Thursday, April 12, 2018

Images and ink (38)


Image: Mountain birch grove on Yake-dake, photo by Alpine Light & Structure

Ink: From the poem "Mountain woods" by Takamura Kōtarō, translated by Hiroaki Sato:

The framework of Japan, not any other country,
 exists sternly in mountain woods. 
Our country's reason for being in the world
must be based on this framework. 
Maple branches are burning in the hearth. 
Today I talked with a charcoal burner about dairy farming. 
May rain falls ceaselessly, 
in the quiet village which has finished rice-planting 
cuckoos are making chordal dots. 
The past is remote, and so is the future.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Brief idyll

How a visit to Kamikōchi, with some help from Mr and Mrs Weston, brought together two Taishō-era artists

Takamura Kotaro and Chieko
Readers of Nihon Hyakumeizan encounter the sculptor Takamura Kōtarō and his wife Chieko in Chapter 21. A poem by Takamura portrays the artist couple sitting on the slopes of Adatara-yama, a 1,700-metre mountain in Fukushima Prefecture. There’s hardly a hint in the Hyakumeizan chapter of the sad trajectory of Chieko’s life, which Takamura would later immortalise in a series of poems.

It turns out that mountains had earlier helped to bring Takamura and Chieko together. The story of their visit to Kamikōchi in the Japan Alps is described in a prose memoir of Chieko’s life that Takamura wrote two years after his bereavement. While staying in that mountain valley, the couple met several luminaries of Japan’s mountaineering and artistic scene, as Takamura records...

It was Chieko's pure, single-minded love that finally pulled me out of my go-for-broke mood of decadence and saved me. For the two months of August and September in the second year of Taishō, I stayed at the Shimizu-ya in Kamikōchi, Shinshu, and made fifty to sixty oil paintings for the Seikatsusha's exhibition that I held with Kishida Ryusei, Kimura Sohachi, and others at the Venus Club in Kanda that fall.

In those days, anybody who wanted to go to Kamikōchi used to start from Shimajima, go through Iwanadome, and over the Tokugō Pass; it was quite a distance. During that summer, staying in the same inn were Kubota Utsubo and Ibaragi Inokichi, as well as Mr and Mrs Weston who had just come to climb Hodaka.


View of Kamikochi, woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi
As September began, Chieko came to visit me with painting materials. When notified of this, I went over the Tokugō Pass to meet her at Iwanadome. Leaving her luggage to her guide, she had climbed lightly dressed. The mountain people were surprised at what a good walker she was. I guided her, again crossing the Tokugō Pass, this time with her, to Shimizu-ya.

Her joy at the scenery in Kamikōchi was great. From then on we walked around, making drawings, with me carrying our art supplies on my shoulders. At the time she appeared to have some minor problem with her pleurae, but while on the mountains it didn't develop into anything serious. It was then that I saw her paintings for the first time. She had a considerably subjective view of nature that was in a way unique, and I thought that it would be interesting if she grew to be great.


Kamikochi was used as a pasture for horses and cattle from 1885 to 1934.

I painted everything I observed: Hodaka, Myōjin, Yaketake, Kasumizawa, Roppyakutake, the Azusa River. Even in her sickbed in later years Chieko would look at one of the self-portraits I did at the time. Once the Westons asked me if Chieko was my younger sister or my wife. When I said she was a friend of mine, they smiled with some incredulity.


Bridge over the Azusa River
If the Westons and the Takamuras had sought to change the subject, they might have talked about the bulls. In those days, cattle and horses were grazed at Kamikōchi over the summer. In The Playground of the Far East, Walter Weston describes how he and Mrs Weston met a "fierce monster" during their evening walk, which they escaped only by dashing for cover in different directions. Something similar happened to the Takamuras. The incident is recorded in one of the Chieko poems:

Ah, you are so frightened because
You saw what just passed
Like a spectre,
thundering through those black pines,
an avalanche in this zone of deep silence,
now completely gone,
that cattle herd on a mad run....

Soon, unfortunately, the couple had more to worry about than stampeding cows. Kōtarō takes up the story again:

About that time, with the headline "Love on the Mountain", a newspaper in Tokyo wrote with exaggeration about the two of us in Kamikōchi. It had probably expanded on a rumor from someone who had gone down the mountain. The article again grated on the nerves of our families.


