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The Prairie Trip

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Living relatively far from family and friends is not an easy thing so I always get a little excited when our annual prairie pilgrimage nears – which is tomorrow!
I never really know what will transpire but so far this is a bit of the plan… a couple of birthday bashes, meeting my new great-niece for the first time, 2 portrait filming sessions, uncle Maurice’s red wine, more silly photos of my mom, Intellivision baseball, Red Sox games on a patio, Pema Chodron readings from the co-pilot, hours in fields photographing horses and big skies, avoiding ticks, meeting Aunty Marg at A&W, visits to Whyte Museum and Whyte Ave, guy space with the nephews, one extra long car wash due to neglecting to remove the bugs sooner, Guinness, D’s famous burgers, quality time with my amazing sis, diving into family history with Henriette, potato salads, rock chips, sunburns on the left side, picnics by streams, audio recordings of strangers and the joy of watching my wife laugh and laugh and laugh around old friends.
Hope to see a lot of you shortly. Cheers, DL

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Mervin

“Hello Mervin? Is that you?”

“Yes I’m pretty sure it is,” he playfully replied. I took a deep breath and smiled.

 

The audio recording (above) was captured about two years ago when Mervin and I lived in the same Fraser Valley community. We both relocated shortly after that and hadn’t communicated since. A few weeks before this recording was made Mervin was diagnosed with stomach cancer and decided not to have the surgery. Well it’s all on the recording…

I’ve thought of him often over the last few years but fear kept me from calling. I didn’t want to get the ‘this number is not in service’ message or reach a family member who would have to relay news to me that I did not want to hear. Not the strongest reasons but sometimes I do the weakest shit. Today I called.

“I’m cancer free,” he says in his perfect high-pitched voice. Mervin went on to tell me that he decided to go the wholistic route; keeping a positive frame of mind (that’s the easy part for him) and completely changing his diet, living on vegetables and fruits and removing all sugars, wheat, dairy, caffeine, etc — and it worked.

‘Remarkable’ was the word that kept popping into my mind when I first met him two years prior; so positive, so full of spirit, running his thrift store business on his own, hauling sofas, hanging art from the ceiling, open long hours including most evenings and at 81 years of age. And now beats cancer. Remarkable, many times over.

Another recording to come later this summer.

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The Smile

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I noticed a lady wearing this wonderful orange printed shirt gazing right at me. Instantly the hundred or so other people in my line of sight no longer existed. I approached, and quickly realized that it wasn’t me she was looking at, but rather she was looking past me seeing whom she might recognize from the large gatherings. Awkwardly I introduced myself anyway and asked if I could take her picture. Without hesitation she agreed and I began.

I was astounded at how serene and unruffled she was when I was photographing her. She just looked at me impassively, almost awaiting direction. And I was about to give none. Everything felt in slow motion. It was that amazing and vulnerable space where thirty seconds feels like three years. And just when I thought I had consumed enough of her time, a man appeared, her husband, and he too wanted to be in the picture.

This was August of ‘99. I was working at the studio when I noticed a massive cloud of smoke on the east side of town. I finished up the shoot I was working on and headed in the direction of the mishap. An oil recycling tank had exploded (tragically, I found out later that two young employees of the oil company had perished) and people in nearby communities were told to evacuate their homes and to head for safer ground. In many cases, safer ground meant not too distant schoolyards and mall parking lots.

The couple I was photographing had heard a loud boom and were told to leave their home quickly. They didn’t bother to take anything but themselves and their two small dogs. The fallout from the explosion was contaminating the land and no one was sure what the wind would do. Not knowing how dangerous the situation really was, the health risks, the financial costs, how long they’d be away, or if they’d ever see their home again, uncertainty was their new companion.

I found it fascinating that despite all that was happening to their world that day, they were so open to letting me photograph them. As I recall now, they didn’t even ask why I wanted to take their picture, or what it would be used for. They seemed implausibly accepting, almost meditative.

