A YEAR IN TINTYPE

We know that behind every image revealed there is another image more faithful to reality, and in the back of that image there is another, and yet another behind the last one, and so on, up to the true image of that absolute, mysterious reality that no one will ever see.

-Michelangelo Antonioni

Staunton, VA

OVER the past year I’ve been filtering shots from hiking excursions in North Carolina and Virginia through an iOS app called TinType. TinType re-creates the look of 19th century photographs produced on thin iron plates coated with light-sensitive emulsion. I’m drawn to the archetypal views many early tintypes depict—forests, pathways, mountaintops, streams—and to the rich vocabulary tintypes express through their curious, often amazing artifacts of light and chemistry, mysterious renderings of focus, and the unpredictable ways these objects age and show signs of how they have been used. I like to imagine these little sheets of metal as a subtle kind of hard disk emblazoned not only with the data of the original exposures, but with the impression of each interaction they have had with their environments and the people who held them in their hands and experienced some type of connection to them since their creation.

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I think I would enjoy creating traditional tintypes, and I tip my hat to photographers honoring early tools and processes by doing that in beautiful ways. Over the past year, however, I’ve enjoyed the ready access I’ve had to my camera to record my experiences, as well as the ability to take a lot of pictures to select from later. In the early days photographers had to haul heavy equipment miles along a trail or up a mountain to capture the landscapes to which I’m drawn. And they could usually only expose a handful of plates at a time. There’s a freedom in releasing that apparatus, and a satisfaction in being able to align the taking of a picture with the moment that inspires its creation. These photographs, unlike traditional tintypes could be, are an extension of my perception as I move freely through the world.

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As much as I love the places I photograph, what I most want to explore is how I experience those places. I want to understand the qualities that make the things I observe matter to me. Viewing the present through the vocabulary of tintypes, through the layers of time and process and history they evoke, is a way of approaching that challenge—of taking up the invitation Antonioni extends to explore beyond the surface. What aids my search is that I can never imagine how these images will turn out—and that is part of the fascination they hold for me. In making their source something beyond my expertise, I get to experience the results more as surprises, discoveries, gifts, than a product of what I already know. And that is how I want to encounter the world.

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Imagine a single thought that encompasses, illumines, and lifts to its natural repose everything you’ve ever experienced in your life. Now imagine progressing to that thought through a series of images. The first one stands for ten, the next for a hundred, the next for a thousand. Each one resonates more powerfully and authentically in your heart and in your mind than the last. This is a journey I think I’ll be making my whole life. I’m glad to be able to document a part of that journey here.

—Todd Stabley, June, 2019

Confluence Natural Area

STEPPING INTO TINTYPES

This past year Rachel Beck and I stayed on a farm nestled in a tiny hollow surrounded by the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains outside Floyd, VA. In this charming little farmhouse, there was a photo on the wall leading to the upstairs bedroom that showed an elderly woman with a group of ten or so of her adult children. Each character in the photo seemed full of personality—smiling, playful, engaged with each other, happy. These people grew up in that house, which the mother, whose name was Carrie, built with help from friends and neighbors. The surrounding land is rich and nourishing, but also challenging. The foothills are steep. The story is that every Sunday Carrie dressed her kids in their best clothes and led them several miles across the high hill behind the house to church. Rachel and I are experienced hikers, and that is not an insignificant hill. To travel such a distance over that terrain with kids of varying ages would have been an impressive undertaking.  Below is the view from the top of what has become known as Carrie’s Hill with the distant line of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the horizon.

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One reason this trip was evocative for me was that it helped crystallize my thinking around photographic processes I’ve been exploring. I’ve been filtering shots from my hiking excursions through an iOS app called TinType that re-creates the look of 19th century photographs produced on sheets of tin on which light-sensitive emulsion was painted. I’m drawn to the same type of archetypal views tintypes often depict—pathways, forests, rivers, mountaintops. Sometimes my compositions are more intimate and abstract—maybe something I notice in a reflection on the surface of a lake or stream.

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Tintypes were often blurry, exposed in unpredictable ways, characterized by curious artifacts. The equipment and processes involved were cumbersome and difficult to control. Imagine having to haul a huge camera into the backcountry and up a mountain to produce at most a handful of photographs. The photos you would leave for later generations to ponder might say as much about the hardy, adventurous soul who created them as about the landscapes they depict.

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Somewhere on the winding highways deep in the mountains near Floyd, we crossed a border in the imagination where it felt like we had stepped into those old photographs. Maybe it was the foggy ridge called Lover’s Leap where we stopped the car and tried to peer down into the void. From the perspective of that crossing, the mysterious personae inhabiting the tintypes I had encountered over the years in books, boxes, drawers and various other archives and repositories, spoke to me. And each time I picked up my camera on this trip, I found a framework and a vocabulary for engaging with them in dialog. Below all the layers of time and process and history that these artifacts in all their physicality attest to, past and present came together in a space of deep and rich connection. To me, that place felt more real and more immediate than any physical landscape could ever be.