Autumn scene in Kamikochi

On the first of October all of us on the mountain went down to Shimajima. The magnificence of the yellow leaves of the katsura trees that filled the bosom of the mountain at the Tokugō Pass was unforgettable. Chieko, too, often recalled it and talked about it.

The newspaper article worried Takamura’s parents, with the result that, a year later, he asked them to let him marry Chieko. This they did, allowing the couple to set up a household in Takamura's atelier. And after that, he records, "for a very long stretch of time we lived in poverty".

References

A brief history of imbecility: poetry and prose of Takamura Kōtarō, translated by Hiroaki Sato, University of Hawaii Press. All quotations in italics are translations by Hiroaki Sato.

Photos of the bridge and the horses grazing at Kamikochi are by courtesy of the Chubu Regional Forestry Office.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Mrs Main, mountain photographer

How a hard-driving Victorian alpinist advanced the art of high-altitude camera-work

Up on Piz Palü, the triple-headed ridge that towers 3,901 metres into the sky above Switzerland’s Engadine valley, a slight figure is seen wrestling with an unwieldy camera. In the early 1890s, all cameras are unwieldy. A long exposure will be needed for the “slow plate” to record a distant view of Piz Verona, as glimpsed against a backdrop of boiling afternoon clouds. Surprisingly, and against all convention, the lens is aimed directly towards the sun…

Piz Palu seen from Pizzo Bianco

Against all convention! When Elizabeth Burnaby first went up an alp, at the age of twenty, this was the thought that transfixed her great aunt: “Stop her climbing mountains,” screeched the aged relative, “She is scandalizing all London and looks like a Red Indian.”

Mrs Main (formerly Mrs Burnaby) in Norway
In the end, all Lady Bentinck’s worst fears came to pass. In recent years, her niece has been canonised as a pioneer of women’s climbing. Yet this may be to short-weight her. In truth, Mrs Burnaby pushed the limits of what was then possible – for men as much as for women. And, as we will see, she pursued her mountain photography in much the same way.

Ironically, Mrs Burnaby discovered the Alps only because she’d cleaved to the letter of the social code. As sole heiress to a family fortune, she’d married at the age of seventeen, in 1879, and duly borne her much older husband a son in the very next year. Fulfilling these duties may have taxed her. Soon afterwards, her doctors sent her to recuperate at an alpine resort.

While at Chamonix, she made a guided excursion on Mt Blanc. That was the start of her mountaineering. It was also the first time that she’d ever had to pull on her own boots: until then, maids had always done that for her.

Around the same time, probably in 1881, she learned how to use a camera. Her mentor was Joseph Tairraz (1827-1902), who founded a dynasty of mountain photographers. This was just twenty years after Louis-Auguste Bisson had exposed the first glass plate ever to be carried up onto the summit of Mt Blanc.

Ascent of La Sours in winter

In both alpinism and photography, Mrs Burnaby pursued the steepest of learning curves. In 1882, with guides, she made three first ascents, all in winter. By 1883, no guide was needed when she led a beginner – a gentleman, we presume – up the Col du Tour (3,281 metres). In the same year, she published her first mountain book, The High Alps in Winter; or, Mountaineering in search of health, illustrated with her own photos. And this was just the beginning of a remarkable alpine career.

Descent from Piz Bernina

From 1885, she sojourned most of the year at in the Swiss resort of St Moritz. The following year she re-married, following the death of  her first husband. Becoming Mrs Main did not slow her mountain activities. On the contrary. Sallying out from a first-class hotel and employing the region’s top guides, she made a string of first winter ascents in the region, including the first out-of-season traverse of Piz Palü.

Later, when the Alps got too crowded, she explored the mountains of northern Norway, notching up yet more first ascents. Thus, she was an obvious choice for president when a Ladies Alpine Club was founded in London in 1907 – the original Alpine Club wouldn’t let the ladies in until the 1970s. And she was re-elected to that post a second time in 1932, shortly before her death.

As you’d expect from somebody capable of climbing and descending 2,200 vertical metres all in a single winter day – this was on an Italian peak called the Disgrazia – Elizabeth Main took the same hard-driving approach to her photography. By 1895, she felt confident enough to publish Hints on Snow Photography.


