Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Real Astronomy

I did finally get a chance to do some real astronomy. On Peckford Island I had the luxury of a cabin to sleep in and a breezy beach to photograph from, which kept the discomforts of sleeping on the ground and the mosquitos to a minimum. It was also amazingly dark and clear out there, so I really enjoyed my night.

First I did some images of the Milky Way along with the island's lighthouse. I was able to line up the scenery so that it looks like the Milky Way is beaming out of the lighthouse:

The thing I really like about this image is that it captures an asterism known as The Teapot. An asterism is an arrangement of stars that resembles some object, but is not an official constellation. An example of an asterism you are probably familiar with is the Big Dipper, which is just a part of the constellation Ursa Major. In the animation below I've drawn some lines joining up the stars in The Teapot (which is actually the constellation Sagittarius) so that you can easily see it. The amazing thing about The Teapot is that it looks like the Milky Way is pouring out of the spout. A great photo opportunity considering the nature of my journey.

I was concentrating so much on shooting these images that I wasn't really paying attention to what was going on around me. When I turned to look back towards the north I was delighted to see a great show of aurora happening Right behind Darren's cabin. I didn't get the best photos, and the aurora faded quickly, but I'm pretty happy with this one:

After the aurora stopped I made a few last shots of some cabins with stars in the background. I illuminated the cabins with my flashlight while the camera was on a long-exposure setting to capture the sky as well:

Friday, July 26, 2013

Fair Island

On the way from Little Bay Islands I stopped for a night to visit Long Island, a larger island with several settlements just a 5 minute ferry ride from the mainland. I didn't intend to stop long, or make any art while there, but rather to just have a look around and get a sense of the place. While I was grabbing some snacks at the only convenience store a guy showed up on his quad to pick up smokes and food. He saw me, introduced himself as Bob, and invited me over to his place for a chat and a drink. "Past the post office, then turn right and down over the hill." I told him I planned on seeing the whole island, but that if I got back before dark I would stop in. "I'm not from here either," he left me with as he drove away.

Bob turned out to be an interesting fellow. At the age of 19 he became a firefighter in St. John's, working shifts at the various departments throughout the city. At the age of 44 he had his 25 years put in, his family raised and was eligible for retirement with a pension. Separated from his wife, he bought a fibreglass boat, then a tiny fishing shed in a hidden cove on Long Island for $350. For the past ten years he's spent 10 months a year living in that shed-turned-home. Later he commissioned a new wooden boat, because, in his words, "the fibreglass never did feel right."

He enjoyed hearing about my travels and my project, and was determined to give me some assistance. "Paul's Island, in Bonavista Bay, is covered with shards end to end." I like getting local knowledge in this little mission of mine. We talked until the twilight faded, when I retreated to the campsite I had scouted out earlier.

So, while it was never on my itinerary to visit Bonavista Bay it was perhaps inevitable that I did. Stopping at the only restaurant in Centreville I scoffed down a meal before asking the waitress whether she knew anyone who might take me out there. Not twenty minutes later her next door neighbour, Gary, showed up to see me. We negotiated a price and agreed to leave first thing in the morning.

It's only 10km to Paul's Island, but it was evident that Gary just loves being on the water, and the trip turned into a two hour tour. We went to Silver Island, Pork Island, Sydney Cove, Lewis Island, Paul's Island and Fair Island. Bob was right, there were shards on Paul's Island, but there were even more on Fair Island, so that's where I stayed.

There was little beach to speak of on Fair Island, just smooth granite sloping down into the sea. But sand gathered in the cracks between the rocks, and on top of the sand was a dizzying constellation of shards of all shapes and colours.

I made a few arrangements to be swept away by the tide, like this one on a slipway:

And this one to be swept into a hollow in the rock:

But on this trip I was ultimately more interested in making layered images of shards underwater like those I posted in the previous post.