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Rachel and I will never meet Carrie and her family in person, but all of us, I feel certain, communed in a magic unique to that little corner of the universe. And somehow, taking in the broad expanse on top of Carrie’s Hill one morning, I realized in a new way how little any differences of time and place that seem to separate us really matter, even while appreciating those differences in all their intricacy. And months later as I stand behind my camera exploring the contours of the landscapes I call home, there’s a part of me still standing on Carrie’s Hill.

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Homeless Man

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Homeless man,
standing on the overpass I cross on my way to work,
not facing the expected way–
toward the cars driving next to you–
but instead saluting the souls
swooping under the bridge below,
I see you lifting your arms into the sky,
dancing,
holding a teddy bear in one hand.
I see the morning sunlight streaming onto your face,
and feel the crisp air holding your rapture
in its tight frame.
I have no idea what strange visions give rise to your gesticulations,
but in this moment I simply say yes,
and accept the gift you came to this, of all places, to give.

THE GRANDEUR OF ITS SPREADING LIMBS

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I called the Calvin Street Oak “my tree” because it was in my front yard, and because I knew and loved it during the five and one half years I was privileged to live under its beautiful canopy. But it was everyone’s tree. One of my favorite things was sitting on my front porch and watching people walk by. Of course they would look up and marvel. How could you not? It was a huge, magnificent, ancient tree. It’s trunk was 27 feet around. It threw off your sense of scale and reminded you what it was like to be a child when everything in the world was big. And then they would look over at me, visibly transformed by their encounter, and allow me to share in a neighborly conversation invested with an unusually high quotient of wonder. I will miss those conversations, and I will miss this tree like I would a friend.

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You could say that Hurricane Florence brought it down, but that really wasn’t how it happened. This oak tree chose when and how to leave the spot it stood for 250 years. The light gusts that started on Friday morning when Florence touched the Triangle—ones I barely noticed on my way to yoga that morning—were part of a conversation between tree and wind, the answer to a request for assistance. Thank you, my friend, for waiting until after I left. It would have been hard for me to see and hear you go. Thank you for falling away from the house, for falling so gently that you didn’t even knock over the rock cairn Rachel had just built right next to you. Thank you for not hurting anyone. Thank you for leaving on your terms. For leaving with the same dignity with which you lived your long and mysterious life.

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Before there was an old oak there was a mature oak. Before there was a mature oak there was a young oak. Before the young oak was an acorn. And before the acorn there was energy as potential, an idea of something that could be.

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What would it be like to sit in the same place for two and a half centuries? To cultivate a perspective and a level of patient watchfulness under which a whole town, a whole country could grow up around you? To support untold beings of countless species as they are born, grow up, live and die or move on? What would it be like to aspire upward from a trunk 27 feet around, lifting branches themselves the size of mature trees high up into the sky? What would it be like to know the subtlety of half a million leaves tuned to infinitesimal gradations of light and wind? I’ve been all over this state hiking, and each time I returned I would marvel that although I saw many amazing trees, the most magnificent one of all was right in my front yard.

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I was always curious how tall you were. The Hillsborough Treasure Tree website, which singled you out for the grandeur of your large spreading limbs, said you were “at least 70 feet.” That estimate always seemed overly cautious to me. So after the workers removed your trunk and main limbs, but before the smaller branches had been taken away, I saw my chance to find a number. In the field across the street, I found the end of your top-most branch, sitting there right where it fell. I pointed myself toward your trunk and began to walk, one foot in front of the other, heel to toe, balancing like a tight-rope walker until I found myself looking upward into the sky in a spot where, if you had still been there, I could have leaned in and pressed myself against you. 111 steps. I went inside and measured my left foot. 11 inches. I measured my right foot. Exactly 11 inches. I’m not a math whiz, but I calculated that’s 101.75 feet.

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Now the place where you stood is strikingly empty. Now there is pure potential once again where once there was the fullness of all things oak tree. Now there is a certain set of inclinations, a certain bent of curiosity, that wouldn’t have been possible before all that you were had been seen, felt, experienced, known. A quantum wire somewhere in the universe is vibrating. The energy in the ether is palpable. There’s the smell of ozone in the air like after a storm. And I can’t wait to see what you choose to become next.

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THE WALL

HipstamaticPhoto-531680009.251065.jpgONCE UPON A TIME, this rock foundation, set by a stream, was an idea in someone’s mind. Someone who needed to build a mill. There was digging, selecting, and stacking. Now, the mill and all its history are gone, and this collection of rocks is an idea in the mind of Nature, with different processes at work. What human mind can encompass those processes and truly appreciate their scale, scope, and beauty?