The title is a bit of a sandbag. The slim brochure – running to just 14 illustrations – is really the world’s first manual on the challenges of alpine image-making. Mrs Main cuts to the chase in the section on “Above the snowline”, which starts with what might now be called a “humblebrag”:

Many climbers now-a-days carry a camera during their expeditions, and some have reached a high level of artistic feeling and technical skill in their work. My own mountain photographs are so far excelled by those of Signor Vittoria (sic) Sella, the late Mr. W. F. Donkin, and others, that I hardly feel I have a right to give advice. Still, I can perhaps help to smooth the path of Alpine photography for a beginner, so I reproduce a few examples of my work, with such comments as occur to me.

Odd that she let his name be misspelled. For she knew Vittorio Sella (1859–1943) personally. They’d joined forces at Zermatt back in 1883, when both were vying to make the first winter ascent of Monte Rosa, Switzerland’s highest peak. In the end, Arctic conditions turned them back at 4,200 metres, freezing the champagne and very nearly Mrs Burnaby’s nose too.

To invite comparison with Sella, even via a modest disclaimer, was to align herself with the top professionals of the age. In Wikipedia’s words, Sella was an Italian alpinist who took some of the finest mountain photographs ever made. The exacting detail and rich, silvery tones of his images were captured on glass plates measuring no less than 30 centimetres by 40 centimetres. As artworks, the resulting images are monumental in both scale and subject.

"Where none had yet ventured with a camera..."
The breche on Piz Bernina, seen from Pizzo Bianco

Not that Mrs Main had any intention of following in Sella's bootprints. For a start, his type of kit was too heavy. In keeping with her light and fast climbing style, she wanted to take pictures where none had yet ventured with a camera. So she looked to the latest technology for weight savings. In effect, her Hints on Snow Photography are a manual for the late-Victorian lightweight alpine photographer.

Crevasses on the Sella Pass
Take the “slow plate” she used for that contrejour portrayal of Piz Verona. Consisting of a gelatin-based emulsion on a paper backing, such products had only been available for a few years when Mrs Main slotted one into her camera on Piz Palü. This particular plate was made by the London-based duo of Wratten and Wainwright, who launched the first examples in the late 1870s. She doesn’t record, though, whether or not the plate was exposed in her beloved Shew Xit, a folding camera named after a character in a forgotten historical novel.

Plate captain: the Shew Xit camera

Film was an even more revolutionary medium. Although the first celluloid-based rolls didn’t appear until just a few years before Mrs Main published her Hints, one of the manual’s illustrations was taken on Fitch’s film “developed with Eikonogen”. Alas, Fitch’s film was too slow “for so-called instantaneous work”, such as pictures of skating, curling, tobogganing and “lawn tennis in winter”. These required faster Lumière plates, which could be obtained “in all sizes, both English and foreign, direct from the makers at Lyons”.

Top of the Cresta Run

Lumière versus Wratten, plates versus film; very probably, such debates raged among Victorian photographers much as they do among modern gearheads. But these eructations are a guy thing. In her Hints, Mrs Main concerns herself only with the skills and tools that get the job done. Lenses sometimes get a mention, but the differences between various camera marques are beneath her notice. As a result, most of her advice has aged well:

The following rules apply to the reproduction of snow-covered landscapes, whether in winter or above the snow line in summer, as distinct from photographs of moving objects on snow. Slow plates or films give the best and most certain results. The smaller the stop, the finer the detail. Fineness of detail is essential, as otherwise snow becomes monotonous owing to the uniformity of its colour. Expose for the high lights, rather than for the shadows.

View from Piz Corvatsch

Of course, once you get beyond these basics, photography becomes a question of interpretation. Here too Mrs Main has opinions. In her Hints, she notes that critics lambasted one of her photographs, a view over the snow-covered roofs of St Moritz, “as hard and unpleasing”, advising her “to focus, expose, and develope (sic) such subjects with the object of getting greater softness.” But that would not be her style:-

I admit that softness and those atmospheric conditions which veil a too harsh outline and vary a too uniform colouring are of great beauty, but I prefer to get them by choosing a subject in which they are present, rather than by introducing them where they do not exist, and would not be appropriate. One of the features of the scenery of the heights of Switzerland in winter is its extraordinary clearness of atmosphere, and the consequent hardness of its outlines and the deep blue of the sky. A dark blue sky, dazzlingly white snow, and well-marked shadows are what we are accustomed to in the Engadine in winter. So when photographing such scenes on such a day, I try to be truthful, and if the result is, as I think it ought to be, a dark sky, a glitteringly white outline against it, and here and there an inky shadow, say, if you will, that it is not picturesque, but do not blame me for refusing to mix the characteristics of a thunderstorm on the Italian lakes with the peculiar transparency of a winter's morning in the Alps.


