a local habitation: creating a sense of place

Having posted so many digital pictures recently, I’ve been feeling the urge to balance all the color with some black-and-white. I’ve also wanted to put up some square (medium format) images, which I return to again and again in my work. I could focus on a number of different things but am leaning toward landscapes that are part of my history. Whether in Maine or Virginia, woods and water make me feel at home, and I’ve always felt compelled to make pictures in these places.

When I first moved to Red Hill (over 20 years ago), I tried constantly to make photographs that conveyed the sense of mystery and otherworldliness I felt in these woods, but the images I produced seemed banal to me. The first one that really worked was this image of Lily in the paradise trees, and it “clicked” for many other people as well. But although it took place in the landscape–told a story about the landscape–as an image, it wasn’t a landscape,” really. Shot with my venerable Rolleicord, it was printed on Portriga Rapid, split-toned, and hand-colored with Marshall’s photo-oil pencils, techniques that were pretty popular in the mid-80s and that still appeal tremendously to my students today (although that lovely Agfa paper is no longer with us). For this particular picture, the method really did suit the madness: slow, hand-made alteration somehow created more meaning than could be achieved with pixels.

I don’t shoot this way so much anymore. If I make a medium-format image, it’s almost always with a Holga, which on its own evokes that sense of image-remembered. The Rolleicord, though meterless and funky, is still quite sharp, with the visual richness that seems to go with German lenses. This image of my first child evokes a very specific time and place for me as a mother, a photographer, a person.

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The other landscapes shown here are from Maine (the campground at Rangeley Lake) and Virginia (Red Hill and Camp Strawderman, near Woodstock). They’re taken with the Rollei (Maine) and the Holga (Virginia), and I never used a light meter. One or two of the Rangeley images are sepia toned, and the Red Hill contact sheet (bottom of post) is a Van Dyke brown print. Although I have photographed my Red Hill habitat many times with a variety of digital cameras, the Holga/VDB combination seems to suit it best–again, conjuring up that feeling of a real place remembered.

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One of my most interesting and gifted students has suddenly and unexpectedly switched from shooting blurry, “edgy” portraits with her Holga to photographing landscapes, some of them double-exposed, all of them beautiful and fascinating. She’s surprised to find herself drawn to this kind of work–but I’m not. It’s the only way for her to make sense of her surroundings, and the Holga (with its square format and fuzzy resolution) is uniquely able to evoke that sense of memory. What could be more natural for a high-school senior than to turn toward photographing the place where she’s lived, the place that in six months will be “home” in a different way?

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And as imagination bodies forth the form of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shapes…and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.

–A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act V, scene vi)

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