Photography and Place

The other day I took a walk along the Northeast Shore of Lummi Island, near where I live. My walks there are infrequent, compared to the number I take on the opposite shore, facing Orcas Island and Rosario Strait. This is especially true in the winter when the northeast-facing shore is dank, cold, and gets very little sunshine, except on the occasional cloudless morning. This shore is also subject to freezing and inhospitable “Nor’easter” windstorms, known to the professional forecasters as “northerly outflow winds.”

When I walk I invariably carry along my camera. Having it along has the effect of organizing my seeing in a certain focused manner that I enjoy. It also heightens my awareness of place, i.e. the sort of feeling one place evokes compared to others. Most of us respond emotionally to surroundings, but the awareness of that response tends to remain only semi-conscious, if we notice it at all.

For me, one of the greatest pleasures of photography, in fact, is the way it brings into fuller awareness my emotional response to physical environment. One way places speak to me is according to the way they appear visually. When I walk on the northeast side of the Island, especially in the winter, I often feel like I’m journeying in a realm populated by goblins. I see their distorted faces everywhere, the effect being enhanced by the naturally goblinesque dank winter atmosphere of the area. The sun doesn’t touch it often and the high clay cliffs there become waterlogged after heavy rain. They collapse, bringing down trees with them, whose evocatively gnarled roots become quickly exposed as wave action washes the soil away from them. Also, the beach is littered with roughly barnacled rocks of all sizes that have weathered out of the soil of the cliffs. Excess moisture accelerates decay, and nourishes the growth of molds and green algae. All these physical conditions conspire to give the whole beach its rather spooky atmosphere, which colors my emotional and photographic response correspondingly.

By contrast, the beach on the Island’s southwest-facing shore is exposed to the miles of often-turbulent water constituting Rosario and Georgia straits, hence receives warmer southerly winds and heavily scouring wave action. When the winter sun shines, this shore receives warming and drying solar rays for much of the day. The cliffs bordering the beach are much lower and set farther back from the water than on the Island’s opposite side, so they’re less subject to weathering. Part of the beach surface is characterized by nearly horizontal, wave-eroded sandstone shelves. Gravel and small stones from the beach litter these sculpted shelves in a visually interesting way, and the gravel beach as a whole takes on gracefully smooth forms that change according the the recent impact of wind, waves, and tidal flow along the shoreline. If my mood is low, this is the beach to which I naturally gravitate in order to bask in its cleansing atmosphere. The drift logs there dry to a weathered light gray, rather than accumulating green algae, as similar logs do on the east shore of the island. Weathered roots on some of these logs convey an association with elf homes, rather than goblins. . . a lighter association altogether.

Having intimately explored and observed these two beaches so frequently for the 35 years I’ve lived here, I’ve become acutely sensitized to the atmosphere associated with all the places I visit, whether country or city, and whether carrying a camera or not. The effect of place on me, and by extension, others, has become a fascination, and photography has provided a medium through which emotional associations with place can be expressed. Long experience with this special place has enriched my life in ways for which I remain deeply grateful.

Kevin Jones