Every year, nature around my home gives up its leaves, its colours, its fanfare, to the rain, wind and shortening of the days. To me, it feels like a plunge into darkness.
Annual sunshine charts suggest a gradual change from the hot highlights of summer to the gloomy depression of pale winter suns amid slate-coloured sky barely breaking through long blue nights. But that’s not how it happens here.
In late autumn, warm, bright days are still frequent. Hikes still require you carry water and shade. Kids still ride their bikes everywhere and pools still serve the hardiest open-air swimmers. Indian or not, it all still feels like a close relative of summer, with the added photographic benefit of more colorful foliage and crisper air.
This gradual flow from heat to warmth, from green to brown, is one of the more pleasant periods of the year to be around this part of Provence. But it invariably hits a weather front at some point in November. Not just a lull in this blissful Elvish passing of the days, but a sudden portal into barren, monochromatic, winter.
A few days of pounding by strong northerly winds and sheets of rain strips trees of their foliage, transfering it to a slimy brown sludge on the ground, and appears to suddenly switch cloud formations from the puffy summer cumulus to shredded wheat and lenticular motherships, with no going back. Even the sun seems on dimmer mode, whiter and colder.
Suddenly, my universe shrinks to a few square meters, as I sit like a rat behind closed curtains and next to a very bright light to keep my mind sane in the face of the months of impending bleakness.
Truthfully, the panic attacks haven’t been near as bad in past years. Whether by a silver lining of one of two evils, my ageing and global warming, or simply through lassitude of lassitude, I’ve been more able to enjoy the quiet seasons more for what they offer. Instead of clinging to every sign of the end of winter before it has even begun, such as the giant orchids (Himantoglossum robertianum) leaves already prepping for their February blooming frenzy, I now try to focus on the moment and meekly attempt to enjoy it for what it is. Instead of running away to the – now terra non grata – escapist Paradise of Western Australia for a long, hot fix of primary colours, I look the darkness right in the eye in search of solace.
The winter months themselves aren’t that bad. By December, the sun has reclaimed much of its clarity, warming houses through their bay windows, from the vantage of its clear blue background. But the fall, the actual fall of the leaves, revealing dark skeletons where shortly before there was leafy life, that’s still the hard part. Even looking at the photographs on this page twists something uncomfortable in my upper-belly. But I’m fighting it, partly by trying to find those moments when the combination of light, atmosphere and scenery produce that apparent harmony which dispels my irrational fear that’s something is permanently broken in nature.
Such a cathartic combo occurred last sunday, at the very end of the 3 days of severe weather that put an end to this year’s light months. The storm is about to repeat itself throughout the end of this new week, like one of those second blades in razor adverts, coming to finish the conversion of nature from joyful to desolate.
As the sun set, the soft mist rising from the ground combined with the falling afternoon light and muted colours produced one of those moments during which the world around you seems suspended in perfect balance. A fleeting wink from the Gods of Nature passing by to tell you it’ll be alright.
I grabbed my camera and stepped out to capture whatever would let me.
The first step out, by itself, was a bold move for me. I had no clue what to photograph, but wanted to try at an essay about that feeling, that uneasy attempt to find harmony in this fading of nature.
That moment when the trees give up their leaves to gravity, the light gives up its glitter to ambient humidity, and I give up all hope of baking in the sunlight like the lizzard that has to be my totem animal, all hope of colorful salades of tomatoes and peppers, soon to be replaced by cauliflower and other grey food. But that moment when all this doesn’t feel so bad, and even seems to correspond to some natural equilibrium.
Atmosphere would then have to be the name of the game. How do you convey a feeling visually, if not through atmosphere?
This of course begged the question of gear. My Hassy system has many strengths. For instance, stability. The first image under the title was taken at 1/8s with an 85mm lens, with no stabilisation in either body or lens. And most of the photographs below were taken in near-pitch-black darkness. While the EVF becomes a noisy mess of blurred colours, focusing is still 100% accurate and pictures come out just fine (if at the very limit of the body’s abilities).
But, in spite of those technical image qualities, it is not geared towards atmosphere. So my Otus 85 made it back to the mount, after months (years?) of disuse, to add some organic witchcraft to the images. The sense of 3D, vigneting and different contrast characteristics to the Hassy lenses make for a more natural rendition of what my eyes saw on the spot.
Of course, processing those images is difficult. I have mostly kept them as they felt. Early during my walk, the light felt soft and almost pink. Later on, dark blue set in, and only vague nebulosities of colours emerged from the global gloom. Although I was only out for about 30 minutes, the shooting conditions changed drastically over that period. Some later photographs, I left blue, as above. Others I corrected for white balance, as below.
And the dominant feeling also changed during the walk. While initially, nature almost looked like a painting, with its muted pastel colours and soft contrasts, it fell into a stark darkness in the second half, looking desolate and cold, as if the only warmth and colour could come from within homes. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be an animal or a homeless person when that time of year/day dumps its gloom onto your world with no possible escape.
Still, my purpose was to capture balance and harmony in this unsettling period. So, cranking up the light in PP and settling the white balances restored that feeling of serene normality, albeit far easier to contemplate on a laptop in the comfort of a home. The tree below is the tree on the left, above.
Viewing sidenote: if you’re reading this on a low power screen in strong light, many of the pics on this page will look much too dark. They are meant to be viewed in dark conditions such as those I made them in.
All this again shows how far photography strays from the reality most people almost religiously associate it with. All photography is interpretation. It was darker in the photograph below than in the one above. And this is the same tree in both. That’s the whole purpose of photography : suggestion. By selecting and manipulating a slice of reality at a given moment, we try to convey a feeling or evoke a story in the viewer’s mind.
I also tried b&w. And while the photos kind of work, they don’t seem to capture the same type of harmony, for which a balance of colours is essential.
Mind you, it’s no surprise that colour would be necessary to convey feelings related to a time of year where nature shifts in colour very abruptly. But it’s interesting to experiment and b&w did allow me to make photographs where colours really didn’t work.
This, below, was shot just a few days before, using the same lens … I wont lie, I can’t wait for nature to be back to full green mode. Lush, abundant, easy.
But forcing myself to walk out the door, when retreat under thick blankets felt more welcoming, did its thing. Trying to find evidence of balance and reluctant beauty, in what first looks like bleakness, partly eased my worries. It’ll take more to make me a man of winter, at least in this part of the world, but it’s a start 😉
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