As an artistic manifesto, this is a remarkably modern view of photography. It anticipates, by more than a generation, Group f64’s razor-sharp counterblast against the “fuzzy-wuzzy” pictorialists. She practised what she preached. In a photograph of the Morteratsch glacier, wishing “to get a great deal of detail in the foreground and the background being of little importance…” she gave an exposure of four seconds on another of Wratten and Wainwright’s slow plates.

On the Morteratsch Glacier

Yet the enduring lesson that Mrs Main draws from this picture goes beyond the gear: “It is always well,” she urges, “before taking such a picture, to have a clear idea in your mind as to what you want … Have what you want impressed distinctly on your brain, and you give yourself the best chance of having it reproduced on your plate.”

Have what you want impressed distinctly on your brain: such a nostrum might apply more widely than in photography. And, in her case, it did. When Mr Main didn’t work out – he died in obscure circumstances in America – she married Aubrey Le Blond, nine years her junior, and later travelled with him through China, Russia, Korea, Turkey and Japan in those last years before the first world war. This seems to have been a more equal and amicable match than her previous ones.

By this time, her mountain career was winding down. But she kept experimenting with new photographic techniques, even making short film clips around the turn of the century. She always travelled with her camera too, using her own photos, as before, to illustrate a book on Italian gardens.

View from St Moritz

Indeed, she’d always been more than a mountain photographer. In her Swiss days, she had documented lakes, woods and street scenes, as well as mountains. Passing visitors too were immortalised, Arthur Conan Doyle and Giovanni Segantini among them.

Tiefencastel

Especially poignant, to anyone who knows the place now, is the sight of cows roaming the streets of Tiefencastel. Taken together, Mrs Main’s images freeze-frame the belle epoque, in its sunniest years. There is no hint at the menace that, just a decade or so later, would overshadow that world. Perhaps that’s why her photography is all but forgotten now.

References

Elizabeth Main, Hints on Snow Photography, London: Sampson Low, Marston & Company, 1895

Daniel Anker, Ursula Bauer, Markus Britschgi, Cordula Seger, Elizabeth Main: Alpinistin - Fotografin – Schriftstellerin, Eine englische Lady entdeckt die Engadiner Alpen (all photos by Mrs Main are from this book)

Rebecca Brown, Women on High: Pioneers of Mountaineering

Monday, March 19, 2018

In search of real winter

While applauding this year's great snows, we wonder what the price might be

In the last days of February, our “Geezer’s ski-tour” started in Davos. Of course, we’re not really geezers – well, not yet – just friends who’ve met up almost every year over the last two decades for an annual ski-mountaineering trip. Although, we have to admit, over that timespan, the packs have kept getting heavier and the mountains higher.

On the way up to the Swiss Alpine Club's Grialetsch Hut

No complaints about the weather, though. We stepped into our bindings right at the bus-stop. In most recent years, you’d have had to carry your skis for kilometres before reaching the snowline. At last, we’d reverted to a real winter, or so it seemed.

Adequate snowcover in the Dischma Valley

By coincidence, Davos is the Swiss alpine resort that hosts the World Economic Forum. This year’s iteration must have been a gift for would-be deniers of client change. In late January, when the WEF met, the walls of snow hemming in the streets rose higher than anybody could remember. Comparisons were made with the record winter of 1999, when giant avalanches roared down all over the Swiss Alps.

Snowdepth indicator in the Dischma Valley

Up in the real mountains, the facts looked a bit alternative. True, the snowdrifts lay deep early in the New Year, when the Sensei and I snowshoed up a minor eminence near Zurich. But rain and meltwater had furrowed the snow with rills and gutters, a sight that you’d normally not see until late spring. And, at the month’s end, Swiss Meteo confirmed that, overall, this had been the country’s warmest January since records began, in 1864. So far, then, this winter was a fake.

