I've never known Chris to work on any less than a dozen projects at once. Here in Fairbanks, as I sleep, Chris is up charging batteries, uploading the day's media, and editing other projects for clients he's got on his docket. One of particular interest that he's furiously editing at the moment is an event he shot in Chicago a couple weeks ago called “TED X.” TED Talks are a great source of food for thought. And one in particular that Chris showed me this morning was given by a professional photographer, Dennis Manarchy, on why photography is consequential.
He sites famous pictures that have started and ended wars. Portraits that have overwhelmingly influenced the way we've seen certain people throughout history. More than anything else, he talked about realism, and the nature of it in the current age. How we're losing, with the ability to create virtually any images we want, the element of truth that was always so woven into photography.
The night of our first aurora sighting, while the light coming through the lens was everything you understand the northern lights to be – bright, silky, long and liquid – to me on the ground, I was, well...underwhelmed. It looked more like a misty kind of cloud barely perceivable to the eye and definitely not something to write home about. When I mentioned this to Chris he seemed almost offended that I would accuse his cameras of augmenting the true nature of reality. “It's not picking up anything that's not there,” he said to me. Though that's true, it didn't satisfy me. His setting adjustments and shutter speeds, and so-called “fast” lenses can pick up more stars than I can see, turn a black sky pink and in essence, in my opinion, lie to us about what's actually seeable. As a result, because I've seen so many pictures of the aurora, I feel like I was given expectations that were not attainable to the naked eye.
“It's like looking at porn in middle school,” I explained to Chris. “It sets you up with unrealistic expectations.”
There are many tricks of the camera. The French have a term, “trompe l'oeil” which means “trick of the eye.” It was a method whereby two-dimensional paintings would give the illusion they were three dimensions. Nowadays we use airbrush, photoshop, you name it. In the old days photographs were used as evidence during trials. The idea being that they were incorruptible representations of real life as it was. Nowadays you can't trust that a picture of a cat wasn't color corrected. And there are an awful lot of pictures of cats.
Which brings me to the problem with digital media. We used to shoot a roll of 24, or if you were going on a long vacation, a roll of 36. You'd wait for an important moment, fire them off, bring them to the pharmacy when you got back, order doubles in case you lost some, and paste the photos into albums for the world to reach for beneath your coffee table during lulls in conversation. Nowadays we shoot 100 pictures on a trip to the bar, upload them willy-nilly to Facebook, or more likely, just leave them on the camera because the memory card holds 2,000 images, and they're never seen again. Dennis Manarchy still shoots with film. In any given shoot he takes exactly one picture. One. Snap.
He's looking for the truth of things. It's not to say he doesn't manipulate light to make things appear in the light in which he sees them, for the emotion he's trying to convey. Anyone creating art has an opinion about their subject, a perspective, a lens through which they see things, a message they wish to convey. But Dennis Manarchy is trying to shoot the truth of a moment. If your eyes were closed, that was the moment. “That's what's real,” I say to Chris. “That's what matters. Not how good you can make somebody believe something should look, but how it is.”
Later that night, while Chris and I are on a flood plain beneath a railroad bridge shooting the aurora, Chris frames the shot with the bridge in the foreground and the aurora appears in an arc just over the bridge. It's an astounding bit of happenstance that brings me head-to-head with thoughts of larger implication: what is the role of perspective? If a tree falls in the woods...? Did God put that arc there to encourage us to keep shooting the aurora? Is this our life's work? And on and on like that.
A train comes by, and spotting strange and unexpected shapes moving along the ice beneath the bridge, the conductor shines his flashlight right at us, at the precise moment one of our cameras goes off, forever augmenting an already cool shot of the aurora over the bridge, with a train passing beneath it, now with a ray of light shooting from the front of that train directly at the camera's lens.
Needless to say, we were beside ourselves, and hustled back to the hotel so Chris could upload the cards to the computer and we could see the raw image. Of the three cameras, we hoped all three might have captured the flash from different angles. And it was there alright, but only on one camera. We looked at the same moment of time, captured on all three cameras. In one the aurora was really pronounced. In another, the train looked best. In the third was the light from the flashlight shining right at us. We both felt deflated we hadn't captured that one single image we'd both hoped would capture all of it as we'd seen it.
“No biggie,” I said. “We'll just splice 'em all together.”