Freezing for Art…

What’s behind a picture…does it really tell the whole story? I love the moon…full or otherwise. I love the full, ripe, roundness of it. I love the waxing and the waning. The dark craters that create the man in the moon…or a rabbit…depending on your perspective. I love viewing through the telescope to see the edges of craters raw and ragged like barnacles on the keel of a ship. I love the jagged edges of a half moon and scanning the sky for the first thin sliver of a crescent after the darkness of the new moon. I love looking at the image tiny in my viewfinder and being enthralled when it looms large on my computer screen. I marvel at the distortion from our atmosphere and the colours bestowed by the setting sun. I was nearly traumatized during a trip to Mexico when I looked up into the sky and the crescent was the “wrong way” around. I don’t entirely remember if the word apocalypse entered my mind, but I do recall that the sight stopped me short, that I grabbed my husband’s arm and pointed excitedly, and that he chuckled at me. Okay, he might have been full blown laughing at me. Until that moment I never realized that the moon looks different from various perspectives on earth. My friends in Australia look up and see the same moon. If you want to feel close to someone far away, simply go out and look at the moon “together”.  It’s almost magical. The moon exhibits much character: in a clear night sky it is majesty illuminated; during the day, cheerful and cheeky like a child up past his bedtime; behind the fog and clouds sneakily shrouded in mystery; peering out behind bare tree branches eerily spooky or elegantly lacy; with crescents jaunty like the sky wearing a beret.

This first moon of 2020 is the Wolf Moon according to most native peoples. The time of year when hungry wolves could be heard howling outside of their villages. Each month, I like to try and capture the moon as close to the horizon as possible – not just to make it appear bigger but rather to provide a foreground. The foreground is easily changed simply by driving to a different setting and becomes seasonal as the year progresses and lends some context. Really and truly, once the moon has ascended past the horizon it is the same picture month after month. Not much variance unless the cold produces a halo or the clouds cloak it in mystery.  Speaking of clouds,  I swear the full moon generates them – a scientifically unsound statement to be sure, however, it is rather uncanny. I usually start my hunt for the shot I want a day before full (99.3%). If denied, then I still have the night of the actual full moon (100%) and another day after that, just in case. Don’t get me wrong…some of what I consider my best moon shots have involved clouds. Whereas a portrait photographer drapes backdrops, the clouds often serve the same purpose. 

My photos from January were taken on 2 separate nights. Winter in Northern Alberta is not for the faint of heart. On January 9th the temperature was -28C. The horizon looked free of clouds. A LOT of self argument was had:

“Full moon…let’s go!”

“Have you seen the temperature???”

“Yes, but I don’t see any clouds on the horizon”

“But you can’t see all the way down to the horizon, there might be clouds lower down”

“But there might not be. We could just pack the camera and drive down to check”

“But you’ll never get dressed and out in time, you waited too long to decide”

“Then we’ll have to hurry”

“I still think Netflix is a better option but okay, warm up the car”

I wish my Fitbit could measure the calories spent squirming into long-johns, ski-pants, fleece hoodie, ski jacket, neck warmers, hat, heavy socks, skidoo boots, running gloves inside fingerless mitts with hand warmers pinned inside. I felt like Randy from a Christmas story and now I had to wrangle camera gear. 

As I got to my spot, I could see F-18 fighter jets chasing each other in the sky. My frigid fingers were crossed that one would fly by the moon and I would capture it. It was then that my tripod decided to break, so it was hand-held all the way. Miserably cold now holding a heavy camera and lens with little protection for my fingers, and, because it was handheld, I knew there would be camera shake. How cold was it? I had my cheek pressed against the LED screen as I looked through the viewfinder – my cheek FROZE to the viewfinder (which I didn’t realize until I pulled my face away and a small part of it wanted to remain…ouch!)  I did my level best but the lack of functioning tripod and the cold was daunting. I was sure nothing good had come of this outing. My fingers were screaming at me.  I packed it in and went home. I was frickin’ cold. (note to dear reader, the F words used in this essay do not reflect the true words used by the author. The air around me was not only cold…it was blue!)

I found a relatively easy fix for the tripod and determined the next night to try again if the clouds stayed at bay. The next night it was -32 and the self talk took a little longer to convince me to leave the house. It ended with me making a promise to myself…a few quick shots, see if the tripod holds up and then home. Warmed the car, suited up again, grabbed the gear and left the house. It really didn’t seem much worse than the day before but I didn’t stop to consider that in front of the house I was fairly sheltered. I drove down the road towards my site and could now see clouds on the horizon.

“Shoot!”

“Good…turn around and go home, it’s cold. You tried”

“Just a test shot or two. There was waaaay too much effort involved in getting ready to just give up now.” I literally pleaded with myself.

“Ugh, you’re so bloody stubborn!”

Parked the car, dragged out the camera (already on the tripod to minimize needing my fingers outside) and walked around the car to where I was now standing on the bald prairie, no shelter with what I now realized was a fairly significant wind. Windchill at -32 is brutal.

“We should go home”

“But the camera is all set up. You survived this far!”

“But there’s clouds!”

“But if you look up, there is a strip of bare sky and if the moon hurries up, we can catch  it between the clouds. It might be nice”

“But it’s freaking cold! The strip of sky is getting narrower, the moon won’t make it that far in time”

“But it might”

“But it’s flippin’ freezing!!!! And we have to keep our back to the wind which means you’re looking in the wrong direction! The shutter release cord is frozen stiff and we will soon be in the same condition! We should just go home”

“Start the car and we’ll sit and wait awhile.”

“It’s not happening, the moon is stuck behind the cloud, there is no point!”

“Another test shot, I’m sure I can see a bit of glow”

“Ugh, fingers are screaming again…please go home!”

“Just a few more minutes…in the car. It’ll be fine”

“No really, this is insanity!”

“There it is, it’s going to pop out of the clouds!”

“But you realize we will have to stand in the wind to get this shot”

“It won’t take long, I promise!”

Long story short, commitment persevered over sense. The moon, in fact cooperated nicely in between the thin band of opportunity where the clouds didn’t quite meet. I was relieved that the cloud break didn’t last so I no longer had to argue with myself. The discomfort from the cold was enough to bring tears, which considering the conditions would have meant instant ice rivers. How Elsa does it I’ll never understand…I guess I need a better cartoonist. I drove home happy I had accomplished my goal, the tripod worked again, and, thankfully the car’s defrost worked well on my frozen fingers. I knew I had pushed the limit of my endurance.

It turned out that a few good shots were captured on those frigid days. I was most pleasantly surprised to find that I had indeed captured an F-18 against the full moon. It’s not my best shot. The larger I make it, the more the camera shake is apparent. Nonetheless, I felt like I had championed the cold! I really liked the F-18 shot and I sent it to the local military newspaper thinking they might be able to share it with the pilots who were flying that day. They ended up printing it and it turned out not to be too bad at all! I was pretty pleased with myself. The very first time any of my photos found their way to press. Not my best picture and taken in less than desirable conditions. Go figure. There would be no third night. Alberta headed into a deep-freeze that would take a week to shake…temperatures as low as -39 with windchills of -49. No amount of arguing with myself would have moved me then! I was just very thankful that during that time the Lady Aurora didn’t decide to make an appearance. Now THAT would have been an argument!

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