I visited the Fort de Chartres near Prairie Du Rocher on Saturday. On a hot hazy spring afternoon. I had my newly purchased Nikon F with me plus a 35mm lens and was looking to capture something of this site in a way that reflected its age, even though that age is deceptive.
For Fort de Chartres is a largely modern built structure, replicating the old fort that first stood on this ground in 1720 and was modernized and occupied up until 1772, first by the French, second by the British.
In common with many old buildings in America, no attempt was made to preserve the original structure and by the time age and flooding had exacted their toll only a small building that served as the powder magazine (and presumably built to stronger standards precisely because of that function) remained.
Fortunately some time and effort was devoted to both restoring and recreating the old ford in the early 20th century, much of it carried out by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration.
Now it is an Illinois state park and frequently home to a colonial-era reenactor Rendezvous. One of these was in the setting-up stage when I arrived at the park, so the land around the fort was dotted by white canvas tents, but apart from those tents and their inhabitants only a scattering of tourists was to be found on the grounds.
That suited me. I prefer the fort when it is almost deserted. This time around, I was struck by a loss of that sense of wonder that I first felt when I discovered this fort after a long afternoon driving the empty roads of the American Bottom floodplain. Perhaps I’ve been here too often. Regardless, it seemed more commonplace and ordinary that before, more representative of current times rather than old. Paradoxically the reenactors reinforce this impression. Their deeply studied attempts at authenticity betray a modern sensibility, a nostalgia rather than a necessity. Still, I admire their dedication to historical accuracy – and their dedication to living outside the mainstream, even if just for a while.
Back to the photography. I was shooting film and using a camera manufactured when I was a boy, my own form of reenactment but one that I am all too conscious sits apart from and uneasily with current styles. This is my choice, a deliberate decision to alter the process of gathering an image. The process is as important as the result for me. No longer do I regard an image as somehow divorced from its creation, something that is very easy to do today with modern digital cameras and image processing software. Nowadays the taking is easy and the presentation also. Automatic and semi-automatic settings on a camera and the multitude of image processing algorithms and filters, indeed the very substance of the photograph as a collection of bit values, all conspire to simplify the photographic process into something seamless, a workflow series of key hits and mouse clicks all pushing towards than final onscreen representation, realizable right down to the individual pixel. A seductive pixel to be sure, and one that captures the fascination of many, but I lost the fascination with pixel peeping and image manipulation a long time ago. Partly out of familiarity and partly out of overuse, but mostly because I felt the types of technical perfection that accompanied such intense attention to detail were missing the point. Not seeing the forest for the trees as the old proverb goes.
So now I expose a film, uncertain until developing hours or days away whether it came out. Splash chemicals about and emerge with a small rectangle of cellulose acetate imprinted with silver residue. An analog, color removed, of the light and shade I let into my camera. Up until I scan this negative, the process involving the venerable Nikon F has not only been without any digital input, it has been without any electrical input whatsoever. All mechanical and chemical.
A different process, belonging to an older age. An age contemporary with the reconstruction of the Fort de Chartres if not its original construction. A reenactment perhaps, but also an enactment of today with a result that reflects the world of today (or two days ago to be accurate) and with today’s vitality interwoven into this old process.
Perhaps I’m closer to these reenactors in their tents than I previously believed. Food for thought, methinks.