The Thrill is Gone, or what to do about Peppie, the Problem Fox

Peppie_the_foxPhotographers of differing skill levels, from occasional snapshotters to internationally known professionals, stalk icons. That should contribute to the proof that there’s a least 1001 ways of seeing the same thing. The more difficult quest is not as much for adding another image to our collections, as it is to see, and to show, the subject from a different perspective, or, to use the cliché, in a new light. On Prince Edward Island the most frequently hunted icons include lighthouses, particularly the one at Covehead, sandstone cliffs and stone formations such as Elephant Rock and Teacup Rock. Some photographers can’t pass the fishing village of French River without stopping and pointing their camera out the window. Some get out and stand by the road’s edge. They go to the wharf at Malpeque because of the way the boats tie up there–bows pointing out towards their lenses.  Province House is on the list, as are a multitude of farms and fields and lupins and heritage roads in autumn. And fox.

sylvester_foxBack in 2009, when John Sylvester’s work was published in Wild Island, he didn’t see a fox every day and he had to be patient. Especially patient in waiting for the instant when the fox leapt—a predation technique naturalists call mousing. In 2009 that was an unusual photo defining another sort of ‘decisive moment.’

Last year Dylan Roberts entered the Annual PEI Photo Club Show with “Playful Leap”—a quick shot of a silver grey fox jumping by the cannons at Victoria Park. Dylan was more lucky than patient. Sally Cole quoted Dylan in her June 10, 2017 article in the Guardian, “`I managed to snap a picture,’ says the Charlottetown resident, who won first place in the nature category for ‘Playful Leap.’”

dylan_roberts_fox

photo by Sally Cole, The Guardian

“`I was changing my (settings) when the fox started jumping, so I ended up shooting the picture from my chest. I knew that if I looked in the viewfinder I would never get it in time. I was hoping that I’d have one and, when I got home, there it was,’ says Roberts with a smile.”

Foxes are ubiquitous on the Island now. And so are images of them. Hundreds are posted on social media by folks with fox dens under their garden sheds. When the kits are born in the spring, the number of images posted increases seemingly by a factor of 10.  I know of one photographer who has given his backyard foxes names and who documents their lives like an unbridled grandparent. The animals are so ubiquitous that Riverview, New Brunswick, nature photographer Brittany Crossman comes here to shoot them. The CBC news captured the truth of the matter in the lead to its article: “Friendly P.E.I. foxes featured on National Geographic site — New Brunswick photographer finds Island foxes less shy and easier to photograph” (Shane Ross, CBC News Posted: Jan 01, 2017) The problems of climate change exist elsewhere, while nature is genial on the gentle Island.

Foxes have become so commonplace, there’s no need to hunt them. My wife and I walk the trails at Robinsons Island several times each week. This summer, two young foxes were often seen lazing about the parking lot—a parking lot usually crowded with vehicles coming and going carrying nature lovers and tourists who were taking advantage of Canada 150 free park passes. I suspect that some of the visitors fed the foxes because the foxes became nuisances. They followed the hikers. Then the Parks Canada vans and trucks were often seen in the parking lot with the uniformed folks scratching their heads.

problem_fox_II

“What are you going to do about them?” I asked one staffer.

“We’re going to get rid of them,” he said.

“How?” I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. Had he been reluctant to tell me an ugly truth? Or was he without an answer?

Well, they started by putting up a sandwich board warning us in both official languages not to feed the wildlife. It sported a picture of a fox in case we needed a hint.  A week or so later, the signage increased. Posters were taped to the garbage bin and tacked to the posts. It wasn’t unusual to see lots of people toting cameras, crouched in front of the foxes in the parking lot. The animals seemed to have learned how to pose.

I thought about writing speculative fiction about Parks Canada deploying “tame” foxes in a pilot study to increase tourist traffic. One of the tamed foxes was named Peppie. He was the extravert—a real poser. His sister was a tad more camera shy. So much so, she didn’t earn a nickname.

My article would have quoted animal handler, Jamie Earnscliff, a UPEI biology graduate and former employee of the provincial government when the department was known as Fish and Wildlife. But Jamie said that because this was a pilot study, he really couldn’t say anything publicly.
problem_fox

The CBC ran an article in which Paul Giroux warned the public about feeding the foxes. “`They need to be respected’: Parks Canada reminds visitors not to feed animals–Reports of an aggressive fox prompted the reminder” (CBC News, August 5, 2017) My article would have included what another staffer whose name must be withheld said off-the-record about the experiment and how it might be extended to other national parks. “Our numbers are definitely up,” she said. “We’ve never seen traffic like this before in Brackley. The trouble is we don’t know how much of it is due to open park passes this year, or the renovations made to the trail system here at Robinsons Island, or the pilot study with the foxes.” She shrugged her shoulders. “There are just too many variables,” she continued. “Four, if you factor in the weather, but that’s a stretch.”

