29 January 2008

Let There Be Light

LUND--The day had been warm, or what could reasonably pass for warm in January in Sweden. Skåne (Scania in English) the southern tip of Sweden, is bounded by water on three sides and washed by the Gulf Stream. Consequently the temperatures rarely go far below freezing despite Lund being at a North latitude of 55 degrees and Wooster at not quite 41 degrees. My friend Michelle, who lives in Cincinnatti, a farther south latitude even than Wooster, said in her last e-mail that the cold was so intense that it sucked the air from her lungs. To date it has never been that cold here.

Still, this much farther north the nights come early and most days are grey and cloud-bound. Here in Skåne there is a constant wind, blowing down from the Arctic and across from Russia one way and across the North Atlantic the other. You find yourself walking down the street, constantly blinded by tears. It sounds grim.

It often is grim. In December there were eight hours of sunshine but I may, in my writings, given too dark an impression. I have not, in re-reading them, spoken of the warm light cast inside by candles and orange paper stars or the talk and and generous gatherings that these northlanders use themselves to get through these months.

It is always easier to write of the bad, the annoying, the hardships -- to become lost in the words of winter and dislocation. As well, I tend to write of these things regardless of climate. Perversely, it is easy enough to share pain with the world. Joy is a private thing, fragile and rare--a thing that one does not speak or write of lightly in fear that it may go away when it is so rarely had. It is easy enough to tell you of everyday trouble but harder to speak of simple happiness or of terror.

This move has been difficult. For over ten years amidst all my jobs and wanderings I never accepted my life or home in Wooster. I never unpacked to stay. I was never preparing my house for a life but was always preparing to leave. As such things happen it was only there, at the very end, that the Ohio air became unbearably sweet and clear and I could feel that the friends and community loved me as well or better than I loved them. And I left them in the fullness of that. I left my family and my friends, new friends and friends that in the course of my stay had become old and trusted friends. I left there and I left them with three suitcases and what I could carry on a plane to go to a woman I loved but in many ways barely knew. It was the only thing I could do. I had thought so long about her, and for so long about leaving, that had I not gone I would have damned myself as a coward for the rest of my days though no one else would have. And there, at the end, the incentives to stay were many. Still, I went.

I will write more of the joy because it is there. I see that I have done a similar disservice to Central America, made it a land of little but sickness and poverty and death and Scandinavia little but unfriendly clean darkness. Neither are accurate. The clouds sometimes clear and there is a little more blue and a little less grey. The night now is cold and clear and the light of the moon is brighter than many of the days so far. In the dead of winter the light is something like I have never seen. It seems to touch nothing, to be a fluid through which things move untouched, but the light, when it is strong, seems like it could last forever.

PS-And in the interests of full disclosure my Lena, in a fit of pique at my melancholic writing, began a photo blog proving I am not, in fact, moping around all the time... www.tonninsweden.blogspot.com

20 January 2008

Weather Report

Yesterday the sky was brilliant blue. I would have taken a picture but my camera was loaded with black and white. Today the sky was back to normal.

18 January 2008

Positively Negative

SAN CARLOS, MEXICO--Andrew Tonn stands on a small island just offshore San Carlos, Mexico on the Sea of Cortez toasting the day with a Negro Modelo. Dr. Jake Kuttothara photo

LUND--I recently bought a negative scanner from my friend Jesse Ewing, a Nikon Coolscan V ED. I had wanted one for a long time, having thousands of rolls of processed film waiting for some attention. I had, for the last years, been making do with a good Canon flatbed with film inserts my father had given me a long time ago, but the process was very slow and the results not quite satisfactory as the inserts never held the film quite flat (among other technical issues). Over the past six years or so on my Central American and Mexican expeditions I shot enough film to fill two five-inch binders. Much of it, since I only had the film processed and not printed, has never seen the light of day as finished images, either digital or as prints. Much of it, undoubtedly, never will.

Before I moved to Sweden in October one of the tasks I had to finish was the filing of those negatives, those and many others. I succeeded in collecting together all of the Latin American negatives (most I had already sleeved) and arranged them in binders by trip (Honduras February 2000, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico September 2001-May 2002, Mexico January-February 2004, Honduras, Guatemala, February-March 2005, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, February-May 2006 and El Salvador, June-July 2007). I thought the negative filing would take perhaps six or seven hours. In fact it took me about 36 hours of work and not long after I was done I remembered an aluminum case under my bed. I pulled it out and it was full of unfiled negatives though, luckily, not from Latin America. Rather than enduring a nervous breakdown I gently closed the case and slid it back under the bed. Due mostly to limited luggage space I brought with me only the Latin American negatives and the ones I shot in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But I also could have mailed the rest or found some way and there is a reason I did not. Those who know me well know how grimly tired I had become of Central America. While on my last trip to El Salvador I think I did some of my best photo work. I still, however, felt I had become dull to it. I was sick of the smells and the language and the everyday trials and my eyes were bored. I needed new lands to photograph, new sights, unfamiliar situations before I could re-approach that area which I do love so much. Within that, however, I needed to, need to, finish so much of the work I have accumulated over these past seven or eight years--to evaluate, catalog, print, publish and finally, at least to some degree, put aside those negatives and files and films and tapes so I can move on to new ones. Even if, or when, I hope, I go back to Central America I need to have a handle on what I have missed, what I have done and where to go with a new and fresh eye.

