This November 19, 2011 sunset looking out over a Chukchi Sea nearly frozen solid reminded us of a Mark Rothko painting. The quality of light in the far north is often breathtaking.
I didn’t even own a camera at the time, but as I admired a photograph of a Bighorn Sheep in a national magazine featuring animals of the Rocky Mountains, I knew that if and when I ever did get a camera, high on my list of hoped for captures would be that iconic orange eye. And while I have yet to score a great shot of a mature male with a heavy, curling rack, one of the keys – perhaps the key as I evaluate much of my wildlife photography is the quality of the eye in the photo.
A sharp, clear eye showing a little color and reflecting catchlight can make or break a wildlife portrait. So once I have a decent photographic record of a given species, I start working to get an eye-catching eye.
Even in low light, you can usually find an angle where some light is reflected in the animal’s eyes. This might mean waiting for the animal to change its position, or it might mean changing your own position. The other key is to not focus on the animal, but on the eye of the animal.
Just as with portraits of humans, the eyes are critical to animal portraits. Here in Chignik Lake, several foxes regularly visited the village this past winter. Each was unique – not just in size, coat color and facial markings, but in personality as well. As we studied these foxes, we gave them names. Skit, a young fox who was a frequent visitor to the White Spruce Grove that we check daily for birds and other wildlife, had a tough go of it during this especially harsh winter. An injury to his right eye no doubt impeded his ability to hunt as well as to guard against adversaries. There were times when he looked like he might be nearing his last leg.
Despite hardships, he seemed to exude a puppyish curiosity and resilience. And somehow he managed to scrape through. When we last saw him a couple of weeks ago, his coat looked healthier than it had since the beginning of winter and his eye appeared to have healed.
As visual creatures, we’re drawn to eyes, even ascribing spiritual qualities to them. Glint and shine and rich, saturated iris colors suggest to us intelligence and vitality, traits that in turn give a subject charisma.
While catchlight can be added through the magic of digital technology, the more satisfying – and realistic-looking – achievement is to capture it as you’re making the picture. Watch the light and look for it reflected in your subject’s eyes. A little shimmer can really make a photo pop!
Ice Barque: This naturally occurring arrangement of ice – which seems to have imbedded in it a swan, a fish and a mythical terrestrial beast as its masts and bow – reminded me of the allegorical artwork of the Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593). A better sense of these images can be gained by enlarging them. (Command and + on a Mac.)
Arcimboldo’s work hangs in the Louvre and in other museums and cathedrals in Europe, but he is no doubt best known to Americans of a certain age for the cover art on the album Masque, released in 1975 by the progressive rock group Kansas. (See below)
Water, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1566
(free use domain, from Wikimedia Commons)
Ice Barque #2: Although I shot these images in color, I ended up liking them better in black and white.
Hand of Dawn: I shot this with a relatively inexpensive point-and-shoot camera, which I almost always have with me regardless of what else I’m carrying.
Next Thursday: Winter Waterfowl
I made this photo just a few feet from my home in Chignik Lake. The challenge was to somehow clean up the assortment of utility poles, wires, satellite dishes and the dissonant array of scrub alder closer to eye level. I actually knew as soon as this assignment (Winter Landscape in Black and White – the second weekly assignment from Outdoor Photographer magazine) was posted the scene I wanted to shoot. I put on a long lens, waited for the right light, and got this frame.
Next Thursday: Patterns of Winter
Abstract #4: Parallel Worlds – Among new projects in 2017 is a commitment to taking on the “Weekly Photo Assignment” challenge at Outdoor Photographer magazine. The first new assignment for 2017 was Winter Macro.
Abstract #4: Fracture – For the first time in perhaps five years, our lake, Chignik Lake, has frozen solid. The first day it was reasonably safe to walk on the ice, it was incredibly clear.
Abstract #9: Galaxy – As I walked around scanning the bottom for fish and aquatic insects, here and there I noticed bubbles trapped in the clear ice.
Next Thursday: Winter Landscape in Black and White
Bowhead whale mother and child: Walrus tusk ivory with bowhead whale baleen eyes set on bowhead whale baleen. The baleen is scrimshawed with marine animals commonly hunted for subsistence by the Inupiat people of Point Hope, Alaska.
As we’re preparing to leave Point Hope, we wanted a piece of local art to take with us – something that captures the spirit of Tikigaq (the traditional name of this village). Henry Koonook is both an outstanding carver and a friend, and so we commissioned this piece.
Detail, scrimshaw on baleen of ringed seal and walrus.
Henry still does most of his work with hand tools, using local natural media.
The entire piece measures about 11″ x 3″. Henry Koonook’s signature and the year the piece was created are visible in the lower right corner.
Bowhead whales constitute a vital part of the subsistence-based hunting and gathering culture in Point Hope. (Their numbers, which plummeted during the days when whaling boats from the world over pillaged the Chukchi Sea, are growing at a steady pace in recent years.) Seals and walruses are also culturally important. We are happy to take with us to our new home this piece of art that represent this beauty of this Arctic village by the sea.
The dancers in this short video are 6th grade students at Tikigaq School in Point Hope, Alaska, an Inupiat village 200 miles above the Arctic Circle. They are performing traditional songs and dances, passed down through the generations, sung in their native language.
The annual school Christmas program in Point Hope is a little different than in most communities. Yes, there are seasonally popular songs and carols, but many of them are sung in Inupiaq, the language of the Tikigaqmuit, the Inupiat Eskimo people of this small whaling community on the edge of the Chukchi Sea. There is also lots of drumming, singing and dancing performed according to traditions that extend back in time beyond memory. The drums – which resonate much more loudly than one might suspect them capable of at first glance – are made from material such as the membrane of sea mammal organs stretched over wooden frames. The beautiful mukluks (boots) many of the participants wear are hand sewn from seal, caribou, beaver and other natural materials.
The dances celebrate the past and the present. Aaka Irma (Irma Hunnicutt), who volunteered her time to come to our school and teach the students these dances, has an honored place as an elder in this village. Although the students speak mainly English in their day-to-day lives, these celebrations give them the opportunity to honor their language and heritage. This is a place where traditions are still passed down generation to generation; where some of the clothing and much of the food is still provided by the surrounding land and sea; where traditions are alive and vibrant and honored.
On this occasion, the students and Aaka Irma invited their classroom teacher to dance with them.