Saturday, January 6, 2018

Desert Ghosts - A Story of One Picture

  This was to be the last plate of the trip.  On the first day of the new year we were on the way out of the desert and I saved the last two glass plates for a house we saw on the way in.  The desolate flat landscape consists of low sparse bushes and earth covered with small vocalic rock bits.  This structure stood out like a sore thumb and what’s more, it was within stone’s throw of the freeway, so it watched everyone who drove by on the way from Florida to California and anywhere in between all day and all night for close to a hundred years.

 Not wanting to get too close and disturb any possible compositions, I parked the bus half-way from the dirt road which led us there and set up the chemistry.  By now it’s down to about 2.5min or so from when the engine stops till the tripod is up, so soon I was walking to the front door.  Right on the front porch there was a square well made of rough concrete.  It captured my eye until I was close enough to see that it was completely full of sand and gravel and my gaze shifted inside the house.  It was made of large grey local rocks slapped together with same rough concrete and only two and a half of the old walls were still upright. The floor was interesting.  Most of it was drab, concrete again with a rare inclusion of a flat rock here or there.  There was a short walkway though, just about 6ft or so, which led visitors inward for some reason at an odd obtuse angle.  It was lighter concrete inlaid with large bright pink quartz. Not something that would photograph well with collodion.  The largest remaining wall was crumbling on the northern end, but right in the middle of it was the biggest fireplace I’ve seen in a while.  It was like a gaping mouth eight feet across and four feet tall and the stones making up the top lip were all around a foot each, so it was jagged and misshapen.  One could still easily imagine a roaring fire on a cold desert night warming up many mysterious inhabitants of what must have been a populated establishment.  I paced the area for a good two minutes, bending down and back up and rising again and moving to left or right in search of a good perspective while making mental lens choices.  Nothing added up to perfection and having reluctantly settled my mind upon a normal lens from a high perspective with freeway in background I started to go for the exit to fetch my camera when a few bright white objects in the corner by the door caught my attention.

  Upon closer inspection, there was a small pile of well-dried fir and many fragile ribs and other skeletal remains of some poor creature.  The bones were so dry and riddled with erosion pockmarks that when I tried to pick one up it crumbled to dust in my fingers.   I did however find a pelvic bone about two inches across that looked sturdy and clean.  Figuring I’ll use it in some future still life I picked it up and blew off and walked outside the wall perimeter.  Immediately I was struck by a strong foul smell of rotting meat.  Right away I wondered how could I have avoided it on my way in as it was overwhelming.  I looked around and saw that to the right of me the two or three-foot-wide space between the well and the house was filled with fir that covered at least a 6-square-foot area a foot deep.  Out of that pile, which gently and rather peacefully swayed with each passing breeze, stuck out large parts of bones and meat and other ingredients of mammalian life.  It all couldn’t have been there long, what was left of soft tissue still had tinges of red to them.  Looking around with more attention now I realized that within inches of my left foot there was a large coyote skull with a frozen expression of angst upon it the likes of which I’ve never seen.  The nose and some bits of whiskers of what must have one day been a majestic and ferocious creature were still present.  His nose snarled in the last throw of a fight and whiskers raised up in their last futile warning to the enemy.  Most likely ambushed and culled by members of his own pack as he got old and became the weak link.  The jaw was open wide…  not wide enough.

  The last image made during the trip now clicked in my head and I ran toward the bus to get the 90mm Nikkor-SW.  In order to get near-ground angle I reversed the tripod column so that the head was pointing down, set up the camera, went into the darkroom, dipped a plate into silver and went to focus.  Focusing a view camera is always a little challenging, though of course with practice it becomes almost second nature, but focusing while the ground glass is four inches form sharp little rocks on the ground is quite an experience in itself, especially when every time I breathed in the penetrating smell made me want to wretch.  It took a while being on my knees bent over under a cloth like in prayer, but after a while I managed to secure the frame I had in mind.  The skull was about ten inches from the lens and the walls rose like monoliths starting at about 5ft in the background and going back maybe 25ft.  In order to get most of the scene in focus I had to employ a strong rear tilt, bringing the back standard to an almost 45° angle to the front.  The theory laid out by our old pal    Even then though, wide open at f4.5 depth of field was too shallow and I stopped down to f32 to make things as sharp and vivid as I was experiencing them.  With such an aperture collodion exposure would be in the range of eight seconds, but nothing was to move in my composition, so that didn’t worry me much.  What I was thinking was the inverse square law and how bellows extension with me shooting that close this should be accounted for when calculating exposure.  On the way to the retrieving the light-sensitive plate I decided to give it twelve seconds and hope for the best.

  While developing the image I remember seeing the house appear quick and clear, but the skull and foreground detail were nowhere to be seen even after 25 seconds, which is never a good sign.   At forty-second-mark I started washing off developer from the upper half of the plate, gently feathering my flow downward so it won’t leave an obvious line. I kept pushing and pushing, but even by 55sec I could only see dim information within the milky murkiness of my wet plate substrate and at that point I knew I’ve carried development too far for comfort and so I rinsed the entire plate.  The cyanide fixer revealed a gradated likeness of the scene, with the house having excellent bright tones and the skull being dark and shrouded in a shimmering fog of overdevelopment. This wasn’t my initially intended visual take on the scene, so I knew it had to be redone. Still, something captivated me about that plate and for a while I stood inside the blacked out rear darkroom part of the bus staring at is closely. I did not wipe it off right away like I have done with so many test hundreds of plates.