So, since the scanner arrived I have been sitting for hours listening to its whining grind and then watching as fractions of a second from years gone by appear on the screen. It is strange seeing these images here in wintery Scandinavia. It is strange to actually be "overseas." One often bandies the word "overseas" about whenever one leaves the United States (at least to go anywhere other than Mexico or Canada). In conversation people would often refer to my trips as "overseas" and I admit at times to falling into that trap myself. At the risk of stating the obvious, however, Central, and for that matter South America are not in any way overseas. They are "The Americas," and you can walk there, take the bus, get in your car and drive. So, while it was often strange being in an Ohio winter and looking at my more southern photos it never was as odd as this. There, if I needed another look I could hop on the bus and go look. Catch a plane early in the morning and be there by lunchtime. Once more, being obvious, everywhere is close to somewhere. Central America is relatively close to The United States but far from Sweden. In Sweden you could go to Poland for the weekend on a ferry. Hop on a plane and Afghanistan isn't all that far away.

The photos come up on screen, digitized ghosts of silver halide grains, cold scanner light and 0s and 1s illuminating the little squares that were altered years before by sun and lamplight in countries that are, at present, far overseas. I plan, now, on this blog, to regularly post some of these photos along with short stories of how they were taken. So keep coming back. As well, my readers, let me know what you would like to hear about Sweden, what images you would like to see. All too quickly, the strange and foreign becomes mundane.

12 January 2008

Grey Skies and Night

LUND--The local paper's weather section read that in December there had been EIGHT HOURS of sunshine. This somehow came as no surprise and January has been little different. There probably has been a little more sunlight but it all comes in the morning and can be gone by the time you look out the window, see that there are blue skies, throw on your boots and parka and walk down two flights of stairs.

Yesterday, there was no sunshine at all but we decided on a little adventure anyway. I have always been fascinated by the edges of places, the periphery, borders, farthest points and little visited places on the edges of maps. I am fully aware that there is usually nothing in these places but I find a certain satori in the physical mapping of land beneath my own two feet, to trace the edges of a land by foot.

We set out from Lund in the car bound for the southernmost tip of Sweden in the town of Smygehamn. We drove through small villages on back roads, villages not unlike rural Midwestern communities although possessed of fewer churches. Skåne is much like Ohio, as I have written before, meandering country roads and small towns surrounded by farms. Each small town even seems to have one house on the outskirts whose yard is littered with junked cars, cannibalized farm equipment and other detritus of human living. A slow rain fell from the uniform grey skies and the closer we got to Smygehamn and the actual point at Smygehuk, the stronger was the wind.

The village was a small, seaside town filled with artisan shops and closed restaraunts, shuttered hotels and campgrounds that in summer are undoubtedly full of life but in this season show their age and wear. At the point there is a monument and a small harbor and a snack shop that didn't advertise itself as the last chance for a herring burger before Germany and Poland. It was obviously not run by an American who would have been unable to resist a "Southernmost Snack Shoppe" sign.

We walked to the point and there is the obligatory monument. This one told us in granite that Moscow and Paris are as far away, more or less, as the farthest point North. At the far tip of Sweden in January the waves roll in and it is grey. There is no color. The sea is grey and the land is grey. The grass is grey; the sky and clouds are grey. The docks and boats are grey. Only the caps on the waves are not grey. They are white. Near the point there is a sculpture near an old lime-kiln. It is the masts of a ship coming out of the ground. It is grey as well.

You can feel the weight of the long phallic forested rock of Sweden leaning on top of you. Or maybe you can't. But you can feel that North is only forest and rock and cold, cold lakes and down there, down across that grey, flat water is land worth conquering, invading, pillaging. No reason to come here. We shall go there.

I crawled through the old lime-kiln, into its heart where the fire once was, and thought how cold it had become. We met in the middle and for a moment it was not so cold. We crawled out and walked down the beach and I found that some of the rocks had smooth holes drilled though them by time. I took a lot of photos and then found that the Summicron lens of my Leica had a fine beading of water over it. I haven't seen the film yet but I am expecting an unexpected soft focus.

We left there and drove to Ystad. On the way we stopped at an ancient stone rectangle. Yes, rectangle, not circle. And a very nice rectangle it was. Grey.

06 January 2008

Global Cuisine

LUND--Bored with scanning negatives of sunny Central America on a snowy Swedish night I decided to engage in a spot of culinary self-entertainment. I walked down to the square though the slush and as usual the kebab stand was playing excellent music. I wandered through the aisles of the grocery store and bought some Spanish chorizo with which I was planning a spicy red lentil stew, some crusty bread and some eggs and cream with which to practice my creme brulé. I thought that if there was one great thing about globalization and the shrinking of the world and its borders it was the availability of exotic, multi-national ingredients. I remembered a story I had read about an American airman interned in neutral Sweden during the second world war when his plane couldn't make it back to Britain. He had said something to the order of, "I really liked the Swedish people and nothing bad happened to me while I was there, but I couldn't eat fish for about 15 years afterwards..."

So I counted my blessings of not being on an enforced diet of all the wonderful ways one can prepare herring. I was on my way back to the flat when I saw a new sign in the window of McDonald's. It advertised two burgers, the El Maco Grande and the El Nacho and read, "A Swedish tradition...from Mexico." Of course there are some things in life one cannot resist and I popped in and ordered an El Nacho which turned out to be a more or less regular cheeseburger topped with corn chips. At present I cannot yet report on the nature of the El Maco Grande. But I munched my crunchy traditional Swedish-Mexican McDonald's sandwich and thought that I should have ordered a pie. Sometimes they have cloudberry pies (a very Swedish berry along with the lingonberry) in deference to local tastes just as in Central America McDonald's often has pineapple pies. I was, for a moment, very proud to be an American until I remembered that only on foreign soil can one get the old-fashioned fried McDonald's pies. Apparently it is only Americans who have to eat the insipid baked pies, who cannot be trusted with the hot filling. Swedes seem to be able to handle it. Ditto for Mexicans, Guatemalans and Hondurans. Maybe other countries are as inept as the US at the eating of fast-food pies. I vowed to investigate. And, in general, to eat more pie.