The is-ness of water and light- a paradox
Te Ara O Te Aorangi, Hokianga
Nikon D810, Tamron 70-200/2.8 Di VC USD @70mm
ISO 64, 1/1000s (x10) @ f8
“Faeries, come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame.”
― W.B. Yeats, The Land of Heart’s Desire
They say you are either a mountain person or a beach person, and that your choice somehow reflects your personality. Apparently, mountain people are more prone to introversion than beach people.
I don’t know the truth of that, however I have certainly been the one (mountain) and now I suspect I am becoming the other. I blame it on Hokianga and its unique mauri. Somehow the mystery of the water has drawn me to the is-ness of water.
I have lived here for a year, in the middle of Hokianga, where the male energy from the sea meets the female energy from up behind Horeke and Mangamuka. I have studied it, looked as deep into it as it will allow me and, in return, it has studied me. It has learned my moods and I have learned, piece by painful piece, where its heart lies.
Each day I cross the harbour, except when the ferry is not running, or when I am away on a journey. As I rumble onto the ferry, I cosy up to Hokianga and try to develop a friendship. I sidle up to it and just watch. Some days I will bid it good morning; at other times, when I am on my way home, I will walk to the side of the ferry, peer over the rail, attempting to see beyond the surface, and attempt to have a conversation. Since it has so far chosen not to respond in ways I can understand, I have contented myself by watching, observing and listening. However, that is beginning to change.
Over time I have come to see that it is not a simple flow of water moving quietly to the west, to the sea, like a line of advancing cavalry. The Hokianga is a complexity, an intricate series of interconnecting currents moving sometimes in step, and sometimes according to their own intention. The surface is a skin, but underneath muscles and sinews are at work, working in concert and yet at cross-purposes. The Waima river slides into it confidently and unhurried, and joins the flow like a constant line of traffic waiting at an onramp. The Tapuwae slithers in from the north and weaves its experience into the greater whole. The Omanaia sneaks up at the last minute and, camouflaging its intentions, joins the flow at the last minute. And the Punehu squeezes itself through the concrete pipe near Rangi Point and eases itself furtively out through the mangroves until it is absorbed into the main flow of the river.
Somehow Hokianga has become more and more a mystery. In the beginning it was water, then, as time passed and I continued to study it, it began to show me more. And it began to whisper to me, lecturing on the mystery of the element which binds and weaves all earthly life together.
One morning I emerged from my gallery and walked the four paces needed to cross the road to the harbour’s edge. The morning had begun early, in the perfect space between night and day, when I rise and go out to the front gate for whakamoemiti (karakia/prayer). As so often happens, a thick fog wrapped itself around everything. The lone powerline in front of me slid through the half-light until it eventually slithered away into the greyness.
As I studied the fog-and-powerline cene before me, searching for meaning, I asked the question: what is fog anyway?
The science student in me replied: it is water vapour, drops of water hanging in the air. I listened for a moment. So, I asked, if it is just water, then the difference between it and the water in Hokianga… or indeed any of the creeks and rivers is a matter of space between the drops…so there is a continuum with ice at one end (very small gaps) and fog at the other (large gaps). It is all relative. Therefore, the thing that separates is air, or a lack of it. So…if the molecules of water are separate, and composed of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, and if air has oxygen in it, then is there any separation at all? Drilling down further, if oxygen at the atomic and subatomic level is just energy slowed to a crawl, and mostly spaces, is there any separation at all? And, if I am mostly water, then am I separate from the fog or a component part of it as it is a component part of me? Is everything about spaces?
The mystic in me contemplated the paradox of space and interconnectedness. And then I remembered a whakatauki (saying) from the people of the Whanganui river further south.
Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au.
I am the river; the river is me.
I began to understand the underlying belief, that there is no separation. That the idea of separation is the basis of Illusion.
That rumination followed me to work, until I parked up, got out and crossed the road, stood on the edge and looked into the water. It was near high tide, and the water was up against the bank. The morning sun shining on it gave it a rich metallic sheen, as if the gaps had closed up somewhat. It was constantly moving, constantly changing and yet it remained the same. Paradox again.
And it came to me that I was observing the interface between the water and the light falling on it rather than the water itself or the light. The energy of the one was intersecting the energy of the other. It was an interface. Perhaps the principle of paradox lay at the intersection, not on the adjoining roads. How could I document this visually?
The artist in me knew that this constant storytelling could not be captured effectively in a single 1/250sec moment. I would only get a part of the story, and I certainly didn’t want to write a novel of only one chapter. And I also wanted to undercover the truth in this simple scene before me. I felt as if I was being offered a narrative too quick for me to follow.
There had to be a way.
I mulled it over for a few days, trying to see a way that might give a novel with multiple chapters. They say all art is about problem-solving. Somewhere in the photographic box of tools I had acquired over the years was a way.
Then it came.
I remembered a Wynn Bullock image seen years ago. In it the water or fog is both blurred and yet defined. Not a time exposure which melts everything together, rather a layering of sharp and soft. This problem would not be easily solved in PhotoShop. The solution lay in capture.
Ah, there it was.
I stared at my Fujifilm X-Pro 2. Nope. Only 2 exposures on offer.
What about the D810? I had an idea that I could do multi-exposure on the Nikon, although I hadn’t ever bothered to explore that function. Until now.
I went away and read the manual. The answer was there.
I could shoot up to 10 exposures and the camera would automatically calculate the required compensation for each exposure.
I opted for 10 exposures. Start at the top and work back.
And on my way to work the following morning, the fog had obligingly returned. I stopped by the edge of the harbour and made some exposures, reviewed them on my LCD and then realised I needed to use a tripod. Hand-holding allowed things to get out of register. That wouldn’t work, although it could be a subject for exploration at a later date. I logged the question and drove on.
When I arrived at my gallery, the same metal water was there. I got out my tripod and began working, reviewing as I went. I tabbed in to 100% and observed sharp and soft. I carried on.
It was when I opened up the files on my computer that the surprise came. There, in the interface between light and water, a series of circles interwove, at once turning away from and towards each other. I saw a ta moko engraved in the film, a mystery revealed. I wondered if I could be a better listener, and to what extent varying the gaps between each exposure would allow more of the water’s kōrerō (story) to come through.
A friend dropped by, one of the local kaumatua (elders). Have a look at this, I said.
He stared for a moment.
Te Ara O Te Aorangi.
The Pathway to the Universe.
Because water isn’t anything.
It just is.
And it isn’t.