I remember thinking that I was not necessarily there to document the event. The newspaper photojournalists were swarming and recording for their publications and I was merely concerned about making a contemplative portrait. A photograph that would say something about the subjects, the situation, and yet leave a little mystery to be unraveled.

I deliberately cropped out the homes in this frame to encourage that mystery. The husband gave his a wife a big hearty affectionate clutch. A gust of wind picked up at that very moment, swirling a lock of the woman’s hair back and forth. And just when I thought I had the photograph, whether it was a habit of patterned programming, or nervous energy, or the feeling of being blessed for being safe and sound physically, they added to that mystery with a smile.

I mindlessly misplaced their number that night, and have never been in touch with these two since. I would love to have coffee with them.    DL

 

**I stumbled across these writings a few days ago. I wrote this for a friend’s photo blog ten years ago but that blog is no longer online so I thought I’d repost it again here.  I may write it a little differently today but it vividly brought me right back to that very moment, still. Hope you enjoy.  DL

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Portrait of Louise

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The Saskatchewan soil was wet with rainwater from the night before, and with her fragile hip and legs I was concerned if we should even attempt a picture so early in the morning, perhaps waiting until the sun dried the soil a little and trying later in the day or the next. When I brought up my concerns to her she said, “don’t be silly.”

We arrived at the location around 6:30am. It wasn’t the exact parcel of land that she used to farm, but it was very close to it. Slowly we made our way to the spot I had marked while scouting. The ground being soft and slippery, I ran back to the vehicle and grabbed a shovel to give her something for extra support and balance. I handed it to her and walked back to the camera, and when I turned around I found her shoveling the dirt near her feet. I asked, “what are you doing?” She replied, “shovelling.” I said “I know, but why?” She quipped back, “what else do you do with a shovel.”

When the tossing of dirt ceased, I started taking pictures. During this time we conversed about the beautiful sky, the vastness of the prairies, why anybody would ever live by an ocean, if I wanted a tour of the town (for the 430th time), her father and her grandfather who both loved photography, whether I would be better off living and working in Saskatchewan, the expensive sandwiches at the new restaurant (Subway) in the town 20 miles to the south, why had I grown up to be a pest, who would ever want to see a picture of her, and that it was now getting to be time for breakfast.

About a month later I went back to visit my Grandmother and I brought a few enlargements with me. She was a woman never easily impressed and she always shied away from any spotlight that may have been directed her way. I was so nervous and curious to witness her reaction to the photograph that I could barely sleep the few nights before.

Before presenting the picture to her, she asked if I was happy with the results. I told her that it was one of my favourite images that I’d ever made, that a few photo colleagues loved it and wanted to hang in their homes but that the true test was what she thought of it.

I handed it to her, the 11×14 inch print looked like a mural in her tiny hands. She smirked, studied it carefully, ran her fingers gingerly over the pearl surface, 15 to 20 seconds of silence went by, and finally, still looking at the picture, gently said, “oh that ugly old shovel.”

Tomorrow

Staring at the Olympic Mountains of Washington State I can almost feel the energy of tomorrow. Good luck at the polls neighbours. Whatever the outcome I hope respect for people and the process surfaces above all else. And maybe a little healing.

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Election Day, November, 1884 – by Walt Whitman
If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,
‘Twould not be you, Niagara—nor you, ye limitless prairies—nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite—nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing
and disappearing,
Nor Oregon’s white cones—nor Huron’s belt of mighty lakes—nor Mississippi’s stream:
—This seething hemisphere’s humanity, as now, I’d name—the still small voice vibrating—America’s
choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen—the act itself the main, the quadriennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous’d—sea-board and inland—Texas to Maine—the Prairie States—Vermont,
Virginia, California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West—the paradox and conflict,
The countless snow-flakes falling—(a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s:) the peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity—welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
—Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify—while the heart pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell’d Washington’s, Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s sails.
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Teddy’s words

I read this often.

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”     –  Theodore Roosevelt