Fair Island was a strange place to be - it was, after the solitude of Peckford Island, like a metropolis. All the islands in Bonavista Bay, or certainly all the ones that I saw, were covered with cabins and buzzing with activity, and Fair Island seemed to be the busiest of them all. I was there on a weekend, which added to the crowd, and I got invited around for drinks and tunes. Lots of the cabin goers were born on Fair Island, and had vivid stories about the old days before resettlement, which I obviously enjoyed.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

More Astronomical Shard Images

I've written a little bit before about applying astronomy photo techniques to the projects I'm doing. Well, I'm really enjoying it. The painterly, surreal quality of the imagery along with the muted tones and colours reflect the atmosphere of many of these places I am visiting. And I love the process of distorting then rebuilding a coherent image with the pottery fragments I am finding.

These four are the simplest photos from this process. They are just shards underwater, but deep enough that they are not being moved around by the wave action. The bottom one is especially cool - as I was doing the photos a starfish crawled up and photobombed the scene (you can see it in the bottom right corner):

This next one is a little more complicated, and is sort of how I had imagined this project would go. This is a stack of selected photos of shards being washed away by the waves. This is just 64 frames stacked, but, considering I have over 200 frames I would like to use, this is just a sample of the finished product:

These are just a few quick samples. I have so many raw images it's going to take months to go through them all.

Peckford Island

The Wadham Islands are a collection of five little islands about 10km north of Musgrave Harbour. I hadn't planned on going there, but then I noticed them on my map and something clicked in my head, although I couldn't quite figure out what it was that was clicking. I knew I'd heard a story connected to them, but for the life of me couldn't remember what it was.

So I made a phone call to a local business and asked about going out there. "Nope," I was told, "There's no boat tours in Musgrave Harbour. There's no way to get out there. You won't be able to do it." And then a long, silent pause, followed by "…unless you talk to Darren." Five minutes and one phone call later all the arrangements were made.

(I should point out here something about local terminology. My map calls the five islands the Wadhams, and two smaller islands farther out the Offer Wadhams, presumably because they are farther off. Darren calls the more distant ones the Wadhams, and the inner ones by their individual names - Copper, Duck, White, Peckford and Green Islands. This is just one of many examples of the local dialect being in disagreement with the "official" geographical names. In another location I was told by an old fellow that the surveyors who showed up to look at the place after confederation just gave the features whatever names they felt like, and those are the ones that have made it into official, though not local, use.)

Darren gave me directions to his house ("Keep going down the road until you sees the b'ys" - simple but totally effective) and we had a chat about where exactly I should go for a couple nights. In the old days the Offer Wadhams were the big settlement, but Darren said the sea was dangerous there, that the islands were small and very rough, and that there weren't any beaches where I was likely to find shards. He suggested Peckford Island, the largest of the inner islands (though still only 2.5km long), where there are some beaches, a lighthouse, and a cabin that he built about 10 years ago.

Darren's a youngish guy but he has all the stories of a grizzled old sea captain. I think he has fished all his life, he does search and rescue exercises with the coast guard helicopters, and when biologists or scientists want to make a trip out around the bay he's usually the one to take them. This led to a conversation about his last passenger to Peckford Island, a biologist named Janet Russell. Janet was studying birds out there, but got the idea of fixing up the old lighthouse and turning it into an artist residency sort of thing. Soon my brain started chugging along, and I began to piece together that this was Janet Russell, the woman behind Rattling Books who I had been talking to several years ago while I was planning to go to the Grey Islands. You know that feeling you get when you finally figure out something that's just beyond your ability to recall it? Yeah, that. Janet made many trips out there, but Darren hadn't heard from her in the past couple years, so unfortunately it seems like the residency thing is off for the moment.