When I pressed her about expansion of the experiment, she said possibilities existed for introducing tamed foxes at Cavendish West and Greenwich. “What about other animals?” I asked.

“You mean the pet bears at Banff? You didn’t hear anything about that from me.” She gave me a stare, then smiled. “They’d have to be black bears. Grizzlies are too unpredictable, too dangerous. And the costs. Forget it.”

“But it’s on the books.” I said hoping for confirmation.

She shook her head.“You didn’t hear nothin’.”

“So, if Parks Canada sees record numbers, we shouldn’t be surprised to see prices of tickets and passes go up next year.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they were doubled,” but don’t quote me on that. Don’t quote me on anything.” She gave me a frown and a pause long enough to let the frown register. “Why doesn’t anyone ask about the work we’re doing with the forests here? Haven’t they seen the cutting and the clearing and the planting? We’re bringing back the original Acadian forest.”

“You mean like the MacPhail Woods Project that started 20 years ago?” I realized my mistake as soon as the words were out of my mouth—words that didn’t make her any happier.

“Shit. I shouldn’t be talkin’ to you at all. We’re done.”

As I said, I’d have to say my piece was speculative fiction.  A week later, a much bigger sign went up. I honestly don’t know if things got out of hand, or if this was phase three of the study.  Some days the lot was so full, people were parked along both sides of the road along the cause way.

Back in the days when John Sylvester was rewarded for his patience, I had wanted to take a decent image of an Island Red Fox, but I’m not an icon-stalker. Let the opportunities come to me. But it was rare then that I saw a fox, and rarer still when I had a camera with me when I saw the animal. The foxes that did present themselves were wary and skittish. They hadn’t learned to pose and they didn’t stick around. As a photographer, you had to be patient and quick, and I was neither. I have to confess, I had wanted to take that different image, that different point of view to contribute to an expanding vision and countless ways of seeing the animal. I had wanted to capture an image of a fox as strong as the one imprinted on my memory one pre-Sylvester winter.

A clear, blue-sky day in January or February when the snow-covered fields seemed to radiate light. We were living in Darnley near the north shore in an old two-story farmhouse. The only upstairs window facing north was in my son’s bedroom. It was the only window in the house from which we could see the ocean. In the early afternoon, I went upstairs and happened to look out. I saw a large red fox, coming down slowly along the fence and the tree line, then approach the field beside the house. Blue sky above the thin, deeper blue line of the ocean, a red fox against pristine snow. The image framed by the window was stunning in the simplicity of its composition. Time slowed long enough to register as a moment. I was alone, as I had to be, because moments like this don’t happen when you’re not alone.  How much does the strength of such a moment, such a vision, lie in the fact that it is unshareable, unlike a painting or a photograph.

Now, when fox photos are as common as construction sites and roadway flagmen in July, I’m not so interested. Pedestrian should replace ubiquitous as the descriptor. So what does it mean when I drive out to Robinsons Island, park in the lot, and there’s Peppie the problem fox posing in front of the car? What does it mean when the fox is in my face?  I’ve learned to carry a camera most of the time, and there was only one thing preventing me from shooting Peppie from the driver’s seat. Dirt on the windshield. I grabbed the camera and got out of the car. Peppie didn’t move. I was alone, as I had to be. This is so not right, I thought to myself. “Hurry up,” Peppie seemed to say. “Because, you’re so boring, I’m going to lie down and go to sleep.”

I took a shot. Definitely not an iconic image; Tourism PEI wouldn’t want it. Think of it as a “revenge” image. A failed revenge image. What’s become of nature conservation? This is so not right. Like setting up beach umbrellas in times of tsunamis.

I remember a story I’d heard from the wife of a moose hunter. Every fall her husband, Todd and three of his buddies went to a hunting lodge in Newfoundland. They spent big bucks to an outfitter to get in by float plane. The idea was that they’d have five days to hunt, which was really five days of guy-time together in the woods. They wanted to bag a moose, but the animal was really an excuse to take time off, to get away and to enjoy each other’s company. One year they invited Jimmy. Jimmy wasn’t an experienced hunter and he’d probably never held a high-powered rifle before. Jimmy was also a very early riser. They flew in to the lodge site, carried in their gear and supplies, settled in and Jimmy was given rudimentary instruction in the handling of a bolt-action 30-06. The next morning Jimmy was the first one up, and as the mist was rising from the surface of the lake, he saw the moose through the picture window. If the lodge could have been said to have had a front lawn, that’s where the moose was standing.  Less than 15 meters from the front porch. Jimmy grabbed a rifle, checked to make sure a cartridge was in the chamber, just as he had been taught, stepped out onto the porch and shot the moose. The shot woke the others who scrambled out of their beds. They came down and looked out at the dead animal, steam now rising from the carcass. “Jeezus, Jimmy,” said one of them. “Fuck,” said another. “What,” said Jimmy, rubbing his shoulder. “Does this mean the holiday is over? Shit, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”

