Terra Firma

Terra Firma

There are moments when you reach for your camera that you can envision the exact result you are looking for. A quick and fleeting thought you may not even necessarily be able to explain in the moment, but something deeper down you know you recognize. A reminder of a time or place in your past, or something embedded deep in your psyche, to be released only when the time is right. Within seconds, the camera is switched on, lens cap removed. Ideally you have time to compose it using the standard tricks-ISO, Aperture, Shutter Speed. There are other times when you know you only have a moment or two to record what you are seeing due to variables such as light and weather. It’s Now Or Never as a famous singer once sang and you hope that wisp of an idea becomes a reality once the shutter has been released.

Those of you who have been following me for awhile know that once we moved to a place where we could easily view the shifting clouds and colors of the sky that it has became a common theme to my photography. The other night it happened again, but instead of the varying colors of sunset featured here before, what I saw instead was blue. A contrast of rich, deep blue together with billowy clouds that I had not quite seen before. Instantly, one of those sudden ideas popped into my head. I knew what it reminded me of. I knew I wanted to capture it, and I fired off a few shots in the hope that one of them would express that idea successfully once I saw it on my computer screen. I made just a few minor adjustments to the camera settings. The end result is what you see here, with no manipulation to color or texture from the way I saw it.

What I was thinking is that the pattern reminded me of those topographical maps you will often find in an atlas. You know the ones- where they take away all the place names and borders and instead just show the terrain of the earth from above. Snow capped mountain ranges and dry deserts. Deep oceans and winding rivers. Just our earth as it looks from a distance…as another famous singer once sang. I recognized that the clouds set against this particular shade of blue looked similar to the way cartographers draw terrain, making the two dimensional three dimensional. As I looked at them on my computer I imagined the same things-the blue colors delineating the oceans that make our planet so unique.  The cloud patterns-swirls of white contrasted with darker specks reminded me of mountain ranges and deserts or the polar regions.

As I have gotten further into writing these posts, I seem to be finding deeper inspirations and connections than when I first started out. When I posted one of these photos from the other night on Instagram, I somehow felt the need to simply call it ‘Earth’. I knew fully well that it was nothing more than another cloud photo, or cloud porn as some people call it, but it felt more substantial to me. There are a lot of times here where I stumble on something I want to write about. A basic idea built around a song, and defined to my own logic by my photos. But they usually happen with a lot of thought and ideas that become connected.  Seldom have I taken a new photograph and felt the need to immediately write about it, but this was one of those times.

I think I wanted to call the photo ‘Earth’ because I seem to be increasingly concerned about the fragility of our planet. Concerns about global warming, violence,  hunger, fear, pollution and endangered species have been present for awhile of course. But those problems seem more urgent now and not so easily reasoned away internally by saying future generations will have to worry about it, not us. The problems seem more timely and pressing now. They also seem to be worse because we are ignoring the warnings by the real experts in favor of people more concerned with their wallets.

Years ago I used to play the computer game Civilization by Sid Meier. As anyone who has ever played it knows, there were different paths to victory, but no matter what path you chose, you had to finish by the year 2100 or thereabouts. The reason being that in the game, humanity had overstayed its welcome on a now ravaged planet Earth and those that remained would start civilization new again on the planet Alpha Centauri. The idea of having to vacate an entire planet seems like a bit of science fiction on the one hand, but on the other can we honestly say that in our real world we are not already on a path where it might become a conceivable reality?

It is precisely in moments of realization such as this that I inevitably seek solace in music, art and science. None of them provide the answers, but at least the heart is in the right place in recognizing the severity of the problems. One such artist is the British Indian musician, composer, arranger, and producer Nitin Sawhney. I came across some of his work years ago. His albums combine electronica with a multitude of other sounds from India to South Africa and beyond and explore a number of themes.

When I was taking the photos the other night though, a few bars of the instrumental Breathing Light from his album Prophesy popped into my head simultaneously. Some might call this chill out music but for me there is something more profound to it. The underlying piano notes are ethereal, while the flutes and other electronic sounds weave around the melody making it feel like a musical journey. Or maybe just a journey through the clouds and out above the atmosphere, where names, places and people become secondary to the wonders that make our planet so unique.  I realized that the photos reminded me of this way of looking at our world.  It would be nice to keep it that way I think.

Breathing Light-Written By Nitin Sawhney

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Water Is Life

Aman Iman-Water Is Life

A drip

A drop.

A tear.

A shower.

A flood.

These are just a few of the ways we think about water in the physical sense. The cooling relief of a summer rain. The gentle bead of moisture on a flower. Tears of joy and sorrow. A soothing dip in the ocean or a pool. A refreshing glass of water on the hottest day. An invigorating shower or bath. So much of our daily life revolves around water in fact. From the water needed to make that first cup of coffee in the morning to plumbing, we rely on our ease of access to it.

Recently I have found myself taking close up photographs of water, toying around with my camera settings to alter the final appearance. It has been a surprising experiment seeing the end result. I have always taken shots that involve water of course, be it a walk along the river here in New York, or the Atlantic Ocean from the steep cliffs of Ireland. But taking closeup photos of the movement of water has been enlightening for two reasons.