When Darren put me ashore he double checked to make certain I really wanted to do this. He said I was going to be very, very alone, and he was sure I was the first person on the island in two years. He hadn't even been to his cabin in that length of time. Naturally, I was fine with this, in fact it is what I was looking for. And it turns out that Peckford Island was the first time on this whole trip that I felt really, really alone. On Woods Island and in Grand Bruit there were always a few people around. Little Bay Islands was a bustling little community, and even on Sandy Point, though I was alone, I could look across the bay and see activity on the other side (Eugene even told me he was keeping an eye on me with his binoculars while I was out there).

There weren't a lot of shards to collect, but there were enough to make a few works.

I got more interested in just photographing shards in the sand after they had been dispersed:

There were also some old sheds out there, built for fishing long after resettlement, but still old and dilapidated. I had fun shooting them in this really monumental composition, making them look like something more than what they are:

Many of the sheds were built about 10 metres back from the shore, but the hurricane we had a few years ago, Igor, eroded the shoreline so much that most of them now are teetering on the edge. One in particular is currently spilling its contents onto the beach, which made for some great pics:

And I was really happy to find the remains of this old house on the north side of the island:

Darren, and almost every other single person I have met this summer, have been so nice and helpful and interested in what I'm doing. When Darren picked me up again he offered me breakfast and a shower, and told me to contact him if I was ever in town again. It's a message I keep hearing over and over.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Little Bay Islands

Let me just start by saying that Little Bay Islands is a treasure. The whole community could be turned into a living museum. It is beautiful, warm, colourful and friendly. If it were on the British Columbia coast people would be paying hundreds of thousands just to have a tiny summer cottage there. You simply must go.

But be warned: the community will almost certainly not exist by this time next year. It seems the majority of people are simply ready to leave. In fact, it would probably be more accurate to say that the vast majority of Little Bay Islanders have already, of their own accord, left over the past couple decades, and that the majority of those remaining are going to be "helped" to leave by the provincial government.

The government sees nothing but a moneypit - operating a ferry that runs 5 times a day and a school that sadly (pathetically even) has only one student. So the government has offered each household $300000 to leave. Well, not to leave exactly, because anyone is welcome to stay, but rather to relinquish any expectation of access to government services of any type.

And the townspeople, not all but certainly most of them, have given up as well. There are a few fishermen, and one bed and breakfast, but no store, or restaurant, or pub, or post office, or library, or other business of any sort. It is a town with no incentive to keep existing, but plenty of incentive to not. There will be a referendum in a month or two, and if enough votes are cast for resettlement the community will be no more.

They are in a bad situation, but with a little change in attitude this could so easily be a glass-half-full scenario. There are plenty of opportunities if the government wasn't so gung-ho to erase this town from the map. Properties are cheap, and many of them have been bought up by wealthy mainlanders who come up for the summer months (who, crazily, don't get to vote - they are the only ones who have invested anything in this town in the past decade). There are plenty of seasonal tourists as well, and, perhaps miraculously, the town still manages to hold a summer songwriters festival. I can't help but think of the type of businesses that could really thrive in that environment - not your regular crappy fish and chips shop, but a cafe selling gourmet coffees, for instance. Any simple, creative idea could really turn this place into a destination. And I keep thinking that if there were an excellent potter in town he/she would quickly meet some excellent customers.

Sadly the residents there don't seem to have the skill set to deal with these opportunities, and the government is just itching to shut it down rather than deal with the problem. With this community perhaps it's too late anyways - once there are no children it is hard to recover. But I think there are lessons to be learned here, that there are alternatives to resettlement, and that they must be explored long before the question must even be asked. The case of Little Bay Islands represents a failure in the past, and other shrinking communities, who aren't even considering resettlement at the moment, would do well to look at them and prepare for the future.