Rain channels in the snowpack, Furggelenstock, January

Fortunately, no rills or gutters obstructed the Geezer’s ski-tour. We headed south into the Dischmatal valley, where snowdrifts lapped the alphuts up to their eaves, just like the old days. Turning uphill, we broke trail up slopes of wind-blasted snowcrust. The skis skidded sideways on the icy glaze or broke through into sloughs of unconsolidated powder. Any fun was definitely of the Type Two kind.

Approaching the SAC Grialetsch Hut, late February

Cresting the col into the Grialetsch region, our extremities tingled in a wind that must have originated somewhere near Archangelsk. Grialetsch means “sheep pasture” in the local dialect; today it felt more like the High Arctic. In the ultra-dry air, clear as a high vacuum, distant ridgelines stood out like mountains on the moon.

Summit day on Piz Grialetsch

Minus 12°C was forecast for our summit day. Sadly, neither of us had a thermometer when we topped out on Piz Grialetsch (3,131 metres). What we can say is that a wet glove, when removed to work the camera, froze solid in less than a minute. Swiss Meteo later confirmed that, in the mountains,  this was one of the coldest Februaries for three decades. Up on our summit, perched above a sea of heaving vapours, we felt like time travellers who’d somehow flown back to a winter of long ago.

Taking the wide view: Piz Grialetsch

Or were we, like spendthrifts maxing out a bank overdraft, just borrowing our winter from somewhere else? For it seems that, even as our gloves were freezing solid , temperatures in the real Arctic were soaring unimaginably far above normal. If the New York Times is to be believed, our mountain top was around ten degrees colder than the North Pole at exactly the same moment. 

If this was a real winter, then we need to be careful what we wish for in future years.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Snow country (5)

Travelogue concluded: in which we clear up, with a bit of help from the Heartful Dump Co.

8 February, Fukui: Twenty more centimetres have come down overnight. The Sensei’s back is hurting from three days of snow-shovelling, yet still she insists on coming outside: I want to make sure you dig in the right place, she says. We excavate alongside the car until we reach the tarmac, an exercise in snow archaeology. The bottom layer consists of graupel pellets, suggesting that temperatures were coldest during the snowstorm’s early stages.


Then I go upstairs to try dislodging the half-metre of snow piled up on the porch roof. When the weather warms up, roof avalanches can be just as bad for your health as their high-mountain analogues.


Over lunch, another ten centimetres of snow whirls down in two vigorous squalls, but it doesn’t take long to dig out the van again. Although the skies are still grey, there’s a sense that Peak Snow is past.


According to the noon TV news, JR will run a few trains this afternoon, and more tomorrow – yes, I might make that Sunday flight. If we can get to the station, of course. As for the roads, 324 trucks are still snowbound on Route 8. A unit of the Self-Defense Forces is keeping the drivers plied with blankets and hot drinks while helping to dig them out – some drivers have now been marooned in their cabs for almost 48 hours, but they should be free by evening.


Some outlying villages aren’t so lucky. Blockaded by more than a metre of snow on the roads, the often aged inhabitants will have to fend for themselves for another day or two. The snow is now up to 143 centimetres within the city boundaries, making this the heaviest fall for 37 years. NHK announcers are famously deadpan, but surely we detect a hint of pride in the voice of this one.


In the afternoon, we take a walk along the roads cleared by the municipal snowploughs. Whole families are out digging their forecourts: there’s a holiday spirit, as most schools and firms have shut down for the week. “You have to laugh,” says a neighbour in her seventies, who is busy shovelling her forecourt. Others grumble: “We pay our taxes: why don’t they do something,” mutters a passer-by.


We walk over to a neighbouring village, over a snowfield that pallidly gleams against a steel-grey sky. The snow laps over the hamlet’s old farm buildings and storehouses, recalling the scenes described by Suzuki Bokushi in his best-selling Snow Country Tales (1837), an account of winter life in old Echigo province.



Bokushi was proud of his region’s Big Snow. In those days, people dug snow tunnels between the houses, or started using the first-floor windows instead of the front door. Bokushi wouldn’t have thought much of a meagre 143 centimetres.