Is the holiday over? Is that the meaning of the fox? One night Peppie the Problem Fox came to me in a dream—the kind of dream that replays itself over and over as though it’s trying to get it right and push on through to resolution—a borderline nightmare. The first time Peppie spoke, he said, “People have lost their totems.” He spoke without words being uttered—a fox language that surrounded the animal and emanated from it, like an energy. During another recycling of the dream, he said, “Who are you to call me the problem?”

Summer is officially over and the number of park visitors is declining. With intimations of cold weather, there are times when the parking lot at Robinsons Island is empty. And Peppie is not always to be seen. Yesterday, as I returned to the lot having completed my walk, I saw him sitting on the road at the entrance. An approaching SUV had stopped beside him, and the driver had lowered his window and was leaning out taking photos of the animal with his phone.  Peppie was sitting on my side of the yellow line and fortunately there was enough room for me to drive around him. He looked at the driver of the SUV, and then he looked at me. He wasn’t about to move.

Last night he returned in a dream and in fox language he said, “It’s time to wake up. I’m here. People notice but they’re not noticing. They see but they don’t see. Not like in the time of the ancestors.” As far as I can recall it, this dream was not cyclical, just a fragment among a collection of seemingly unrelated images from elsewhere. He returned. “Don’t you think it’s time to wake up?”

6 am. It was, and I did. But I don’t think that’s what Peppie meant.

 

Amateur Herbalist a Recommended Read

grand-manan-swallow-tail-light

It’s been awhile since I posted to ArtsConflicted. Several months ago I moved the photography, and blogging about photography, over to paulvreeland.com.     Recently I’ve been thinking of coming back to this page. And now I have the excuse–almost the perfect excuse. I’d like to share the writing of Louise Burley, particularly as she blogs Meanderings of an Amateur PEI Herbalist. Her latest post, “Feed Me, Seymour!”  https://amateurherbalistblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/02/feed-me-seymour/  is so skillfully articulated; yeah, I wish I could write like that. Read it. I think you’ll want more.

Dirty Tricks or Photographic Arts?

Lady Kristin

Lady Kristen – Copyright 2013 – Paul Vreeland

“… there is no such thing as an absolutely unmanipulated photograph.” 

Mia Fineman – curator Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop

at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A companion piece to “No News from Poems: Story Truth and Happening Truth”

I’ve been meaning to write this post for some time and laziness is not the only reason why it’s been delayed. As a “slog” (slow blog), I can say that, until Lionel Stevenson’s recent book launch at the Confederation Centre of the Arts Gallery, it wasn’t ready to be written.  It had begun weeks ago as a post about photography having a bad reputation as a conveyer of truth, and how things go downhill rapidly when we consider what happens after the camera shutter has been pressed.

Lionel Stevenson is a distinguished and well-known Prince Edward Island photographer. A retrospective, “career survey” of his work, “Fifty Years of Photographs,” had been on exhibit at the Confederation Centre of the Arts since last October until this month. I took in the exhibit several times and loved what I saw. The prints were gallery large and with few exceptions were black and whites. Stevenson’s subjects ranged from portraits of Islanders, to barns, wintry street scenes, and huge erratics—boulders deposited by glaciers at Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia. My curiosity was piqued by the brief curator’s note, “Stevenson’s contention is that subject matter is largely secondary…” I had learned that if I wanted to make beautiful photographs I had to be alert to beautiful subjects. I had learned that beautiful photography was dependent upon beautiful subjects. In other words, the subject was everything. Well, almost. The application of artistic skill is supposedly responsible for the rest.  evans_wife3

This posting is, once again, about art and truth. In “No News from Poems” I wrote about the truth that fiction would offer relative to the truth that creative non-fiction asserts. That discussion has a parallel arising from a confusion of purposes served by photography. Is it the duty of the photography to record and document the truth as does creative non-fiction? Or is it the function of the photographic arts, like that of the short story, to probe the nuances of more subjective truths? (And I would agree with those who say the function of fiction is simply to entertain. But I would ask, is it possible to be entertained without an engagement that begs the reader to resonate in some way with character—a resonance descriptive of our human condition—descriptive of a truth?)  Both discussions are founded on what is “seen” on a purely materialistic plane and the meaning of “seeing” or “envisioning” on a more spiritual level.

