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Across fields and river and miles of piney forest lay our tiny dwelling. In the winter the snow drifts piled high against the walls and lent its insulating warmth to the fire burning brightly in our tipi. A thin canvas skin glowed like a lantern in the nights inky blackness. The fires brilliant heat crackled and hissed.
It had been a long day. One of gathering wood, cooking meager meals and singing songs about hobos and gamblers. Our fascination with Woody Guthrie ran deep and hours where spent recollecting his songs and spoken words. It seemed at the time that life was perfect in the woods and it mattered little that we had no jobs, money or girlfriends.
Sleeping on my cot I awoke to the sounds of night in winter. A vast theatre of wind and swaying branches. The moon was floating overhead and it’s light through the smoke flaps illuminated our home. The fire burning slowly. I watched as a spark lifted from the coals, floating lazily in its flight before coming to rest on the canvas high above. Suddenly to my horror the canvas burst into a circular flame and spread quickly. Realizing what was happening I woke my friends. We tried our best to put the fire out by throwing snow at it but it was hopeless. We saved what we could. We yelled and waved our arms at the great blaze that was our home. In the end it burned itself out and it was suddenly very dark. We realized with a shock that our home was gone and left was a smoking black crater of what was. With no shelter, the February winds began to chill us. For the first time the woods no longer felt like home. Within a year we had all gone our separate ways.
I think about that spark and the power it had to change our lives. A tiny glowing ember that created a bonfire. A brilliant dot within a vast world. A red hot punctuation mark that ended one chapter and began a new.
In my experiences as a boy I remember the kitchen best. My mother is kneading bread and the sunbeams stream through the antique glass in long hazy winter rays. The old queen Atlantic wood stove is gently ticking and making other breathing sounds. A kettle whistles quietly. I am curled by the woodpile amongst the tattered dog blankets and wood chips. Outside the path to the woodshed is deep snow, over my head, and I am proud to help with the chores of stacking wood and carrying it to the stove. It creates the warmth that bakes our bread and heats our home.
There are projects that are never completed any more than they are ever started. They are simply woven into the faded fabric of life. They are not the bright and modern painting of tomorrow or gilded promises of next year, they are the ancient slow rhythms of yesterday. They are the melodic song of toil that guides us towards the hearth. They are the warmth of home and the instinct to ready for long winters. In them is the essence of happiness that is simple, bold, beautiful music of existence and the celebration of the everyday.
As a young father I often found solace in the peace of the woodshed. Quiet time could be found in the honest pursuit of readying the family for winter. The ritual of chopping wood, a simple mantra of survival. The repetitive nature of the work leaving time and space for thoughts and dreams to grow. Amongst the golden log ends I would meet with friends to share a cold beer or two. Many songs where sung and strummed on old guitars and banjos long into the night while the wind roared above the rusted metal roof. I shared wood sheds with skunks, chipmunks, raccoons, countless spiders and a cat named yogurt. I emptied them, and filled them again with wood in the natural rhythm of the seasons.
On fall’s first cold clear night I start the winter seasons first fire. A birch bark mound is topped with thinly chopped oak kindling. The fire springs to life instantly with the brilliant spark of the supernatural. Few things can mesmerize old and young like the dance of flame. The fire that glows brightly will burn through the cold days and colder nights fed by countless arm loads of wood. It will burn through the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year. It will burn through January’s tradition and February’s gales. It will burn on fed by dry wood until spring and the promise of a new season. Before the ashes have cooled the next years wood will be well underway for just as spring blooms with the warmth of life giving sun so does Mother Nature promise to return the earth to its frozen rest the following winter
Now I lay by the fire and soak up its dry heat. It dries our boots and mittens that lay scattered about. It warms the bones of our old dog Annie. It warms our hearts too, for we love our home nestled in the fields and forests of this land and without the fires warmth it would not be possible. Where it begins or ends is unknown, only we are certain, that we are starting down a road many have gone before and wherever it winds it will always lead to where we are supposed to be. Wherever we start, we will end up back again.
“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.” -Henry David Thoreau
Alongside the river of my imagination I found an old camera. It comes from long ago. A deep brown wooden box with tarnished brass knobs. Its appearance at once intrigued me and filled me with fear of the unknown. It bears no makers mark and tells nothing of what it has seen. It’s fixed eye is only prepared to tell new stories of light and dark and the impressions they make upon silver. I have always seen the path of the artist as stepping stones we move across. It is not a fluid path. We constantly move forward and backwards like the tide. While most water rushes forward with the current (with the mindfulness of slowing down) some turns against the momentum and retreats into the darker recesses of the river. This is how I began to slow down and explore wet plate collodion photography.
I am under a black cloth peering into a luminescent upside down image of the world that appears upon the ground glass. My fingers slide the ancient bellows along their brass rails and the image comes into focus. I hold the tin plate in my fingertips, pouring the collodion into a generous pool then tilting it in a circle. The sticky syrup flows around the edges followed by a gentle rocking back and forth to smooth ridges and waves. Inside of the dark tent the plate is submerged into a silver bath. How silver sees is the magical element of making tintypes. Yellow appears as black so that a sunny dress might become somber. Blue appears as light grey or white so that a tattoo might disappear and blue eyes become pale almost translucent. With the plate in its wooden plate holder I return to the camera. Are you ready, I say, pulling the slide and removing the lens cap. I count slowly one one thousand, two one thousand and place the lens cap back on.
Back in the dark tent,I pour a small amount of developer across the plate and watch carefully as the scene shows before my eyes. As soon as mid tones appear I wash the plate with generous amounts of water. Water stops the developer prior to it going in the fixer. It is here in the fix that I see the photograph take shape before my eyes. I marvel at the wonderful marriage between art and chemistry. The hand of the artist is seen in every step from the way the collodion or developer flowed, the fingerprint on the edge, the dust in the air. Today I have made a photograph by hand. The process leads to many surprises and imperfections and that is why I love it. I am deeply grateful for this moment of creation and the wonders that making tintypes affords. I breathe deeply because for me slowing down, or trying to, has become an important source of creativity and the well spring of all beautiful things.
“Slow down and everything you are chasing will come around and catch you.” John De Paola