I grew up on the outskirts of the city. We had just over five acres of land, the last remaining parcel of a 6o acre farm that my grandfather purchased in the early 1940's. It was the land where my father spent most of his life, and in 1975 he bought it from my grandfather. To my relatives, it was always known as "The Farm".
Our lot was bordered by a rundown RV campground to the north, a major highway (on land expropriated from my grandfather) to the south, a river to the east and our front road to the west. The house was a fairly small two bedroom house. There was a large dining room, living-room, kitchen and bathroom on the main floor, and two small bedrooms up a steep set of stairs. The basement was little more than a damp, dark and dreary dug out. I didn't like going down there. The house was built by my grandpa and uncles, none were skilled carpenters at the time. Needless to say, there was not a square corner anywhere in the house. But it was home.
My dad rented out garden plots while reserving a large portion of the garden for his own, for growing things like peas, green onions, squash and cabbage for a local food store. My mom had her own private garden away from the bigger "operation". At one point there were sheep, chickens, some geese, a few wild turkeys and a one-eyed duck named "Peeper".
I remember learning to operate the little farm tractors that we had. I liked to watch the rough, winter weary earth transform into loose, fertile soil with the first tilling of spring. It was like we were waking up the soil for another season of work. I was so fascinated by this transformation, that as I drove the tractor down the field I would be looking behind me, watching the fresh earth churning up from the back of the tiller. So engrossed in the transformation, I would forget to watch where I was going. Thus, my rows were never straight. I would suddenly hear my mom shout, "Look where you are going, not where you've been!", just before I ran out of field. I heard that a lot when I was a kid.
And now, as an adult, I am once more hearing the echo of those words. And maybe I should have been looking forward a little more over the course of my life. The path I have made in my life resembles the rows of freshly tilled soil that was left behind the little tractor all those years ago. It has not been a straight line to this point, and I suspect it will continue that way.
Lately I have been finding myself looking back, as the road ahead is quite uncertain at the moment. I'm looking back to the beginning of my photography career (some 20 years ago) when it was exciting and new. When it was film, chemistry and darkrooms. Before digital, instagram, facebook and twitter. Before Photoshop and Lightroom, when getting it "right" in the camera was the way it was done because each frame of film had a little dollar sign attached to it. While I do enjoy the "modern age" and all the technology, I really miss those analog days.
My photographic past is what draws me to the wet plate collodion process. I get to use my hands to create photographs. I am looking at light again; how it falls on a subject, it's properties, it's colour. I appreciate the discipline that comes with the "slowness" of the process and the care and attention required when handling the chemistry. It's a process that demands respect, and when it is respected, it rewards with stunning results.
Over the last year and a half of working with and learning this process I have come to appreciate it more than ever. It is more than just a way to make a photo. It may be hard to understand, but it's is like working with a living being. Pouring the collodion onto the plate is like letting the Genie out of the bottle, be nice to it and you will get your wish.
With this antique photo process, I am finding less and less desire to pick up my digital camera, and more desire to work with cameras and processes of the past.
So what does all this have to do with a little kid driving a tractor down a field? Who knows? Maybe looking at where you have been can help you move forward, even if the path you make is a little crooked.
- - -
"The Farm" is now no more than a vacant lot (as far as I know at this time) My family was not able to develop it, build a new house or even sell it on the open market as it was "frozen" by the highways department for a future highway project. The property was sold to the Manitoba Highways Department in 1994~95. Nothing has been done with it. Nothing from my childhood remains there, the house was torn down, the driveway and gardens are overgrown. The river is a weed-bed that nearly dries up in the summer. The only thing that remain are the memories.