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THE SHADOW

NOT TOO MANY HOURS removed from headlights, highways, and pouring rain, today I sat on a fallen tree, feet dangling, gazing down on a stream fattened with translucent blue water. I watched the water break swiftly and purposefully, yet without a sound, through a leaf dam from where it sat still as a pond, creating a long channel of movement along the far side of the stream. Through the trees, gentle light fell on my shoulders and onto the water, where it illumined golden nooks made of submerged leaves, branches, and mud. I studied the surface to distinguish all the activity taking place there: twinkling sunlight, flowing ripples, and dancing shadows of leaves and branches swaying above me.

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My eyes rested on another spot where the water was moving past the leaf dam. Here, instead of rushing through, it gurgled over the top like an underground spring, zig-zagging between a series of leaf abutments before escaping to the slower-moving water a couple feet away.

I turned around on the tree and reconfigured myself to face the other direction. About a hundred feet ahead, where stream joins river, there was the sound of rushing water. Another, bigger leaf dam? I saw the shadow of the sturdy tree in front of me. My body formed a triangle, my hands planted behind me on the moss-covered bark, my head a circle on top of a pyramid. I lifted my hands to my nose and inhaled the earthy smell. I moved from side to side to make sure that shadow on the water was me.

To get here, I walked 51 years and two miles along the Eno River. At first the path was asphalt, then gravel, then dirt. Then I veered off the trail through the woods. I had never been to this spot before, but my movement was swift and purposeful, and there was no doubt about the destination once I arrived. On this, one of the most beautiful fall days I can remember, there were lessons here I needed to learn.

THE STRING OF SAPPHIRES

THIS PAST WEEK I went camping in the Bitterroot Mountains of western Montana with my uncle, who recently retired from a career managing forests there and two friends of his who are ranch owners and have known and loved the Bitterroot their whole lives. We hiked up Chaffin Creek Canyon, following the stream to its source, 9000 feet high in the snow-filled peaks. As the journey progressed, I kept finding lessons everywhere: losing the trail but finding it again when you realize you just have to listen for the sound of water. Remembering how important it is to keep focus so you don’t lose your footing and injure yourself or send a loose rock down on your friend. Finding an amazing spot but not settling there because you know there is more beyond.

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The prize of this hike was a series of mountain lakes called the String of Sapphires because of their shimmering crystal blue hues. Hardly anyone goes there. To get to them you have to scale a nearly thousand-foot cliff where a waterfall cascades over the side, and by this time you are already far up into the canyon and have been enjoying three beautiful lakes that are themselves worthy destinations (and that in our case captivated us for two days and nights before we set our sights beyond). I looked up at what seemed to be the canyon’s rim wondering, where is all that water coming from?

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Only one way to find out, and once up there you realize there is much, much more than what you saw from below. After a precarious ascent using any bit of rock, tuft of grass or shrub you can find for leverage, you breathe a sigh of relief to find more certain ground. You discover a skinny path to the waterfall behind waist-high snow sheets slowly detaching from the mountain. You get as close to the edge of the falls as your adrenaline allows and take in the view before following the stream up from there through lush, mossy meadows as it meanders from one small lake to the next. The air feels crisp and clean in your nostrils and lungs.

Each lake stair-steps a little higher than the last, and is fed by a charming waterfall you feel you could sit beside for hours. I knew I had to dive into one of those lakes, and I chose the third one, because it was deeper than the others and tantalizingly blue. I could hang out for about a minute in the lakes below, but these waters were fed directly from the snow pack, and I lasted all of about 5 seconds here. Lake #4 is big, and you think it’s the end, but then you notice more water coming over the 300-foot ridge behind it. Tired as you are, you dig a little deeper and continue up. You figure out a way around boulders the size of small houses and traverse large, open slopes of snow, planting your feet heel-first so you don’t go sliding down. There are no real trails here. You reach an open spot at 9000 feet above all but the scrubbiest vegetation. You’re standing on solid granite and quartz, kicking chunks of rock broken off by the freeze-thaw cycle at work for centuries in the crevices and cavities. The wind whipping against your face feels like winter and tries to throw you off balance. You steady yourself. You’re breathing hard but feel exhilaration in the views that go for miles to the left and right. Down in front of you, at last, there it is–the creek’s source. A big, blue alpine lake with no name, surrounded by a round, sloping, snow-filled granite bowl.

Beyond is yet another ridge. It’s the final one. Precipitous and jagged, it’s called “The Shard,” and it looms up another 800 feet, close to another mile away. Nothing grows there, and its stacks of rocks look like a well-placed gust could bring them crashing down. We want to go to its very top, where you can peer over into the next canyon, all the way into Idaho. But we are getting nervous about the time. The afternoon clouds are coming in, and we saw countless lightning-struck trees on the way up. And we could only imagine retracing our path down that cliff in the wet. So we’ll save the final ascent for another day, and in the meantime savor rich memories of amazing sights, great companionship, and an unforgettable adventure.