Notes for International Photographic Society
IMF/World Bank • September 17th, 2014
Lecture by Seanie Blue to open the Society's 45th Season
This lecture to the IMF/World Bank Photo Society resulted in a series of talks, films and exhibitions about Blue's explorations of the night sky in the Arctic in winter. The notes below are intended to add context to several of the points in his lecture presentation, specifically about the land, about the spirits of the country, and about the character and determination of its people, the Vikings.
I am suspended on ice. My fingers cannot find purchase on the smooth surface. My right foot is solidly on rock, while my left searches for another hold. It is beginning to snow, and the sun is gone; purple midnight is falling at five p.m. The worst is I am panicking. If I slip, I might not die, but my bones will break, and I am at the end of civilization, five hours away from a hospital. I do not look down at the hotel below the frozen waterfall I have climbed; I do not think of the hot cocoa waiting for me there.
But I cannot stop a small thought entering my head about my last trip here one year ago, up on the glacier, when I was filming a kite-skier, one of Iceland’s best, until a gust threw him into volcanic rock, and I thought “Cool video” until I got close to him and saw his face, ghastly white, choked for breath, because his liver was split in half and he would spit out this message for me as he bounced four hours back to Reykjavik: “Don’t put me on the funniest home videos on TV.”
I am among Vikings, who take calculated risks as part of the national heritage, and I have gambled on the weather, and am losing. I have had this happen to me before, and have come out scraped and bleeding, but happy. Churchill said it’s a gas to be shot at and missed, and I agree. But Icelanders don’t quote Churchill, since their homilies are more blunt: “If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, wait five minutes for it to change.”
Relax, relax. Panic is error’s instrument, and I am usually vindicated in my explorations, cheerfully. To keep my head out of the drop beneath my feet I look at the sky: Mars and the seven sisters are already twinkling, and only half the sky has any clouds. It is clear, with promise for an inky black night. This is what I came for: A cold, absorbent velvety black dark, so the jewels from the Sun can shine with turquoise brilliance.
I am chasing the Aurora Borealis. And the Aurora is right here. Or it will be when I get off the frozen waterfall.
On chasing spirits . . .
It is just getting light at 10:30 am. Clouds cover the country, but the light will play with the newly fallen snow on the last road North. At the end of the road there is a hot swimming pool and a hot tub whipped by winds swirling off the Arctic and Norwegian Seas, and here we can charge our blood and spittle with the the energy we need to shoot our way out of the North and back into reality: water, ice, wind, the elements on the go, swishing to rhythms and forces we all feel every minute but somehow must displace with errands to Starbux or Whole Foods or the Internet. Every time I come here this clean corner of the world makes its claim to me of being a photographer's paradise. There is sparkle and pattern in every glance, spirits in every study, and the shutter flicked or fondled gives you a small flood of unexplainable pictures, and by saying this I am trying to step across some frontier of expression which I acknowledge and give homage to but rarely bother to cross. It's not a border of abstraction, not some hopeless descent into art or private interpretation, but a true capture of animistic belief, the way we all looked at the soil and sky before polluting it with religion and bottom lines. It is extraordinary to admit that four out of five residents of this island believe there might be or definitely are elves at play outdoors. Over 80 percent of educated Icelanders will not rule out the existence of an elf. And every story in their literature refers to a rock or a mountain alive with face and soul; the unspoken respects paid to unseen peoples means there is a shadow to every transaction or purpose, and the Viking following his fierce will to better real estate, sword in hand and Berserkers by his side, will pause at a bend in a stream to ask for benefits from a tiny pile of stones on a hill, untouched for hundreds of years, and if not benefit at least not ruin. This kind of fright, for the mischief made in the margins beyond daylight, is the sugar in any traveler's delights. The oddity of place, the foreign inner landscape where your sure facts yield to wonder, is the purpose of leaving home, isn't it?
And with a camera to record your voyage, and with a camera instead of broadsword to extend your vista, we temporarily adopt the rules and roles of other lives, become selves strange to our own systems and strategies, become strangers, those lovely travelers. And until I write this sentence, I haven't thought much about coming back, because I am unwilling to divorce myself from this endless moment, of catching spirits in flight. The writer inside snorts at the shooter to get out of his way so the words can be shaped from sight, but the photographer resists, willing to fight almost, ready to give a thousand images to describe that single word, hunted by travelers and explorers ever since we stopped wandering to set up places of worship less than four generations ago, that single element that can be humanized to defend us from volcano and tides, the only thing our intuitions consistently fear: spirit. You morph, here, from looking at process to becoming not just a poem but poetry, unjudged as long as you are unspoken, and when you do speak the spirits listen hoping for explanations they can bring into their own ephemeral lives, and here is the important part: truth in all its forms is not a mathematics but a fabric of rhymes, and the scientist in all of us admits this first among all claims.
