Photography as a Gift

December 26, 2013

Steeplejack Jay Southgate clings to a weathervane as it is lifted by crane onto the steeple of the East Braintree church. (Herald File / Bob Eddy) Steeplejack Jay Southgate clings to a weathervane as it is lifted by crane onto the steeple of the East Braintree church. (Herald File / Bob Eddy)

 

Christmas is a time of giving and of receiving.

The photographer Minor White said, “When gifts are given to me through my camera, I accept them graciously.” White beautifully expresses the sense that training and careful attention to detail are no guarantee of photographic success. In the end, a powerful photograph is a gift.

At times, when I’m shooting, the sense that something profound is about to be disclosed builds inside me. Pulse quickens, pupils dilate, breathing deepens, and time slows as the telling moment approaches. Sensing this, and opening the lens to it is to receive a wonderful gift.

Today we’ll consider an image that was just such a gift.

The Assignment

From summer through fall and into the winter of 2000, Jay Southgate was refurbishing the spire of the church in East Braintree. For months, the steeple, removed from the meetinghouse by a large crane, was rebuilt on the ground just off the shoulder of Route 12 north of the Snowsville Store.

Snow was falling fast on the day I received word that the steeple, which had been reattached, was about to receive its crown in the form of a very large hand-wrought weathervane.

Grabbing my gear, I sped up Route 12 to Snowsville for the event.

The Scene

There were several elements to be considered for inclusion in my imaging that day. Obvious is the historic church itself, nestled in the Route 12 valley. There is a wonderfully unimpeded vantage point to the north from where I could see not only the church, but also the crane with snow swirling all about. The magnificent weathervane, standing more than six feet in height, and the steeplejack would undoubtedly be included—or so I thought as I surveyed the scene.

But steeplejacks, who brave great heights in the service of historic architecture, are a rare and colorful breed, and Jay Southgate was no exception.

Greeting me as I climbed from my car, Southgate was a study in contrasts. He spoke articulately about the overall project, his profession as preservation of important cultural heritage, the unique features of this particular restoration, the difficulty of obtaining necessary local funding and regional grants. Matching this cerebral and very charismatic persona was a fearless physical presence, a swashbuckling Southgate, master of every challenge.

The Shot

The image “gifted” me that day is rather confusing at first viewing, and it’s not what I expected to create. What is going on? There is no crane, no steeple; nothing to connect or ground Southgate to the geography of East Braintree. The scene is scrubbed bare. This is a landscape without direction; even the snow flies about randomly. He could be anywhere.

And yet, there are important visual clues. Somehow, we know Southgate is “way up there.” Note the compass points are even in size, despite the great mass of the weathervane. Had the image been shot in close with a wide-angle lens, there would be massive distortion between near and far elements.

Unconsciously, we know this is shot with a long lens, and this is important. Southgate is removed from us. We feel the weather, all that swirling snow, amplified as we peer through it to him hanging high overhead.

The Human Condition

Sent to take an image of the weathervane being replaced on the Snowsville steeple, I returned with something more.

Here, in the middle of nowhere, we behold a man simply holding on. At the intersection of up and down, of north, south, east and west, buffeted by snow, he hangs on for dear life.

There is the power of myth in this image. Aren’t we all, at times, simply holding on, seeking to find our way?

Our Gift

Southgate successfully refastened the vane to the top of the steeple that day. It greets us with sentinel presence each time we head north through East Braintree.

As we approach a new year, full of uncertainty, may we be comforted by the knowledge that there are others who have braved the landscape before us, marking it for all who follow.

 

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