Monday, July 25, 2016

Extreme Plein Air Part 1


Rocks and Water by Alexandra de Steiguer

Alexandra de Steiguer is an artist and a loner. In winter, she moves out to the Isles of Shoals where she works as a winter caretaker. This is nine miles from the coast of Maine and New Hampshire. One of those islands is Appledore where Childe Hassem painted at the turn of the 19th Century. The island Alexandra lives on in winter is called “Star.”  The photographs here were taken on a medium format camera.

VL
What are the challenges to photographing plein air for you?  

ALEX
The challenges to shooting outdoors in winter are the same as anyone would encounter, but the special challenge on the island is the wind, and the wind-chill.  During winter the Isles of Shoals are a very windy place - due to the long fetch of water, and - of course the winter westerly gales and occasional fierce nor'easter.  So shooting outdoors there is a rugged experience, but also gratifying as it gets me out into the wildness of the elements, and this tends to give a very humbling perspective.  There, I'm nothing but a small, frail human, as vulnerable as any other species that is spending its winter upon those frozen rocks.  I also really like that feeling because I can sense that we're all in it together - all of us living things that are just doing the best we can under those circumstances.  But of course they're really better adapted to it than I am.  

I've managed to get around the largest technical challenge in that I shoot with an old, medium-format camera (a Mamiya RB67) which is completely manual - it doesn't even have a battery.  (I carry a spot-meter in my pocket to read the light, which keeps it a little warmer).  When the shutter in the lens starts to sound a little slower, or when my film-advance lever freezes, that's when I know it's time to head back in to the warmth of the house, which times out perfectly with my fingers freezing as well.  But that only happens on those extremely cold, below zero days.

The other aspect that can be a little tricky is that the uneven, rocky terrain is sometimes covered with ice.  An extra challenge!

VL
Have you noticed changes in the landscape/your technique over the 19 years you've been photographing the islands?

ALEX
The landscape doesn't really change that much - except of course on a geologic scale.  But I've witnessed a little of this too, perhaps.  Every so often some of the storms will manage to move and toss the giant granite blocks of the breakwater. But normally the change is more subtle, - the ever changing motion of the sea and the winter lighting, the freezing and thawing landscape.  I'd say the greatest changes are those to the buildings, things like new roofing or fire-exits, or the addition of solar panels.  

My technique over the years is getting a little more refined, but even that hasn't really changed much.  What does evolve is the way that I see. I feel that I'm seeing even more now as the years go by.   I guess the more you fall in love with something, the more you want to look at it, to study it, to absorb all its nuances and to make them a part of yourself in some way.

I live on Star Island (I'm the caretaker there) in winter, and I look over at Appledore from my house. The Appledore staff closes the island up really well for winter, and the buildings are mostly newer and so there's less chance of winter-damage.  I do kayak to all the other island in winter (except Duck Island, its a seal sanctuary) to take a look and to make images, and if anything is amiss I'll report it. 

Winter Ledges, by Alexandra de Steiguer
VL
What is the benefit to you as an artist to return to the same place to work?​

ALEX
The benefit of returning to the same place is that it continues to teach me how to see clearly; to drop any expectations I might have.  That's really critical.  Each year I try to experience the place all over again as if for the first time, with fresh eyes, but also with the images and memory of all those other years still intact.  It's like any other very long relationship I guess.  I feel very lucky, on these islands I get to participate in my own little slice of their history, and I try to make sure that I do so with eyes open, and with reverence. 

VL
Is solitude a requisite for you?

ALEX
I think if you'd ask most artists, they would say that solitude is very important to how they create. I guess for me it's exponentially so.  Much of my creativity arrives only after spending long weeks alone.  There's something about that long, undisturbed free-flow of the mind that brings it forth.  For me anyway.  During winters is when I write songs, keep a journal, and make images.   And then the rest of the year I get to explore that experience even further by the creative process of printing the images in my darkroom. 

VL
Do you teach photography?
ALEX

I don't but for the past few years, ever since my book Small Island, Big Picture came out, I've been giving slideshow/talks to various groups, and this has been another creative outlet - to try to express in words and images (like in the book) the various thoughts that come along when one spends many many winters alone with the natural elements.   As a bit of a loner, it's weird to be presenting in front of groups of people, but it's been very gratifying and people are so welcoming and interested.


Self Portraitby Alexandra de Steiguer
For more information, visit Alex's website at www.alexdesteiguer.com.