People are now up on the roofs clearing them. Not everybody is wearing the recommended safety rope. Greenhouses have come off worst: the snow has flattened many of the flimsy steel-tube-and-vinyl structures. Some were only recently repaired after last October’s super-typhoon.


In the evening, the Sensei makes bread; the supermarket has run out. Fresh eggs too are scarce, but overall there’s still plenty of food on the shelves. A more serious shortage is that fuel stocks are running low; the snowploughs have a massive thirst for diesel.


The city is also running out of places to put the cleared snow. Now and then, a snow-laden truck rumbles by, on its way to tip its burden into a river. I’m pleased to see a pink riband adorning a few of them. These belong to the (locally) famous Heartful Dump company, an all-girl trucking outfit. We met them just the other day, shipping out the spoil from a new tunnel under Monju-san.

You know, it’s an ill snowstorm that brings nobody any good…

Photo and logo by courtesy of the Heartful Dump company.



Sunday, February 18, 2018

Snow country (4)

Travelogue continued: in which the Senior Cat chooses to shut out the world

7 February, Fukui: A pistol shot shatters the night. As armed intruders are rare around here, this has to be the roof timbers, adjusting to the weight of snow. It’s better not to think of how many tons are pressing on that roof. Twice more the explosive reports ring out, as we lie awake, like old-time polar explorers listening helplessly as the pack-ice crushed their ship.


Over breakfast, a pink flash lights up the snowed-up trees outside, followed by a muffled roll of thunder. The TV reports that hundreds of trucks have been snowed in on Route 8, the main road north to Kanazawa.


Worse still, when the police investigated a snowed-up car with its engine still running, they found that the unfortunate driver had been asphyxiated by the exhaust fumes. No trains will run today between Kanazawa and Tsuruga, yet strangely (it seems to us) the Hokuriku Shinkansen, which starts in Kanazawa, continues to run on schedule.

The weather forecast shows why – the radar picture shows the snow tracking in over the Japan Sea as if on a conveyor belt. But the precipitation spans a front that is only a hundred kilometres or so wide. Fukui is right in the middle of its path, while Kanazawa is almost in the clear.


This colossal snow machine is driven by two low pressure systems, one north and one south of Honshū. Mountaineers fear this configuration; it usually leads to a world of hurt in high places. From upstairs, the Sensei reports that she's finding it hard to open the doors on her built-in clothes closet: so the roof really has sagged.



It doesn’t look like I’m going to make the Friday flight either. I phone the airline again. Air Rhaetia is obliging, and suggests the Sunday departure instead. That should give us time to dig ourselves out. Meanwhile, the Senior Cat hops up on the windowsill and takes a look outside. Unimpressed, she retires to her basket and shuts out the world with her paw.




Snow country (3)

Travelogue continued: in which more snow falls and we all gotta dig it

6 February, Fukui: the weathermen are not exaggerating. In the morning, the front door has to be pushed open against a sill of snow. And somebody appears to have stolen the Sensei’s van. Ah no, there it is under a white hummock.


Over breakfast, we watch TV: the city has run out of money to pay for snow clearance and will have to ask the government for additional funding.


Meanwhile, JR announces that all rail services are suspended until the afternoon, when they will review the situation. What now, I ask the Sensei. We dig, she says. Before we go out, she rigs our boots with mountaineering gaiters, so that our socks will stay dry. Like Miss Smilla, the Sensei has a well-developed sense of snow.


The same can't be said for the driver of the red Toyota that emerges from a garage about three houses up the street. It slips and slides in our direction, before bogging down right in front of us. The driver gets out and starts shovelling – he is improbably clad for the work in a business suit and rubber boots.I switch from digging out the Sensei’s van to digging out the red Toyota. Finally, with the help of two more neighbours, we succeed in manhandling the car back where it came from. It’s taken the young man more than an hour to drive less than a hundred metres and back again.


One thing is obvious: whatever JR does, I’m not going to be on tomorrow’s plane. I go in and phone Rhaetian Airlines, who respond admirably by rebooking me. It probably helps that Fukui’s plight is now starting to hit the national news channels.


At lunchtime, the TV reports that Fukui is now under 127 centimetres of snow – you have to admire the precision – making this the biggest fall for 32 years. JR cancels all trains until further notice and the motorway too shuts down. Now what? I guess we go on digging, I say to the Sensei. You’re learning, she replies with a smile.