First, on the photography side, the closeup shots reveal different colors and textures. Ripples of water caught in the suns reflection became almost like alternating blocks with multi-colored patterns dappled with little pinpricks of light. Or in even the smallest waterfall, the free flowing ‘dance’ the water makes as it runs down to the next level. One moment it is a mere trickle, while the next it splashes in all directions with exuberance. Using the tools on the camera, these moments can become frozen in place, preserving the movement as though it were cast in stone. For an element that is defined by movement, water can look interesting when the camera traps it in place. Continue reading “Water Is Life”

Soundtrack Of A Photograph-Searching For E7

When I was a boy I had a deep fascination with maps. It did not matter if it was a World Atlas, or the most basic globe that seemed to be in most classrooms growing up. Later I began absconding the variety of maps that came in our families issues of National Geographic. I would (not so carefully) unravel the folds of the maps of places like Antarctica, the Himalayas, or even the Moon. Usually there would be a map on one side and on the reverse would be additional information. Sometimes it might be a topographical map of the same area, highlighting the ocean depths in varying shades of blue, or the highest mountains expertly drafted to look as if you could feel the rise  of elevation with your finger.

No matter the form of the map I would spend hours peering at the world around me, traveling  without ever leaving home. I could cross the China Sea, climb the Atlas Mountains, or traverse Australia using nothing more than my mind. I could trace the outline of Africa with my finger or imagine what the jagged coasts of Norway must be like in person. I loved to locate the remotest islands scattered throughout the world, marveling at exotic names like Spitsbergen, Tristan da Cunha, the Maldives and Sable Island.  I could visit the extremes of the earth at the North and South Poles.  When looking at an atlas, often I would gaze through the glossary, searching for names that sounded interesting. A useful tool when later on in grammar school I won a world capitals contest by knowing that the capital of Burkina Faso (or Upper Volta as it was known at the time) was Ouagadougou.

The key to finding all of those places in the glossary was via a code system. If you wanted to find exactly where Guadalcanal was on the map, you would look it up and see that it might be E7 on a particular page. Once there you would line the two  points up with your fingers and zero in on your target. Even then you sometimes had to expand your radius out slightly as it never quite matched up exactly, particularly in places as vast as the South Pacific Ocean. It was all part of the exploration really. Often I would expand on what I was learning in school, tracing the paths of the great explorers, sweeping across the Mongolian tundra with Genghis Khan or climbing Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Other times I would look at places where I had family scattered throughout the world, which brought places like  Nigeria into my world. Though it would be years before I ever met my cousins there, looking at the country with a map made me feel connected with them somehow.

Recently I  found myself returning to maps again, either looking at my trusty Rand McNally Atlas, or via the newest way to view the world conveniently, with my smartphone. When I was young I visited those places I saw through the maps in my mind, imagining what the people and the landscape looked like.  What the food tasted like.  Later when I began exploring some of those same areas again, instead of using maps as my guide, it became through the music. I became fascinated by music from all over the world, and asked many of those same questions. Music can reveal so much, especially when you go out of your way and explore something new, just like we do with food. As I sat strumming my guitar the other night while thinking up ideas for this blog it did not go unnoticed by me that certain musical notes have the same letter and number combinations the way those points do on a map. E7 can be a map location, but it can also be a chord.

The reason I have been looking at maps again has been for a different reason though. There are problems everywhere of course, but with the 24/7 news cycle we live in now, it seems much more pervasive. Events can seem pretty bleak at times and conflicts over territory, disputes about religion and government and environmental issues abound right now. Though I find myself as frustrated and repulsed  by the worst of it like everyone else, I feel the need to understand why it has come to be this way and I return once again to the tools I used when I was younger. Unfortunately, it seems the norm these days is for the more reactionary and flamboyant opinions voiced by people who clearly never did what I did as a boy, learning about the world by way of maps. I often want to scream and say, “You can’t share an opinion about (insert particular area of strife or conflict) until you can point to it on a map, understand said place’s recent history (and by recent I mean at least the last 50 years) and then have some understanding of the culture.” Then maybe I might listen to you. Instead I see a lot of knee-jerk reactions to events and places people barely know of, let alone know where they are on a map. And yet those voices sadly seem to be heard the most.

It makes me despair at times, so I choose to focus on the good, while keeping a watchful eye on the evil. The good for me will always be things like food, art and music. I thought about what artist I could use to close out that thought. Someone who is empowered by music and uses it to both entertain and educate. Someone not afraid to speak her mind, and yet is massively popular around the world as a result. Someone who quite literally travels the world at a dizzying pace-New Zealand one day, then Chicago two days later. That someone is the amazing Angelique Kidjo from Benin. She is a whirlwind of a performer, full of massive energy. In June I was at a festival where she was performing. It was a gray, wet and dreary day, and my spirits were sagging because of it. I think within the first 30 seconds she had the crowd up on its feet, and by the end of her set it was a full scale party, the dreary day  a distant memory. Similarly, years ago when I was working at Tower Records Angelique was performing in nearby Lincoln Center. Immediately after the show a swarm of people who had previously never heard of her came in and within 5 minutes, EVERY album and compilation we had with her music was gone. Her song Afirika is in part dedicated to the late Miriam Makeba and to the African continent and is always a sing-along at her concerts.

Years ago when I was tracing my finger around the continents, and looking places up like Nigeria in the atlas I thought about the people there. Quite often the thought I had was, what do they think about? What moves them, what inspires them? What makes them laugh? What makes them cry? When you meet people from those places,  and when you listen to their music, the answers are quite often the same as our own. The distances between points on a map can be vast. The people in between share much in common however. Artists like Angelique Kidjo understand this. They relish it. People want to sing, and dance, laugh and cry all over the world and she gives it to them. If we look Benin up on a map we might find it by locating E7. Someone in Benin with the same curiosity about the world  might look up your home town by locating E7 on a different map. Isn’t knowing where someone is from what really matters as the starting point to understanding each other?

Afirika-Written By Angelique Kidjo & Jean Hebrail

Map Photo Taken From World Atlas Of Nations, Copyright 1993 By Rand McNally & Company

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All Photographs By Robert P. Doyle