I imagine every day Einstein on his bicycle traversing the puzzles of New Jersey, admitting that of all human endeavours nothing is so cool as a sense of mystery. My little duty, here, is to travel that mysterious path, in pictures that make their own rhythms so I can sing a song of seeing when I am home, and made blind by errand and obligation. So off we go, surfing the planet!
About the Vikings . . .
We all think we can talk to animals. I used to tell my friends that if I broke into a house with other thieves and we encountered a rabid dog, it would run right past me to bite somebody else's butt. I'm a dog, thinks any other dog about me. I've talked to seals and sea lions, angry elephants in Sri Lanka and the Serengeti, etc. And I can walk anywhere in Iceland, and easily get the horses to come and pose. But talking is one thing. Touching is another.
The farm girl sees me cooing to a pretty horse, a million-kroner animal on the shores of the Whalefjord, and then she melts through the barbed wire and approaches it with her hand at muzzle level, fingers slightly spread; she is casting her spell, and the horse sensing magic backs away a bit until curiosity gets the better of it and he pokes his nose an inch forward. Quick as a mongoose, the farm girl shoots her hand onto the loose folds of the horse's throat, between muzzle and chest, and her other hand is against the far cheek, calming, and her face is pressed against his. Not even a second goes into the lock of this embrace, which will last five minutes.
On the airplane in tears I watch a movie with Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp, where she has just cooked for the townspeople at a public event, and Depp asks her to dance after watching her the whole night, and as they touch on the dance floor she is still concerned about the appetites of the revelers, and she says "Do you think everyone enjoyed --" and Depp says "Sssssshh," pronounced like a snake rather than a wave, and grips a tiny bit tighter and she sets into his neck, tired little Sun, cooking for everyone, finding a horizon where it can drip into night. I think of the farm girl clutching the horse by the throat, kissing its cheek, stroking its face and nose, kissing its nostrils, while a massive rainbow flirts just outside the frame, and when the horse after five minutes of nuzzling bolts free, I am there with a chocolate biscuit. The horse accepts this in a happy gulp, and then stands next to Halldora for more preen and cuddle, and then asks me, "Where's the next fucking biscuit?" to which I have to admit, "I gave you my last cookie," and the horse breaks free and away and heads for the rainbow.
The Whalefjord has its ghastly presences: a whale cleansing operation, and an abandoned NATO spying operation, butcher and bastards sharing the same eerie shore. The farm girl is impressed by the evil spirits; this is a place of the most important memories, where she shuttled on hours of bus rides as a six-year-old, traded between parents, always hoping to be met by hugs and instead sitting alone waiting for a parent lost in their own worlds, as parents can get, never remembering the desperate fears of being alone and waiting for somebody who it seems will never show up. I was like this with my mother, when I was six, standing in Beirut's shy rains after a saxophone class, politely ignoring the adults stopping to see if I was okay. And the night before the Whalefjord, I was like the parent, filming the farm girl in a brilliant morality play in a theatre atop a hill in Reykjavik. I drove five hours from the wrong side of Myvatn to the show to film it, and was met by huge cheers from the cast and crew 15 minutes before curtain's rise, when I am introduced as the actress's friend who has come to film us all the way from Washington, where all the trouble in the world comes from, and yes it is a longer trip I have just driven than if I had flown from the Imperial City, 80mph all the way in a car outfitted with nail studs in the tires and not for amateur formula one. And the farm girl is fantastic in the play, I mean, brilliant, funny and menacing and lovely and physical, and I am in a sea of tears as I seem to be so often in this fervent Fall of my life, the lonely end looming as a storm. She was 21 when I met her, and now she is 27. She was in landscape architecture class, bored and doodling. I cast her as a mystical self in a Turkomani movie that has just played a few weeks ago at a festival in Berlin, and before you knew it she was in Iceland's acting school, graduating, and now gluing together a troupe of her own.
And a few hours before the Whalefjord, I have to add, I sit with the philosopher in the little joint at the harbor, intending to talk about my friend who is caught in all our minds between being dead and alive, who happened to be the philosopher's brother-in-law, and what could we do to put a buoy into his memory? How to keep him afloat? How to put luft into his life, just completed twelve moons ago, to get him twinkling in the night sky? Except this isn't how conversations go with me, and I must ask the philosopher not about philosophy (a mistake in any field, to inquire from a craftsman about the state of the craft rather than the birth of the designs in the craftsman's mind), and he is writing about what he is always writing:
Culture and nature, the id and the wild, the citizen and the wind, and how the Sagas of the Icelanders reveal so much about the country's dependence and exploitation of the rocks and ocean and steam and wind. This is my favorite subject. How and when do we touch Nature, and how and when are we touched by it? The wild animal wrinkles its nose at our toxic smells; we are scrubbed too clean of shit and mire and base desires, repulsed by our pheromones and the smells we emit, looking for a cheap Binoche or Depp to clutch by the throat and be made pregnant with our relief that there is still a smidgen of us left wild despite our polished schedules and smoothed routines.
