2018 - A Solstice in Gray

Into the Long Night - Saco Heath

Just over an hour before sunset, with my camera belt strapped to my waist and traction spikes on my boots, I set off into the fog-blanketed gloom of the Saco Heath Preserve. Unseasonably warm rain pattered on the hood of my raincoat, and for once I was all alone as I traveled the slick boardwalk that wends through the woods and fragile marshlands.

The sparse heath and leaden sky seemed to me a fitting send-off for the final daylight of a year suffused with gloom. From a global perspective, the fact that the world didn't end in nuclear fire was perhaps the best thing that could be said for 2018. While political and cultural turmoil swept across the globe, along the way battering or obliterating the pillars of order and freedom that shaped the world my parents and I grew up in, illness and death also hit close to home for my family. Few people I suspect, will be sad to see this past year recede into memory.

Yet even on a wet and miserable winter day, there are glimpses of life and beauty on the Saco Heath. Shrubs and trees that have adapted to its hostile soil persist from year to year, and even in the deepest part of winter still to come, there will be green, living things to be seen there. In that too, the Heath seems a fitting place to see out the waning year, for there were victories and triumphs in my life since the last winter solstice as well.

The fading of the light isn't blatant the way it is on a clear day. Rather than brilliant gold sun being swallowed into blue twilight, the gray filling the sky merely grows imperceptibly deeper with every moment, the steadily climbing Auto-ISO numbers on my camera revealing what my eyes don't fully experience. At 4:08pm the alarm on my phone goes off, telling me that somewhere beyond the gray, the sun is at that moment vanishing below the horizon. I turn towards where the sun would be if I could see it, and shoot this photo, capturing the moment the world around me slipped quietly into the Longest Night.

Sony A7iii w/Sony 16-35mm f4 @21mm

ISO8000 1/20 f6.3

Processed in Capture One and finished in Photoshop

Deep of the Long Night - Personal Fire

Deep into the night, I set off for Portland to shoot what I thought could be quite interesting photos. When my first shooting location didn't pan out, I headed to what I considered my “plan B,” where, after a treacherous hour of negotiating slick rocks in the rain, I fundamentally failed to capture the shot I had envisioned. Frustrated, sore, and soaked to the bone with chill water, I retreated to my car for the return trip home.

So, because sometimes the most powerful light in the darkness is the one we create for ourselves, I decided to build for myself a tiny fire to beat back the night. I was limited in the scope of what I could make, not having yet managed to get the permits required to have even a camp fire. Instead I sawed up some fatwood/rich lighter into small pieces and built a hot, smoky little fire in an antique cast iron cauldron. The following quite enjoyable forty minutes or so of turning my camera to the heart of the fire in the deep of the longest night went a long way to soothing the frustration I felt at the failure of my grander plans for the second photo of my solstice vigil.

Sony A7iii w/Nikkor 55mm f3.5 AI

ISO1250 1/320

Processed in Capture One and finished with Topaz Studio

End of the Long Night - Rural Substation

The dawn of the waxing year came gradually, without a blazing sun rising to banish the night. Instead, the world around me slowly and evenly brightened, as behind thick shrouding clouds the sun began its march across the sky. The sun didn't even create a brighter spot against the flat, even, gray filling the world. Without the Photographer's Ephemaris to tell me where and when the sun was rising, I would have been unable to pinpoint its location or note when exactly the waxing year had begun. After a half hour past sunrise, I reluctantly returned home to finally get some rest.

Sony A7iii w/Minolta MD 35-70 f3.5 Macro

ISO ISO500 1/60

Processed in Capture One and Photoshop

Through the Long Night in Three Photos

Of all the celestial holidays, none resonate as strongly for me as the Long Night of the Winter Solstice. Poised at the cusp between the waning and waxing year, the Long Night is a pause in the flow of time. That moment between birth and a baby's first breath when all things horrifying and glorious feel equally possible, when the world holds its breath, waiting for an answer to the eternal question of “what's next?”

For several years, photographing the sunrise that ends the Long Night has been a tradition of mine. It is my way of acknowledging the return of hope and light in a dark world. This year however, I decided to incorporate my art into the fullness of my Long Night vigil. 


Part I – Into the Dark

The sun is already near to kissing the horizon when I arrive at the Camp Ellis pier for the first of my three shoots of the Solstice. The night's cold fingers are already caressing the dock when I get down to the place I've chosen for the first of my photos. Against an almost painfully empty sky, save for a few flaming clouds in the west, the dying sun's warm rays fight a loosing battle with the cool blue of fast encroaching shadows. 

Then, so fast one could blink and miss it, the sun is gone from the world; the Long Night has gripped my little corner of the world. 

Fuji X-T1 w/Rokinon 21mm f1.4
ISO 200, 1/350s, f11
Processed in Capture One & Photoshop

Part II – Heart of the Night

The midpoint between dusk and dawn sees me back at the pier, but this time I haven't come alone. Despite being unwell, my husband has elected to join me for this part of my photography-vigil. Neither of us wanted the other to be alone in the deep of the Long Night, when tradition holds that we gather with friends and loved ones to shelter against the darkness. 

The sight that greets us on arrival is part of the reason why I choose the location I did. Throughout history people have sought to beat back the night, and this night perhaps more than any other. The icy white of the pier's high-output lamps create a welcoming oasis of light, even in the Solstice's darkest hour.

As untold generations have before us, we draw comfort from that light, and from the knowledge that we are together, and not completely alone in the night. 

Fuji X-T1 w/Rokinon 21mm f1.4
ISO 250, 1/20s, f2.8
Processed in Capture One & Photoshop w/Topaz B&W

Part III – Daybreak

The sky is already lightening by the third and final time I return to the pier. The pale blue sky speaks of low clouds, though when I arrive there is a cloud break to the north that is beginning to turn pink with the coming dawn. 

Ten minutes later, as I am scanning the sky for any sign of the sun, just as my five-minute-until-sunrise alarm goes off, I notice that the promising patch of clear sky has been swallowed by clouds. Almost simultaneously, I become aware of a hissing sound familiar to those of us in the northern latitudes: fine particles of ice and snow skittering against the outer-shell of one's hood. 

By 7:11am, my first sunrise of the waxing year, the pier and I have been engulfed in a driving snow squall. I hold out as long as I can, but eventually the freezing wind forces a retreat. The sky beyond my windshield has warmed to a slate gray, heralding the return of the as-yet invisible waxing sun as I pull out of the parking lot. 

The Long Night is over, and I end my vigil having hailed the returning sun in absentia. This year of all years, when hope is a scarcity, it is tough not to see it as a troubling omen. 

Fuji X-T1 w/Fuji 35mm f2 WR
ISO 1250, 1/60s, f3.2
Processed in Capture One & Photoshop

Note - These photos, as with a ton of my landscape, astrophotography, and sunrise/sunset photos would not be possible without the amazing resource that is The Photographer’s Ephemeris