Well, enough with the ranting. There were some amazing shards in Little Bay Islands. The harbour is mostly rocky, and I had trouble finding shards to work with at first. But on the southeast side of the community and at low tide I found these beauties:

There was this lovely piece of old rusty iron on the beach which I covered with shards:

And I did something I'd been wanting to do for a couple weeks but didn't have the opportunity - I lined a slipway with shards. I couldn't do this in Grand Bruit just because there were so many fisherman on the go and I didn't want to get in their way. This slip was quiet enough I figured I could get away with it (and it had the lovely blue plastic which meant I could make a sort of blue and white composition):

Across the harbour I also made this simple pile on a rock:

And this is what happened over the next couple days - the shards on the iron simply sat there (it was a very sheltered part of the harbour):

The shards on the rock were scattered by the tide:

And the shards on the slipway just disappeared. I don't know if they fell on their own, but a boat appeared and when I asked the skipper he didn't have any idea what I was talking about.

The thing that really struck me about Little Bay Islands were the for sale signs on the houses. Most of the signs were pretty old, but they still conveyed a sense of simultaneous hopefulness and desperation. I put a shard on each one I could:

Blog Lag

Is there any such thing as blog lag? I am now close to two weeks behind in my blogging but I hope to catch up in the next few days. It's partly the fault of my extremely busy days - I'm usually biking, hiking, camping and photographing until I'm too tired to reflect or write. However, I must also lay the blame partly on the atrocious lack of access to wifi in rural Newfoundland.

For comparison sake, I bicycled across Canada and the northern States in 2007, and access to wifi in Newfoundland is still well behind where it was in the rest of the country six years ago. Sure, you can often get wifi at the small town library or sometimes even at the town office, but libraries are only open a few hours a week, and almost never when I'm passing through town. In most (but by no means all) places you can sit outside and get a signal, but this only suffices for a quick check of the email - it's pretty awkward for uploading photos and writing blog posts. And, something I'm noticing more and more is that the small town library has moved into the local school. I just don't like this trend - I refuse to be that vagabond stranger hanging around the primary school.

Everywhere else in the world you can stop at a restaurant or cafe or truckstop and access the internet on your laptop. You can sit and have a meal while you get your social media fix or do an hour of work. How civilized! Sadly, this is a service that businesses in Newfoundland have just not grasped yet. This is yet another thing I will blame on the dearth of entrepreneurship in this province. It is the same reason every restaurant and pub in rural newfoundland has the exact same menu (potatoes and various animals deep-fried) and why they all make the same claim, "Newfoundland's Best Seafood!" It's a crappy formula that everyone believes works (though it clearly doesn't) so naturally it would be apocryphal to change it (though obviously it wouldn't).

Anyways, a few days ago I came across a Chinese restaurant in a very small town. It was good (though again nothing particularly unique or creative), but was such a relief from the daily regimen of fries and burgers that I ravenously devoured my very large meal without even the slightest twinge of irritation at the lack of wifi. So please rural Newfoundland, either get some better food, or get some better service, or, even better yet, break the mold that is forcing you to be a caricature of yourself.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

King's Point

I Stopped for a lovely visit with my old friends David and Linda in King's Point. They are potters, but they are also avid adventurers and beachcombers in their own right. I thought, in addition to any hospitality I might receive, they would have lots of information about places I should go and things I should do. They are totally interested in local history and geography, and often use local clays and minerals in their ceramics.

Well David especially was interested in what I was doing and immediately got on the phone trying to find me a boat ride to a cove called Indian Burying Place. It was a European settlement for a long time, and according to David, is littered with pottery shards. But even before that it was an aboriginal settlement and apparently a soapstone quarry. I have been told that it is possible to find fragments of stone tools and vessels there.

Sadly, no matter what we tried, there was no transportation available. Situations like this have arisen a couple times now, and I look at them as information for future adventures. Indian Burying Place will be on the top of that list for sure.

So, in the morning I snapped a couple quick pics of the shard pile behind the studio and hit the road again.


My other passion along with art (and bicycling, and ultimate, and brewing, and, and, and) is astronomy. I had been hoping that I could use all this time in isolation with clear dark skies to do tons of great astronomical photos, but it hasn't turned out that way at all.

