vancouver, 2013

Steps, Vancouver, 2014

There’s more to be written about the Vancouver photographs in future posts.  But I want to touch on how the Prairie Waters and Prairie Modern photographs also question ideals.  

The prairies are often imagined as a pastoral ideal.  In practice, the it's criss-crossed by a grid of roads.  I can just as easily see it as a vast food manufacturing operation.  I think of the Prairie Modern photographs as both representing and questioning the ideal.

Power Pole, Alberta, 2005

The Prairie Waters photographs question an ideal in a different way.  People might not consider the shallow lakes in central Alberta beautiful.  Certainly they don't attract visitors the way the Rocky Mountain parks do!  But mud can be beautiful if you look at it in the right way.  So, they question the ideal of conventional beauty.

While I may be questioning an ideal, ambiguity arises because there is also genuine affection.  I unabashedly love the open spaces of the prairies.  Vancouver may be flawed, but it’s an easy city to love. Green stains on concrete can be seen as verdant or decrepit.  I'll write more on this ambiguity in a future post.

Concept and Intuition, Part 1: Prairie Waters

Human endeavours such as works of art, scientific discoveries and product innovations rarely proceed in a straight line.  The final outcome depends on a mix of skill, intellect, intuition, luck, research and analysis.  I see concept in photography arising from the to-ing and fro-ing of intellect and intuition.  

Some concepts arrive in a moment of inspiration.  Photographs motivated by that concept might be brilliant or dull.  The concept evolves or dies.  Something different might emerge from the attempt.

Alternatively, concept can emerge from photographs taken without specific purpose.  The conscious mind becomes aware of patterns observed through intuition.  Having noticed these patterns, a concept may be formed through focused consideration.  It is then further refined by intuition. 

Bringing the conscious mind to play is fraught with peril.  Intuition speaks softly and is easily crushed by over-thinking.  But concept plays a role in putting intuition in the path of opportunity.  A concept might be as broad as carrying a camera during daily activity.  Or it might be more planned, like an excursion to photograph peak colour in the fall.    

In part 1, of what I envision as a three part series, I'm going to discuss the role of concept and intuition in the Prairie Waters photographs.  

The project was sparked by this photograph of Cooking Lake. 

At the Edge, Cooking Lake, 2004

I had photographed Cooking Lake for several years.  Despite not looking radically different, this photograph contained several revelations.  It integrated land and sky into a cohesive composition.  It was more abstract and ambiguous.  It was distilled to just mud, water and sky.  It was epic and completely unremarkable at the same time.

With these concepts in mind, I scoured maps seeking other prairie lakes with similar characteristics.  I found Beaverhill Lake and Bittern Lake.   The following photographs are from my first visits to those lakes.       

Alien Forms, Beaverhill Lake, 2004

Angles, Bittern Lake, 2004

Inspired by the early the results I returned to photograph the lakes again.  I was amazed how different they could be from visit to visit.   Changes in weather, seasons and water levels revealed different moods.  I committed to visiting often to discover these moods.  Sometimes the conditions were unremarkable but I always enjoyed my visits.

Stained, Bittern Lake, 2004

Sacred Circle, Cooking Lake, 2004

Eruption, Beaverhill Lake, 2004

The onset of winter brought even more radical transformations.  

Crack In the Ice, Cooking Lake, 2004

Right, Cooking Lake, 2004

When I was at a location intuition took over.  The more surprised I was the more viscerally I responded.  To avoid pre-conceptions and trying to repeat past successes, I made a rule not to visit the same location twice in a row.  I chose my destination randomly or on a hunch. 

So, in the case of Prairie Waters a single photograph inspired a concept.  That concept guided research.  The resulting photographs motivated further exploration and a deep engagement with the concept and places.

In Part 2, I discuss the role of concept and intuition in the Prairie Modern project.

Last Light, Bittern Lake, 2004