  The next plate, which was literally the last plate I had with me, turned out great. Full of sharp detail and tones with the skull almost as frightening as it was in real life and also camouflaging as perfectly well into the busy pattern of a desert floor.  After all, the proud coyote to whom it belonged was once an integral part of the landscape, a dominant force whose sad demise on the steps of this crumbling abode was also just a slight turn in the greater wheel of life.  In the background, what remained of walls stood up as stiff and out of place, yet planted and enduring as they felt when surrounding me.  Their energy vibrated with lives lived harshly in perpetual chase of wild west dreams.

  Satisfied I quickly wrapped up, audibly thanked all the ghosts that may have oversaw our visit and we moved off on the last long leg of our return to San Diego.   When I got to the darkroom back home I quickly varnished all the plates done at the last few locations as I was hesitant to do it on the road in awareness of the amount of silty dust that invaded the bus throughout.  In one go I varnished about twenty-three plates, but the now-dry underexposed overdeveloped abortive of the skull now didn’t emanate the same glow as it did when fresh out of the fixer back 400 miles east and so I put it in a tray of water to wipe off later.  Unless I’m hard-pressed for glass while shooting I usually dry my glass test plates and then re-soak them later all together for a while, and if the glass was clean before collodion was poured the layer of nitrocellulose bearing the image almost (and sometimes completely) floats off the glass and up to the surface, making cleanup very easy – pick off the snot-looking trace of an image from the surface of water and lift the plate onto a drying rack, it’s perfectly clean at that point as collodion took with it all traced of grease or dust.

   Well, it took me two days to finally get to cleaning off the image and so I looked into the tray with a paper towel in hand and ready to destroy whatever was left of my photograph.  The image that stared back at me was not the same as when I lowered it into water.   The sides of it turned sky-blue, but the middle stayed sepia, so that created a natural duotone vignette with a highly haunting effect that pulled the eye through the house and out the other end into the desert. The skull was now almost completely obscured and hardly distinguishable from the surrounding terrace, but it’s K-9s were still bore a menacing shine and had in them all the power of its previous operator and his eye sockets seemed to still have in them the power of predator’s gaze.  All of the values dropped considerably too, but the detail was all there however dark and making the eye dig and discover it forcefully.  There was a glow around the building though.  It was bright and clean and the empty walls now seemed to emanate a long past warmth of it hospitality.  The fog inhabiting the lower portion of the plate had also turned iridescent and somehow holographic, shimmering with muted rainbow hues as the light hit it from various angles.   Only a small part of the collodion, a triangle by the skull about an eighth of an inch square has lifted off the glass and tore itself away, floating upward and waving back and forth like a capitulating flag.  I felt that now the plate was worth preserving.   Before drying it, I thought it would be a good idea to wash out whatever leftover chemistry that I could still coax out of the previously dry gun cotton emulsion.  Placing the plate face up I let a medium-strength stream of water run over it while hitting it smack in the center, I walked away giving it about 5min to wash.  By the time I came back, the little triangle of ripped emulsion has grown in the direction of the lowest edge of the image and now there was basically an arrow-shaped tear which pointed up at and ended at the base of the skull, but not leaving it along.  I got impatient to see how the image would look finalized with varnish and employed the use of a hair drier, which I keep for just such occasions, to force-dry the collodion.  First I directed the hot stream onto the image side and after a while started to see the brightening associated with a drying plate.   As the emulsion was drying and shrinking I saw small sections of it starting to frill up around the torn triangle and two distinct cracks started to grow outward like little arms.  I seized applying heat to the front and finished the job by heating up the rear first.   Varnish flowed nice and even as it usually does on black glass.   After heating a quick cure over an open flame of a small oil lantern I examined the now unchanging plate to see for the first time how it will be viewed who knows how many decades from now.   I was pleased to see that the varnish behaved well around the tear, I expected a lot more unevenness to show due to the frilled edges of said tear.  One minor detail upon the varnish, visible only at an acute angle to light and after careful examination, stood out to me as if it was the pivotal point on which the entire composition rested.   There was a short swirl of bubbles that seemed to burst from one of the little arms of the torn triangle-man and, like a visual effect employed by some Hollywood studio to convey a spell being spread, and curved in the direction of the center of the plate.  If analyzed closer and disposing of a preset notion that it’s a tear in the emulsion surrounded by bubbles in varnish one can easily see a figure with its left arm outstretched and releasing some sort of magical energy and behind the figure stretches a veil of golden powder, which hangs in the air as the mystical creature moves about within the setting.

  We got back to San Diego very fast.  As if recharged by desert energy the bus didn’t slow down below 25mph on the steep uphill stretch between El Centro and Descanso and when I close my eyes at night I can still see the desert ghosts wandering the landscape around a once welcoming structure, which now was reduced to a fate of fading away through eons as the concrete slowly yields to wind and heat and the menacing lifeless guardian of that uneasy edifice carrying on his unwavering watch.


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