Field Report - Pagami #3

So what is it like to photograph in the Pagami Fire Area? This post from a notebook that I began keeping in 2013 describes the physical, photographic and aesthetic challenges involved in documenting the fire area.

Year-Two Post Fire
Third Visit: May 22-24, 2013

Written Friday, May 24, 2013

I am sitting at a window with a view of Lake Superior, at Bob’s Cabins #3, Two Harbors, Minnesota. I stopped here last evening, bone-tired and beat up from my day photographing in the fire area and was fortunate to find an available cabin – turns out it’s one of my favorites!


This photography foray was particularly challenging. I will look back at the past week and find that I’ve turned a corner. Adversity has that effect…

I was invited by ecologists who live and conduct biological surveys in Northern Minnesota to bunk in their sauna building during my visit. I planned to participate in a relevé [in ecology: analysis of a small plot of vegetation, usually 20 meters square, as a sample of a wider area] led by one of them in the burn area and including two local citizen-scientists and two researchers from the University of Iowa. The fieldwork will take two days and then I will spend at least one day photographing my sites in the burn area.


Here’s the adversity/challenging part of my trip… Day One (Tuesday) was spent in the field; it poured steady but benevolent rain all day. I was not able to photograph except with my digital camera, which got a little wet. But I wore waterproof layers and was cozy and relatively dry and enjoyed being in the elements.

Day Two (Wednesday) dawned sunny with intermittent clouds and was to be spent in the field and feature a short canoe-paddle to an intact area at the edge of the fire area at Island River. But plans were scrapped because the car belonging to the researchers from Iowa had a flat tire which meant a very late start; too late. So the ecologist and I spent the afternoon examining plant communities (on land) in the vicinity – an intact Fdn-32 (Fire-Dependent Forest 32 plant community), a bog and various budding willows along a forest road that followed an old railroad grade.

Day Three (Thursday) broke with a stunning orange sunrise viewed from my sleeping bag on the platform bed in the sauna. This was my day for photographing in the burn – I had one day to complete two day’s worth of photography! My intention was to photograph until 5 pm or so and then head back to the Twin Cities. It’s 22 miles down Tomahawk Road to the site and then six hours driving back home. Well, I made it as far as Bob’s Cabins…

The day was fraught with perils. I can see that the fire area will become more and more difficult to navigate, over time. The unstable and eroding soils and decaying downed trees will make the terrain full of booby traps. I got pretty banged up (tripped on a hidden limb and pitched forward onto a rock which resulted in a gouged knee and thumping my 4x5 camera on its back plate – fortunately the ground-glass was intact). Later I slid down an embankment after the muddy soil gave way and landed hard. The third mishap had occurred earlier while I was photographing in the Poor Conifer Swamp. I almost lost my one of my tall rubber boots in a sinkhole. The vegetation is recovering nicely, but decaying roots disguise the sinkholes. I stepped on a rock and my right foot slid sideways and I went in up to my knee. Fortunately, the boot was not over-topped – I had to pull my foot out of the boot and then take both hands and tug with all my might to free it. From that mishap, I merely got a bit muddy; no damage to my body or photo gear.

Burned Poor Conifer Swamp with Sweet Coltsfoot blooms

Sweet Coltsfoot blooming in Poor Conifer Swamp

As the day went on, I continued to struggle with the terrain and my gear and actually finding enough concentration and openness to make good images; they did not come into my camera easily. Walking into these environments (the burned and recovering bog, and the forest), it’s difficult to discern the framing of the subject that will tell the story. I understand how my cameras and their different formats/lenses can render a fragment of the landscape. But the challenge is to balance what are good composition and an evocative picture with what will actually convey content and the meaning of the landscape on an ecological level.

While waiting for the light to be right during one of my 4x5 setups, I made a series of movies with my digital camera, panning through the landscape that includes my still images. (This effect is conceptually similar – ironically – to the videos that I did for my Masters of Arts exhibition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1970s.)

Fireweed sprouts among a carpet of Bryophytes

Observations –

What are we seeing when we look at landscapes and landscape photographs? I visit sites because I want to see what happens… Looking to invest the landscape (through photography) as a subject with new meanings, that is more true to the subject and its truth and functions, than to our human, psychological need (that is hard-wired? trained?) to see landscape as a surface (onto which we project our psychological states) – as beauty – or object.

Empathy. Trying to capture/reveal the landscape on its own terms – as it is. My choice of landscapes is not driven by aesthetics – but there must be something inherently visually interesting about a place. My choice of places is largely intuitive with a sense of a landscape in transition, through ongoing change or outright destruction. This is larger than (personal) metaphor. That is, a desire for ongoing change, stimulation, transition, growth.

Today (Friday) is my gift to myself… to stay here at Bob’s Cabins facing Lake Superior and return leisurely – to transition – back to the Twin Cities. This is my vacation week, after all!