So I unpacked the film for the polaroid, and wrote some notes about taking the first photo with them. Here they are:
We cross the Aithouse at the ford carefully in our wellies. We might not be able to come back this way when the water rises. It’s not too high for now, but rain is forecast all day and it’s chucking it down. On the slope opposite the crossing, this beech is one of the more tragic ones. It was strong and proud and wide on its slope, protected from South-Westerly winds by the lie of the land and the woods above it. When Arwen blew in from the North-East, it must have been on the front line, hit directly in its now exposed position.
The root plate looms over the footpath a semi-circular dark wall, and on coming around to the side of the fallen tree, it’s obvious what a beautiful specimen it has been.
I put the umbrella on the ground, which is wetter than on Friday, but somehow clearer for the leaves pressing down as tiny, scale-sheets. I don’t feel as much like I could be treading on things I shouldn’t today, Like the leaves have already covered them up, protected them. Bright springy moss replaced by a wet brown layer of autumn. I put my bag under the umbrella’s arc and pass dad the tripod, which is surplus to requirements. Dad questions whether we have enough light to take a photo. I lean against a tree to align the camera with the angle the tree is at, flat on the sloping ground. I forget I was meaning to turn this 90 degrees, so the tree will once more be upright. I lean a little, brace myself on the trunk, and pull the shutter trigger. A pale blue square emerges from under the retreating tongue of the black exposure shield, and I remove it from my camera’s mouth. I place it hastily, face-down on the cover of my notebook, a drop of rain lands on the black reverse side of the photograph, and a smudge marks the yellow plastic cover and the tips of my fingers. We take an immature peek and after seeing the pale blue square staring at us again, tuck it back in the notebook. Dad already has the camera under his coat and takes the notebook too. It said somewhere on the internet, that Polaroids take 15 minutes to develop, they should be in the dark and laid flat, and we decide – okay, dad decides – that the best course of action is to leave it in the notebook and walk back to the house for a cup of tea.
We cross back over the ford, passing the near-skeletal remains of the picnic table from the waterfall viewpoint (flung down the slope into a pile by the forestry & land Scotland because it was in need of maintenance, dad tells me).
We drink tea. I sneak a look. As the tea-level drops with thirsty slurps, I open the notebook and take periodical peeks. A line emerges, a line I saw along the centre of the viewfinder of the body of the mossy green trunk. Two arms reach skyward bent and green. The photo is darker than I had hoped, but after dad’s declaration that the pale blue square was how the photo looked if it hadn’t been exposed properly, I was mostly just relieved anything was showing up.
On closer inspection, while dark, the photograph contains so much more under its layer of clear plastic, in those three layers of colour than I thought it could.
I stare at it for a long time, and it starts to become three-dimensional. Maybe it is those layers of chemicals my eyes are sensing, more detailed than the configuration of coloured dots a screen or printed image would convey.
At the bottom of the image is the foreground, the illusion marred slightly, briefly by some tiny cyan smears. I hope this isn’t the proof of a light leak, and might be something to do with the rain, or the hasty expulsion from the camera’s lips?
There’s a deep dark green layer underneath the foliage on the ground – both live and fallen from above. The darkest parts of the image don’t appear as blacks. They’re deep, soft shades of the dark earth, the shadowy recesses, the dark ground from which everything grows. Upon it, intricate leaves emerge, in deep warm green and tints of yellow and ochre.
The tree begins in a line of shadow, sharp in places, soft in others as if its nearly a year in this position has seen it begin to decompose more than it really has. The moss on its bark, which has become its bark seems velvet-soft, crumpling gently on the creases marking how the tree grew and twisted to fit its changing environment.
A light scattering of leaves lies on this cushion sequins and French knots to break the texture.
There’s something strange happening behind the middle-ground. The remaining tress standing vertical give away the angle of the camera was at when I made the photo, turning the photo on its side makes sense to this detailed background, but throws all four edges into an angled confusion to me. Angled along the trunk, the dark trees behind look like inverse crepuscular rays shooting down from the heavens and disappearing for the most part into and behind the landscape.
Somehow, parts of these tree-rays seem to continue over, into the foreground and through the layers of the photo maybe it’s just a shadow, but it doesn’t look quite like that, and it doesn’t feel like that.
Behind these ghost-trunks of living trees, there are scatterings of yellowish leaves. They mark in their negative space, the branches of the narrow trees nearby.
In the top right corner of the photograph there’s an area of light. It takes a second to realise this is the burn. It’s a pale blue smear behind the woods, marking its boundary. The trunks of the sycamores that make the path golden with their leaves at this time of year cut the shape up.
I find myself wondering at the magic of how this flat object can possibly show, and demonstrate the distance that is from the tree to the burn. It’s like I’ve never seen a photograph before, like I’ve not been making drawings of this place all year. While I do get it, I do know, that the camera, a digital or an analogue one, takes in the light it sees and through a single hole and commits it to memory on film or file or nearly-instant print, there is something other happening in the layers of chemical stuff. They do the same process of flattening as any transference from the 3-D world to the 2-D paper, but I wonder if it’s the physical directness that’s the difference here. The video goes along wires, through circuit boards and transistors and other things I can’t describe to reach, through a screen, the eye eventually. This is pressed, stamped, through a lens and then into an object that’s itself ephemeral and delicate, but is real, and while limited to the molecules in the chemistry I don’t entirely understand, the detail seems almost infinite, the depth too, the reality right there, an artefact of the light.
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