There are many reasons for this. Most days I get up between 8am and 9am and either bicycle 100km or spend the day hiking, photographing, and just basically surviving. This takes about as much energy as you imagine, and by the time the sun sets at 9pm I'm generally pooped. In this situation the last thing I want to do is wait around another two hours for twilight to be over so the sky is actually dark. (Don't forget, it's still early July so it's only dark enough for astronomy from about 11:30pm to 3:30am.)

Insects are another problem - they get more brazen when the sun goes down and I don't like them. Some nights the mosquitoes are so thick they form a veritable blanket on the outside of my tent. I have established a bit of a ritual to deal with this: 1) just keep moving until sunset - bicycling, walking, working, whatever it takes, 2) set up my tent amidst a hail of mosquitoes, 3) dive into said tent, 4) spend 20 minutes slaughtering the mosquitoes that dove in with me, 5) do anything to not have to open the tent flap again before morning. This ritual generally precludes astrophotography.

Also, I'm not really clothed for sitting around outdoors after dark. I've got gear to keep me warm and dry and happy as long as I'm in my tent or moving, but put me outside and sitting still at night and I get cold fast. So even if I have tons of energy, and there's a breeze to keep the bugs away, I'd still need a couple extra layers to stay warm on a cloudless breezy night.

Now I realize these might sound like excuses for laziness or lack of commitment but let me point out that I was committed enough to go outside at night last winter in Red Deer for hours on end, no matter what the temperature. This leads me to believe that astrophotography while bicycle-bushwhacking-camping is more difficult than astrophotography in the thirty-below prairie winter.

And, I might add, my prairie winter astronomy was very productive. One of many projects I've given myself is to photograph as many asteroids as possible and to do each one on two successive nights so that I can make a simple animation showing each asteroid moving against the background stars. Here is one example, the 200km wide asteroid Metis from the nights of January 25 and January 27 2013, while it was at a distance from earth of about 184 million km. The asteroid is the little white blip that jumps back and forth:

I'm very proud of this little project, so far I've done this for about 25 asteroids and it is my mission to do more.

"Very good," you say, "but what does all this have to do with art?" Well just hold on, I'm getting there. Asteroids are dim, too dim to be seen with the naked eye, but even a simple camera like mine can easily photograph a celestial object that is about 20 times dimmer than what the human eye can see. There are further simple techniques as well, that let me, with my really basic equipment, photograph objects that are 100 times dimmer than what the human eye can see. The technique I use is called "stacking".

Stacking involves taking a large number of images, turning them into transparencies, and layering them on top of each other. You see, when the light from a celestial body passes through Earth's atmosphere it gets refracted and distorted, so a single individual image never really makes a good picture of that object. Also, a camera taking long exposure photos generates a lot of digital noise that turns out as blips and blobs in the image. But if you take many images and layer them all together then the refraction and noise, which are random, get cancelled out, leaving a clearer image in the end. Here is another animation of Metis, but this time showing what a single frame looks like, as opposed to an image comprised of 8 stacked frames. You can see how much clearer the stacked image is than the single frame:

So I have been photographing pottery shards on beaches as the tide ebbs and flows. When the shards are underwater their images are distorted by refraction in the very same way that astronomical images are distorted by refraction from the atmosphere. Therefore, I have been experimenting with imaging the shards in the same way that I might image an astronomical object.

For example, here is an image of that square arrangement from Grand Bruit, as a single frame on the left, and a stack of 32 images on the right:

Very cool, but not exactly as expected, right? Well here is another pair of images, this time of a single shard with a single frame on the left and 32 frames on the right:

The stacked image is definitely more true to the original object than the single frame. There is clearly much more experimentation to be done, but I do feel that this is a very rich direction to take.

My project as a whole incorporates ideas of entropy and reconstitution. The natural breakdown of these objects is the entropy, and the reconstitution is my attempt to (temporarily) reorganize them. The underwater images are double entropy (they are broken objects, visually distorted by water), but also double reconstitution (physically arranged by me, but then also visually clarified by a photographic process).