Lionel Stevenson is a master printer. He worked as an assistant to American documentary photographer Berenice Abbott.  It is important to note here that Abbott, was of the pure or straight photography school.  Popularized in the 1930s by photographers such as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Walker Evans, straight photography held to a realism and objectivity that renounced methods of image manipulation. It was distinguished by high contrast, sharp focused, uncropped prints—images that were “representational”—creative non-fiction, if you will. (Right: Straight Photograph — Allie Mae Burroughs, wife of cotton sharecropper. Hale County, Alabama, by Walker Evans/Library of Congress)

Straight photography was a refutation of the Pictorialist Movement of the late 19th century in which images were manipulated and processed to look like paintings. In fact a number of painters including Manet, Cézanne and Gauguin used photography in their work. The pictorialists are to photography what fiction writers are to literature. Steichen The Flatiron

“Work straight,” a critic is reported to have said. Produce photographs, not imitation fine art. And the purists renounced soft focus, darkroom trickery, drawing or scratching on negatives, and gum printing.

Whether an image is bathed in chemicals in a darkroom or is digitally enhanced by software, the term we use is “post-processing”– “post” because it refers to all the work, all the processing that is done after the shooting, after the camera has done its job. (Right: Pictorialist, The Flatiron Building by Edward Steichen who trained as a painter. The photo was taken in 1904 before the advent of colour film. Here Steichen achieved an artistic moodiness through a process that suspended pigments in gum bichromate over platinum prints.)

Why is this important to me? In Stevenson’s work I find a hint of what it is that I try to accomplish. Perhaps by understanding him I can come to a better understanding of what I am about. You see I spend a lot of time post-processing images and the debate for me is about the manipulation of the image. I found it difficult to reconcile the notion that “the subject is secondary” to a straight documentary photographer; I didn’t understand how realism and objectivity can be reconciled with a concentration on the processing of the image after the shutter has been pressed.  There is something akin to a moral dilemma here, because an adherence to the lofty goals of realism and objectivity has given post-processing a bad wrap. Post-processing is, shockingly, a dirty word in the vocabulary of many accomplished photographers – those who should know better, as well as the neophytes who promote an ignorance that “the camera doesn’t lie,” – a fallacy dating back to 1895.

He looked up from the proof at me and said:
‘Good Lord! Do I look like that?’
‘The camera doesn’t lie about such things’, I replied. (1)

This is not another article on the use of the photographic arts to deceive. There’s a host of worthy articles out there such as the art review by Ken Johnson in The New York Times, “Their Cheating Art: Reality and Illusion—‘Faking It at the Met, a Photography Exhibition” (2). Or, as one post title read: “Photos don’t lie, but liars use photographs to deceive…”(3)  We live in a culture of photographic deception. Just take a look at the tabloids when you’re standing in line at the grocery checkout—the celebrity victims of extreme weight gains, losses and aging.   Think about it. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word photoshopped? This aspect of the photographic arts has been deemed “evil” and a “sin.”

The preeminent tool for contemporary post-processing is Adobe Corporation’s software known as Photoshop, and when an image is said to have been “photoshopped”, we often mean that it has been stripped of its veracity and journalistic integrity. To ‘photoshop’ is to lie. I’m not the only one concerned about this. David Peterson posted an article questioning, “Is Post-Processing Evil?” Peterson writes:

Artists can be a self-righteous bunch. There will always be the purists, those who don’t even own a digital camera, and then there are those who recognize the importance of Photoshop and other tools. When it comes to the ethics of photography, post-processing tends to get the bad end of the stick because it involves the direct manipulation of a photo after it’s been taken. There is always the opportunity to cover up bad photography with computer-generated effects, so some consider it to be evil. But is it?

I’d like to offer a couple of points in defense of post-processing, not because it needs defending, but because I need to understand what I am doing.

First, the lie begins in the camera. There is no perfect lens, and the truth of what we see is distorted by whatever piece of glass is in front of the sensor or film. The truth is also altered by the choices the photographer makes before the shot is taken—choices of aperture, exposure, shutter speed and ISO. As the well-known American photographer Edward Steichen said, “Every photograph is a fake from start to finish, a purely impersonal, unmanipulated photograph being practically impossible.” And who in their right mind believes in a realism that witnessed the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima, or the testing of the atomic bomb at Bikini atoll in black and white. That reality is limited to those who are colour blind.

