Early in my freelance career I was making a lot of ‘stuff’ but I wasn’t making what I wanted to make. I was creatively stuck, mentally jammed, burned out, fried. It was nice to get a paycheck (read: essential) but my soul was empty. More like starving. I was living hand to mouth doing jobs for anyone that offered them, and for pay that wasn’t making a difference. I was just making it. On days off I would escape the city to make photographs and find my soul.
Through my travels I discovered a magical place called Bark Bay Slough on the southern shore of Lake Superior. I was pointing my camera at a lot of things but nothing stirred my spirit until I saw the floating tamaracks on Bark Bay Slough. I wanted to make an intimate portrait of one but getting close was a challenge. They grow atop a mat of peat in the bog. Sedge grasses along with other bushes populate the mat, and while it appears to be terra firma, beneath that porous tangle is mysterious black water of unknown depth. Attempting to photograph those trees, up close, in that environment was potentially perilous.
First off, I will admit that what I did was incredibly stupid. There I was, solo, before really good mobile phone service walking across a floating peat bog in the name of art. To displace my weight I wore snowshoes and upon the advice of Florida Everglades photographer Clyde Butcher I wore flea and tick collars around both ankles to repel deer ticks. I followed game trails out over the bog until I came to the closest, most worthy candidate. It was odd being out there. It was like standing on a waterbed. Rain had just started to fall.
I was shooting a 6x7 Mamiya RB then and it was somewhat more laborious to set up than today’s digital cameras. I pre-loaded just about everything before I headed out. One thing I didn’t contemplate was how the tripod legs would stand on the floating mat. I think it just barely stood up without poking through. The rain continued.
And then I made this photograph. This exposure changed my life.
When I got back I remember scanning the negative not really knowing what I had. But then I opened the 95 megapixel equivalent scan and my mind was blown: individual droplets on the branches creating miniature lenses that refract the landscape behind it, smaller droplets clinging to the individual needle-like leaves. I really like how it feels like a portrait. Dendropersonification.
This photograph symbolizes that a-ha moment that forever changed the energy in my work. The kind of inspiration that propels you forward into a whole new level of consciousness about what it means to make things and how to go through life to do it. I started to make what mattered. I connected place and purpose in a wholly satisfying way that made the old concepts of mortgaging the present for the hopes of living tomorrow seem like ancient ideas.
Professionally, I started to say no to work that didn’t matter to me and that made all the difference. The power of attraction is at play here and when you put out into the universe who you are and what you stand for it repels some but it attracts others and it's what you attract that matters. Now I work with people that are fun to be with, who respect what I bring to the table and for causes I believe in.
There’s a lot of talk about the pandemic empowering but also debilitating creative people and their pursuits. Unfortunately for me when the pandemic hit I felt stuck again. I went back to my journal to find some inspiration and found this mantra: MAKE what MATTERS. I grabbed a sharpie and wrote it on a sticky note and it's been on my computer display ever since. I was reminded that you have to keep making stuff, but be sure to make the stuff that matters. It will make all the difference.
So stop scrolling and get rolling.
Photos: Bark Bay from above (2020), Laricium (2006), Laricium (details) (2006) ©2021 Brett Kosmider