fig. 22: Anne Brigman
Camera Craft, Vol. 33, No. 4, April 1926

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What 291 Means to Me · The Glory of the Open

The Glory of the Open
by Anne Brigman, 1926

In Camera Craft for January, 1926, the leading article by my good friend, John Paul Edwards, has these telling lines:

"Even if one did not expose a plate, the soul is moved by the miracle of the morning - the song of birds - the sparkle of mist and dew."

And further on in his article:

"Let your things be subjective rather than objective. It is the light and shadow on a mountain that is pictorial rather than the mountain itself."

With patience Mr. Edwards gives a few simple technical directions (the size of the camera, a couple of ray filters and their density, what the plates should be) discusses briefly shutters and bellows and a perfect formula for tank development, and then goes up to the mountain peaks that he knows and loves and stays there - in this angle, lies the secret of creative work of any kind. It is because one is so filled with the vision that he cannot but portray it sooner or later.

There is a painting by Leonardo da Vinci called "The Architect." He is gray of beard and hair. He is dressed in some rich costume of that day. Beside him on a table lies his draughting board and a large sheet of vellum and a pencil. If I recall clearly he holds in one slender hand a pair of compasses. All of this is a wonderful pattern, but it revolves around one perfect point of interest, and that is the look that da Vinci painted - dreamed ahead of his brush and his pigment, even ahead of his marvelous draughtsmanship - the look in the eye of his "Architect." It is the look of one who sees his building in all its glory before he has put a line on the white sheet beside him. He is thinking through and beyond his medium.

This leads to the memory of last summer. Late in July I made up my mind that what ailed me was hunger-hunger for the clean, high, silent places, up near the sun and the stars. So into the tried and true dunnage sack went the sleeping bag, a big coat, a change of clothes and boots, a few toilet articles and two books-Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" and "Toward Democracy," by Edward Carpenter.

I looked at my 4x5 Korona View camera and the beloved Smith lens-NO! I was tired. I wanted to go and be free. I wanted the rough granite flanks of the mountains and the sweet earth. I wanted the stacatto song of wing around rocks and juniper branches. The little No. lA Ansco, with its 2 l/2 x 4 1/4 film, would do. I didn't want to work. I wanted to forget everything except that I was going back to heaven, back to heaven in my high boots, and trousers, and mackinaw coat. That was all I wanted.

It was blazing hot in the Sacramento Valley, but ahead lay the foothills of the Sierras - red hills of the days of gold, red hills on which the silver-gray squaw-pines grow. When we got to them, the red dust smothered us in the flying stage - but, what of it! One, so far in human experience, must die to go to heaven. Glimpses of snowy peaks like faint cloud-banks hung in the distance above the summer heat: And then the foothills became the base of the mountains and we rose among pine and fir where clear streams rushed under drooping alders; on and on we went until the timber line began to thin and jagged peaks cut black against the cloudless evening sky. Honey-sweet of sage and buckbrush filled the air, breath of the summer sun in the woods - outposts of God's high country.

The first day in the Municipal Camp was a failure. The trouble was with me - I didn't care. I didn't know the points of the compass - and I didn't care. I felt lost; I felt "punk" - and I didn't care. Somewhere up the highway, up through the forest in which the camp was located, was Echo Lake, and beyond six miles (on the contour map), was Desolation Valley, the trickiest and most beloved place I know; and still I didn't care. Malaria? No; indifference. It seemed to go clear to the bone. The second and third days were the same. Then, the balance shifted. That night I awoke suddenly - lightning and a long echoing roar of thunder. From my tent doorway I could see huge masses of cumulus clouds behind the dark ranges across the valley, while through the sombre drifts played javelins of forked light. Then I knew deep down that the "Kaumaha" (as the Hawaiians call it), the heaviness had gone.

The dregs of inertia stayed with me until noon the next day, and I started in a queer dumb way. The sky was cloudless like Kipling's "Pale, dry, healing blue." A smart breeze sang high in the tops of the forest. The knapsack held a snack of lunch, the Ansco and a little metal tripod, the nature of whose legs is to telescope into themselves. (I learned in my early childhood that "Job was the most patient man in the world" but he couldn't have been - collapsible metal tripods were not in use in his day!)

The road wound through tall woods and down a narrow way to a gentle finale becoming a part of the shore of Echo Lake. The lake itself lay flat and shimmering under the noon sunlight. I was negatively happy, but still was lost. Away up, beyond the reaches of the lake, the peaks that marked the region of Desolation Valley look insignificant and like the orthodox heaven - far, far away. So I poked along a weedy trail beside the lake until I came to a great old juniper. It was gnarled and had thunderous reiterated lines like a fugue by Bach and it grew out of a granite wall. At the base of the tree was a boulder, slim, square and upright like an altar; on its top I built a tiny fire of juniper wood as an offering to the Gods of the Mountain. It was comforting there; the lapping sound of the lake, the crackle of the fire, and an occasional whisper in the tree top.