Secondly, post-processing can help render an image to more closely replicate what the human eye sees. A case in point is a trendy technique called HDR which stands for high dynamic range.  The human eye is at least ten times more sensitive to luminosity or a range of brightness than is the camera. Most of us have taken a photo in which the sky offers up its true brilliance but our subject, Uncle Wally or whoever, turns out to be a dark silhouette. Or maybe Uncle Wally is properly rendered and the sky is a blinding white. To compensate for the technological shortcomings of the camera, some photographers take multiple photos of their subjects, each at a different exposure setting.  Through post-processing the different exposures can be layered to create an image that better approximates the human eye. Unfortunately HDR is contributing to the notion that post-processing is evil because the technique is popularly abused. The internet is awash in HDR images so blatantly over the top that no human eye could have ever perceived the subject so. Peter West Carey, in a post titled “Knowing My Limits – Why I Don’t Do HDR” writes:

It’s not that HDR is totally evil (just mostly) and should be done away with. I know it’s a bit of a craze and newfangled thing right now. Just stop taking it too far and stop using it in place of proper exposure and accepting the limits of the scene in front of you. There is so much great stuff to learn about proper exposure that the HDR gadget can just sit at the back of the drawer like the outgrown toy it has become. Care to differ? Please do! Just keep it civil.(4)

I would agree. If you can tell that an image is HDR, then you’ve crossed the line. You want the image to stand out, not the technique that produced it. I can hear the critics of the pictorialists saying that. By the way, the photo above, Lady Kristen, is an HDR image.

Camera technology has advanced to the point where we now need to ask is HDR a post-processing technique. What if the HDR processing is done in camera? Several digital cameras now offer that feature. And apps for iPhones and other smart phone cameras enable users to snap HDR photos.

But hold on. What if the photographer doesn’t want to render a scene as his human eye “sees” it? What if he wants to render it as his imagination “sees” it? What if he is less concerned with capturing an image than in creating a new one? What if he wants to document his vision? What if the harsh, garish reality of what the photographer envisioned is best rendered by an over-the-top and in-your-face HDR treatment? I’ve gone too far, but I want to make a point about the seeming difference between documenting a truth and creating a new one. Which brings me back to Lionel Stevenson who said,

Although the referent is important in my photographs, and it is the stimulus to pick up the camera, for me the photograph is more important than its referent. [It] is essentially about what pleases my eye. I want to make beautiful sheets of paper.”(5)

Mind you, Stevenson is a straight photographer. He’s a documentary photographer who wants “his prints to be as true as possible to what he originally saw.”(6). But, for Stevenson, it’s not about snapping pictures, rather, it is the much slower matter of controlling the process to enable the aesthetic object to emerge.

At the recent launch of his book I shared my questions with him. I pressed Stevenson about being a straight photographer and post-processing.

“Yes,” he said, “When you go out, you remember what you see, you remember the grayscales.”

“But,” I countered. “Is it a matter of your physical eye or is it something greater? Is it a vision?”

He nodded and drew my attention to a quote by Berenice Abbott in the book I had just purchased.

The challenge for me has first been to see things as they are, whether a portrait, a city street, or a bouncing ball. In a word, I have tried to be objective. What I mean by objective is not the objectivity of a machine, but of a sensible human being with the mystery of personal selection at the heart of it. The second challenge has been to impose order onto the things seen and to supply the visual context and the intellectual framework—that to me is the art of photography.(6)

Is there a difference between a recorded documented truth and one created by art? Maybe. If we limit our understanding to one perspective and accept all others as “wrong”. And maybe not. Maybe it’s not a question of one or the other, but a matter of one and the same. Here, for me, is the reconciliation. For photographers like Stevenson, print-making and post-processing are the arts that bridge the gap across a false dichotomy to create a new documentary truth seen someplace between the eye, the mind, and the soul. Simply seen, but not so simply rendered.

Am I a straight photographer or a pictorialist? I don’t know yet. But I do know that this is creative non-fiction.

—————————

The Sandusky Register, Sandusky, Ohio, February 1895 (see http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/camera-cannot-lie.html)

2 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/12/arts/design/faking-it-at-the-met-a-photography-exhibition.html?

3 http://furtherglory.wordpress.com/2010/06/22/photos-dont-lie-but-liars-use-photographs-to-decieve/

4 http://digital-photography-school.com/knowing-my-limits-%e2%80%93-why-i-dont-do-hdr#ixzz2UV53P6Wv

5 Lionel F. Stevenson – Fifty Years of Photographs / Cinquante ans de photographie (1962-2012), Pan Wendt, Acorn Press, Charlottetown, 2013, p. 9.

6 Ibid, p. 10.

7 Ibid, p. 13.