I have just come from the North, I say, where I was the last person in front of the pole, marvelously alone, and yes the water in Djupavik is an elixir that tastes of forever, and yes the air at Krossnes scrubs my baked lungs clean. (And when I arrived at Dulles airport last night, waiting outside to be picked up, the thick polluted scuzz of three million people swelled my blood with civilization's numbing caffeine; I am not making this up, despite the flowers in my language!) But really the North impresses me most because of my ears, I say to the philosopher, which is the youngest sense by 500 million years, the most sensitive of all of our awarenesses, and it is the lack of sound up there which refreshes my human condition, a sort of natural factory reset button. I was for a few days, I exclaim mellifluously, just as I came originally, listening for something I could reach out and be touched by. Sound is pollution, constant, making the whales insane despite their depths as we ping senselessly for enemies we could simply call on our cellphones and say, "Yow yow you, have you heard the latest from Alt-J?" Civilization's sound is a continuous poison to our inner aural landscapes, to the ticks and taps of nerves and veins and intestines working optimally, as designed. And of course this sudden boulder about the age and sensitivity of hearing tossed into the stream of our conversation rocks the philosopher and me into the digressions that make dessert out of our words, sugar and spices out of ideas, existence from imagination.
Which naturally should deposit me under the rainbow, with the farm girl and a horse looking for chocolate biscuits on a fjord where whales come because the depth is so deep, and where the militaries set up shop in case of whatever emergency they are planning, but where Nature is welcoming, still eager for fondle, where I can press the factory reset button again and again and again, human, human, human, human, you are human, me.
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But nurture, the environment, the pollution, the twisting of my senses by the toxicity of my surroundings cannot be ignored and shouldn't be denied: Before I go outside to get picked up at the airport last night, I am in line at Starbucks: biggest size iced chai latte, seven pumps, lite ice, skim milk right to the top, $5.19 and another plastic container to heap onto the mound of evidence that I once was, and still am. At least, thinks the sliver of rebel left within my skin, I will never utter the word "vente" at Starbucks. No, my insistence on showing off my wildness would not let me stoop to such marketing dreck, never.
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With both farm girl and philosopher, Ingo hovers above the dialogues, our favorite Viking, as mysterious forces push us together into a remembrance that can only be what Ingo would want, a capital piece of entertainment, equal parts glory and guffaw. He has a birthday coming up, and he will miss the party as he will miss all his birthday parties until we are all missing, too, and then it will never be his birthday again with all the witnesses dead and gone. Although if you have stumbled across this post on Facebook in the year 2083, and are intrigued by my puny attempts at social sorcery in Ingo's name, investigate, go ahead, and see how your sense of modernity stands further scrutiny: these sophistications of ours are temporary sophomorics, and soon there will only be wildness and beauty, without a shred of our senseless chase after property and profit.
An unfinished land . . .
Five shots in one day's drive, at the end of the road. I will be going back next winter for another joust with the northern lights, and as has happened to me each time I've gone, I'll arrive with a slightly altered eye. I looked for details, first. Then the fabric or the textures of what I was seeing. Then tried to get yellow and blue in the same frame, equally luminous. Of course there was the shooting in the dark, critical to any photographer's mastery of the tools; I always find this to be the dividing line among shooters, the comfort in utter darkness to make sense of what you cannot see, and until you shoot enormously in faulty light you'll never tame the good light we all recognize and love to bathe ourselves with. And then there was the attempt to hide content from the viewer, to remove the focus from prominent details and emphasize the emotions of being in this place at this time as oneself, flawed flimsy fearful but still fatally curious. That's another dividing line, curiosity, isn't it? So many young people want to be famous, when they should be wishing to become more curious. And then maybe on the 11th trip to the Arctic the purpose of my trip was to look for myself in the decay and bloom of the geology and the mysteries of the land, and everything changed. You shoot the self, not the "what." No matter how perfectly you capture an object in crystalline light, it is boring without your personality written into the picture's DNA. Why shoot, shooter? And then the last two trips, directly in opposition to each other: risk and reward, and what in a series of photographs constitutes either: creativity versus craft, but a disguised battle in which the purpose of the victor is to prove his superiority in the opponent's strengths. Michelangelo became Leonardo da Vinci, and vice versa. Michelangelo came to realize that the noble approach to creativity meant unfinished works, and da Vinci defeated sculpture by getting inside his subjects, literally hacking into rotting corpses to understand the infrastructures of everyday living. Each ruined the other's life! The craft is measured by the imagination brought to it; creativity without structure is utterly worthless and I am a primary example, living proof of wild thinking leading to unpaid bills and thoroughly wasted energy. Even here, with these pictures, I am meant to be supplying my partners in next winter's aurora hunt with useful collateral, pictures and videos that show anybody how to go to Iceland and pursue the Northern Lights, and look what weird rabbit hole I have stepped into.