Then I started up hill, fighting through manzanita and buckbrush. The heat was intense, for I was too far below the immediate peaks to get the breeze. Up and up, over granite, wind swept trees huddled in groups or scattered like frightened sheep - strange enough to look at, but seemingly not pictorial. It was too hot to go further, so I took refuge under a low juniper, the knapsack for a pillow. Red ants came out and skated over me and bit me, and when I knocked them off they hurried back in a most undaunted fashion for new onslaught. Perhaps I dozed in spite of them for suddenly, again, came the thrilling sound of the night before - the sound that made the rest of the two weeks full to the brim for me - the sound of thunder! I reared to my elbow. Rising over the range to the east and banked as far as I could see each way were glorious cumulus clouds, summer thunder-clouds, full of motion and mutterings. They were coming in battalions across the sky; they were chariots of the wind; they were all argosies of the air in full sail; and the beauty of these cloud forms and their velvety shadows brought into form trees that had looked like stark nonentities, and the glaring granite took on a mysterious loveliness from their own shadows.

There is a story of an old fisherman who was a "whiz" at catching trout:

"Do you play them a long time?" he was asked.

"Naw," he answered. "I pull 'em in as quick as God'll let me."

To get those shadows, a time exposure was necessary and when I put on the K.1 ray filter I had to make exposures of such duration, that the memory of it still scares me. I simply held my breath and counted all the counts I dared. I have basic knowledge, but then my paraphernalia was so limited that I had to launch out into another dimension - a kind of swan dive - and I hit right!

Desolation Valley, I wonder who gave it that name? It is primeval; it is austere; it is forbidding; it is sinister; and yet, with all it is most radiant and beautiful. It is not a place for a lawn party, or golf links - it is full of little lakes besides the great artificial one - ghostlike dead trees - and high wild peaks - wind swept and snowmantled, tower above it, but there is a lure like the lure of the desert. Strange junipers and pines have lived in its granite clefts and high spurs for thousands of years and more, while meadows of wild flowers run riot everywhere around the little lakes.

I realized early in my use of the camera that the nearer the ground, in most instances, that I came with it, the better the sky line. The day I went into Desolation Valley - this primitive knowledge was a guardian angel. The tripod acted like a contortionist, all swivel joints and unlocked for tricks. I do not know why it was not cast out on the rocks or left to rust, but I put it doggedly back into the knapsack for the rest of the wonderful time.

In all of my years of work with the lens (since 1906) I've dreamed of and loved to work with the human figure - to embody it in rocks and trees, to make it part of the elements, not apart from them, even as Edward Carpenter writes:

"How the human body bathed in the sheen
and wet, steeped in sun and air,
Moving near and nude among the elements
Matches somehow and interprets the whole of nature.
How from shoulder to foot of mountain and man
alike the lines of grace run on;
How, as the Greeks dreamed, in rock and rill
divinest forms lie shrined, or in the wild woods lurk embodied."

Rare humans, rare in their minds as well as in their slim, fine bodies, have given me of their simple beauty and freedom, that I might weave them into the sagas of these wind swept trees on high peaks.

I knew no one, and, as I said a while back, cared nothing. Then came the storm weather and with it, the joy of working - light on a dark mountain lake, glories of sunrise, cloud masses, and strange trees. One day on one of my wanderings I found a juniper - the most wonderful juniper that I've met in my eighteen years of friendship among them. It had the glorious strength, the uplift, and the wind-kissed motion of the Victory of Samothrace. I sat down a short distance from it. It was a great character like the Man of Gallilee or Moses the Law-giver, or the Lord Buddha, or Abraham Lincoln - on the ground, tailor wise - the knapsack beside me - looking up to my beautiful friend. After a while I walked around the wonder tree not so tall but lovely in proportion - looked at its battleship wedge-front and its broad back base. Away from the weather its bark was shining and tawny as a lion's mane. Green-yellow moss grew along its branches and into the foliage, while the delicate gray-ivory front of the tree shone with a rippling satiny radiance of its own. Storm and stress well borne made it strong and beautiful. I climbed into it. Here was the perfect place for a figure; here the place for the right arm to rest, and even though my feet were made clumsy by boots, I could see and feel where the feet would fit perfectly into the cleft that went to its base.

Once again I stood away from the tree. I might not see it again, but to know it was worthwhile. It was about 2 o'clock in the afternoon, I noticed its half lights, its few big shadows, the superb mass of its foliage and the lovely convolution of the branches. I'd clear away the debris about its base, even though I'd never see it again. There was a husky log, an old pine giant weary of life and gone long ago. It was rolled over the cliff, and some fair sized boulders followed; there were white pebbles and sticks, little high lights that had no meaning in the scheme of things, and here and there in the tree itself small extraneous branches and cross-purpose ones. These were removed, and I told my tree adios and went back to camp through the evening light.

Perhaps, because I wasn't in sackcloth and ashes about this tree, or concerned as to what would happen in these two weeks, the Gods of the Mountain in their inscrutable ways brought to me everything, and to crown all, a lovely human. This human knew nothing of my work with mountain trees, but was willing to go to the wonder-tree and there, in this high, lone place, with the lame duck camera, between hail showers from racing clouds and glorious sunlight, the film of the print INVICTUS came to birth.

Note: All of Anne Brigman's films of this particular summer had to be intensified. Her films are always carried into the positive (transparency form), process films being used, and from this into the enlarged negative.

100 Years of California Photography by Women

All text compiled by Peter E. Palmquist

Camera Fiends & Kodak Girls II:
60 Selections By and About Women in
Photography, 1855-1965.
New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1995.