“When the red star bleeds and the darkness gathers, Azor Ahai shall be born again amidst smoke and salt to wake dragons out of stone.“ (George R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons)
A red star may not be bleeding above the sky, and given the intensity of summer heat in Western New York, darkness is not gathering. Smoke and salt, however, are certainly bellowing through the air. Their conception has birthed a summer of haze and forgetfulness – the edges of vision (and memory) are tinged with fuzziness. Even worse is the fuzziness in the lungs. Each breath that sucked in the dense matrix of acrid prophecy has turned into a foreign action. At least that’s how I felt wandering through the vineyards south of Lake Erie one Wednesday this summer.
On my days off, I like to wander around the countryside with a camera. Each hill and valley hides beautiful sights. These walks have been exercises in different aspects of photography; sometimes I’ve focused on composition, other times on lighting, or on colors. I’ve often been inspired by a movie or book when I’ve set out on these walks. Directors such as Akira Kurosawa, Hayao Miyazaki, or Jordan Peele capture landscapes and environments in ways that engage my imagination with wind-blown grasslands, enormous clouds gliding gently over hills, or dark landscapes lit by only distant towns. On this walk, it wasn’t a movie that captured my eye, but a book: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. The author depicts a landscape dense with a physical and psychological fog that obscures the world and the memory of the world. How Ishiguro described the world felt eerily similar to my own. Could I capture this on film?
I decided to set out with my Pentax K1000 and 50mm f1.7 SMC-M lens – a combination that felt fitting for the gray ruggedness of the hills. Loaded with HP5+ at box speed and a tripod, I set out to see what fuzziness I could capture. Within minutes of leaving my apartment, the smoke clogged my lungs. I had checked the air quality before leaving and, like every other day, it was bad. The lighting was otherworldly – bright sunlight was diffused through the dense air. I walked through quiet neighborhoods and took some test shots to get used to metering on a new (to me) light meter. These shots were not as interesting to me, except for the barn against the forest.
I continued down the road as the houses disappeared and the trees became more dense. The sidewalk gave way to grassy street edges and stone alleys. Eventually, the dense trees covering the road parted to reveal the acrid sky.
Beneath this sky were rollings hills covered in vineyards as far as could be seen through the smoke. I wandered down the road further and found vineyards dotted with billboards touting former-president Trump’s supposed excellence. The smoke blurred the distant houses of the owners – the edges of which melted away to reveal erie, desolate buildings. I walked further and further (at this point, I had been walking for about two hours) and observed the gentle breeze swaying the rows of vines. On the breeze was the sour smell of smoke – at first pleasant, almost campfire-like, then acidic and choking. The trees through which I came swayed with this same foul breeze, though their movements were half hidden by the smoke. I continued on, looking through the Pentax’s viewfinder and the horrifying beauty around.
I came up to the hill that would lead me back to town and the semi-clean air of my apartment. The once golden and swaying fields were now gray and stagnant. The wind disappeared and left a still landscape. I followed the road closer to town and watched as the once-open fields and vineyards became dense trees yet again. I looked back at the dense air behind me, where those fields and vineyards had been. I continued searching for the path behind me as I walked home. I took a last look from my front door at the sidewalk from which I came – the sidewalk that dissolved into gray nothing.
I sent the roll of HP5 to Reformed Film Lab and awaited the results. When I received the scans back, I had forgotten what the landscape had looked like. In the interim, the smoke had receded and brilliant blue skies populated with bright, puffy clouds returned. Yet since that walk, the smoke has returned and left in ambiguous cycles. Sometimes when I look at the sky, I can’t remember the last time I saw blue or gray. When the smoke comes again, will we remember blue skies? Will we remember the sweet, cool breeze in our lungs? Will climate change rob us of Earthly memories? I hope that as photographers, we can document this tragedy and prevent the encroaching smog of time and greed from robbing us of our collective memories. What will come of smoke and salt?
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