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A Little Night Photography- again

Island Life

I can remember those days in the darkroom when a batch of negatives came out of the tank with the curious purple cast that wet, black and white safety film has, and is especially noticeable when exposures were under what was recommended for a well balanced print to be made from them. There was always that “damnit” moment when it became obvious that something had gone wrong in the metering department and one could only make out slight etchings of tone on an otherwise purpley-clear background, and one then settled in for a long battle with contrast filters and exposure tests that would be required to make something visible on the printing paper that didn’t really seem to be there on the strip of negatives one was attempting to coax something out of.

And then along came the digital photographic revolution that was a bit clunky at first- one had to stretch a bit to believe that a data card full of ones and zeros could render an image as amazing as the ones that were produced from the magic of light sensitized chemistry and silver. And then one night when I couldn’t sleep and there was a full moon I took my digital camera outside and set it on a tripod and pointed it at the leaves that were barely glimmering points of light back from the near total darkness and the clear sky in the background, and let the autopilot inside determine the exposure. The wait was fairly long, as one would have expected. What I didn’t expect to see when the camera decided that it had had enough light to work with was green leaves and a fairly blue-ish sky, almost as if the camera had created light from nothing. It was at that point that it seemed that we had a whole new set of rules to play with in what now appeared to be the relative darkness of the night, and in part that was the genesis of the photo show I hung at Café Luna last year, with various scenes from around the Island becoming the objects of my attention and the focus of my digital capturing devices at a time when most normal beings were deep into some dreamland journey.

While I knew I had not completely exhausted all of the Kodak picture spots of nighttime Vashon with that show, I was fairly satisfied with the idea that I had played out that creative vein, and then I added another tool for the visual toolbox I have to draw on, and decided to see what a drone could see and capture while looking downward from somewhere in the night sky. In the olde sense of things photographic, it didn’t seem possible that a camera, supported by four whirling motors and completely detached from the relative firmness of terra firma, could produce anything but blurred and fuzzy images when asked to dig deep and try to record low light images at seemingly impossible shutter speeds. After all, if one tries to hand hold a camera at even a fifteenth of a second, let alone an eighth, the resulting image will most certainly show signs of unsharpness no matter how still one feels one is remaining whilst tripping the shutter and holding one’s breath. It seems though that the same rules do not apply to this next generation of digital drones in the same manner that the photographic rules of the night are out the window with earth-based DSLR’s, and even point and shoots.

And so it was that I marched out into the night this past winter, taking advantage of the few and far between dry evenings in order to send my airborne image maker up to see what we could find and record. Part of the main parameters guiding my choice of subjects was an understanding that we had to go where streetlights were shining as a reliable light source. In this way we were continuing the so-called rules we had set for our self in this exercise, the main one being that we work solely from available light sources. Driving around the Island at dusk or darker, I got an idea of what and where one might find something of interest to photograph with available, artificial light. As with terrestrial night photography, one was never sure if  something new and curious might be revealed through time and patience, or if the darkness would win and we would have to move on to other pastures, so to speak.

To tell the truth, I could not believe what I was seeing on the screen of my phone soon after the first images were recorded. They seemed to be crisp and clean even though the “film speed” was cranked up to 1000 and the shutter was operating at a 12th of a second. I did keep shooting and trying different locations around the Island, but it wasn’t until I got home and put the images up on the computer monitor that the reality of what I had captured really hit home. And so it was that I decided to continue on with the experiment, with the last few images being recorded uptown two nights ago. It should be stated that not all of the images for the show were shot from drones.

When I first had the inkling of an idea for this, what came to mind were the two very different views on can get from an aerial camera. One is actually not aerial at all, but rather the view one has from the camera that is slung underneath the drone just before a takeoff. My drone has very short legs, which are just long enough to keep the camera from touching the ground before lifting off and after returning and landing- safely. I think of this view as if it were seen by an ant or other ground dweller, with the immediate ground surface blurred out and everything else that the fixed focus lens sees beyond that being focused and sharp. As a counterpoint to the drone shots from above, I decided to once again employ my DSLR and a tripod to capture something just the opposite, with the immediate foreground in crisp focus while everything in the background has been reduced to a soft, mushy blur thanks to a wide open aperture that creates extremely low depth of field. I cannot say why I wanted to do this- it just is. But it does continue the tradition, as with the drone shots and the entirety of Vashon by Night 1, of showing Island scenes in an unfamiliar context and light.

As with most things photographic that transpire around here, I generally often think back to one of my favorite teachers, who also happened to be my first photo teacher at the Penland School- Evon Streetman. In this case I was thinking of a project she wanted our class to join with her in creating, and that was to “paint” the photography building with light at night using strobes and other means. For some reason that never happened. But I also think of Evon in regard to these drone images, which of course at that time 40 years ago was not even on the radar as something any of us could have done or dreamed of, let alone with the relative ease with which I was able to undertake this project. But I recall her talking about having dreams of her childhood home in rural Florida- flying dreams in which she cruised effortlessly above houses and streets. The kicker to her tale was that when she finally did get to fly in a small craft above her town it all looked just as she had seen it in her nocturnal journeys through the sky. On the contrary, I have had no such prescient dreamings about the places I have captured through these dronographs, which I think is a good thing- I am happy that each new image is a surprise and a wonder, so much so that I may just continue to see what else can be found out there from the night sky. For now though I will be present, on the ground, at Café Luna for the ArtWalk opening this Friday night.