Mike Butler – Architectural Photographer

Sojourn of Words

The Meditative Journey of Photographing Rainbow Falls

This night shot of Rainbow Falls in Gorges State Park NC was the capstone of what became an unexpected meditative journey through the transition of day to night.  A shoot that became no less than a full-on meditative prayer to the universe. The falls that I would be photographing are a short but rugged 1.5 miles from the trailhead commonly traversed in the open air of a sunny afternoon, yet for this personal assignment, I would be taking the journey in the dead of night, carrying quite a bit of photo gear, deep into the cold woods.

We Bid Farewell

As dusk began to set in I bid farewell to my wife and two kids who were back at the campsite, then begin the 1-hour trek to the falls.  Along the way, the light would fade and by the time I arrived, the night will have fallen like a soot-covered blanket upon the land.  This transition from day to night has been lost in modern-day life, dusk is replaced by a new kind of man-made day, one lit in all corners with artificial lights of every color and type.  They hold back the darkness like a damn trying to force the natural ebb and flow of nature to cease.    

Cobalt Blue to Absence of Light

As the light of day fades into the cobalt-blue night sky, the forest changes character, and the clear vistas become encrusted with an inescapable blackness that hides any vestige of what lies beyond.  The trail fades to nothing, trees disappear inches from your face.  A common flashlight can poke back the dark velvet blanket but only for a moment, and so far.  We as modern-day people rarely know what darkness is, at least the darkness of a forest.  We carry with us all manner of lighting devices that rip open this meditative absence of light. The darkness of a forest is a cool coat of transformative medicine that we care not to imbibe.  Fears of attacks by faceless creatures, or storylines from the latest Netflix thriller coat our bravery, melting it like a flame to wax.  Yet we have over eons, murdered all the creatures who could do us harm, and what psychopathic murderer lurks in the deep forest waiting for some unsuspecting passerby?  None that I could imagine.     

I headed out on the trail just as the last remaining vespers of light fell like snow from the darkening sky, stars appearing one by one, taking their place on the great cloudless and godless stage above.  The trail was easy to follow by this glow, although with each passing minute the forest around me faded layer by layer.  All that could be heard was the soft passing of my boots and the distant rush of water as I approached the falls.  The trail thrust upwards, great rocks to be traversed, ledges to my side, precipices down to darkness, but what lay at the bottom was not darkness, but the rushing cold blood of the earth, flowing in a never-ending cycle back to her beating heart, the ocean.  Had I taken a fall into that water then I too should transmute back to her warm embrace. A warm and cold-blooded mother, the giver and taker away of life.  So moving slowly up, hands looking for the way, feet gently settling on rocks before pushing my body upward. 

You, of course, hear the falls long before you arrive, getting closer you can feel the air moving towards then away, back from where you have just come.  The chill of the air deepens as the coolness of the water flattens out any residual heat of the day.  Then one last small ledge, one last push up, and you can feel and hear the falls in her full volume.  At first, the magical creature perpetuating this feast for the senses is invisible, but within a few minutes, she appears out of the darkness.  To feel and hear before ones sees is in itself magical.  And when I say see, I mean only the vague outline of something moving in the darkness, the sky and the trees are all black bones in a black case lined with dirt.      

The Surgery 

I however in spite of all these gracious words of forest meditation and the insane rhetoric of the modern-day obsession with light, was there to hypocritically tear through this timeless seance of water, sound, and absence of light.  I was there to clear-cut the night wide open with my scalpel of light and force my hand into scared places, to pull out the soul of this now sleeping creature.  I set my camera on a ledge of slippery hard mud and rock as far out towards the prey as I dared, then set the drone.  As my drone lifted up, outfitted with bright led lights, I chased after the creature hidden in the rocks, within the water. I had only a few minutes to find, then corner her, encapsulating her with my lens.  Sorry for her, I am somewhat an expert hunter with my lights, I can loge the arrow of its power straight through the heart and bring down my prey in one swift motion.  It is not always easy for me, my prey fights struggles and would like to prevail but there is no use.

And there for one minute, I stare with the night’s reality cut back on all sides, like some cruel open heart surgery on our mother earth, one of her countless hearts beating, thundering in front of me.  I am working but take a moment to breathe in the awe of the carapace I have pulled back, an ephemeral revelation.  Then as fast as I have exposed the scene the drone flies back and the darkness cascades back in, covering it up like layers of silt upon the golden doubloons of an ancient wreck.  But I am triumphant.  Here me, I am no native American hunter back from a night of stalking prey, but I am what I am.  In my possession, I have captured the ephemeral beast, locked in a prison of ones and zeros, not forever but for long enough to matter.  

Rainbow Falls at Night
Rainbow Falls at Night
Turtle Falls

The Transmutation

On the way back weary from the travel and stress of standing feet from roaring rapids and the imminent embrace by the cold blood of mother earth, I come to the flat portion of the path and turn off my saber of light, letting the mist of starlight drift down on the path ahead.  Starlight, which has traveled millions, hundreds of millions, billions of years to light my way.  What a journey for the simple gift of lighting this sojourn.  What a sacrifice of the light, to selflessly come to rest here, after so long in the open frontiers of the infinite universe, in front of me, a mere artist back from a pointless hunt. Much of this light, was created long before the earth was ever formed, imagine that for a moment.  Take in the breadth of its revelation the sacrifice, the energy. For again, what had I done to deserve such a gift, simple on the surface, even deserved that I shall have this gift?  The love of a parent too seems obvious and deserved to a young child, as she basks in its glow, traversing life’s path.  The child, like I, shall never fully comprehend the true power behind the glow of love cascading down upon my path.  I can only dip my finger in its truth and taste its clarity upon reflection.    

As the starlight lays its soft hand down upon me, the path of rock, leaves, and dirt becomes a fog of floating light, and the pitch blackness of all sides creeps out into just barely visible shapes.  I stop lay down my gear, and look around, letting my eyes take stock of the true cathedral I am in.  We build rock fortresses, line them with colored windows and call them cathedrals, grand they are, yet here, I too am in a cathedral, awash in timeless eternal light, the light I am from and the light I shall return to one day.  Up ahead in the distance the path fades away as if I am walking to another world. I can almost imagine myself on that misty journey between lives, the time between time, a place between places. The meditation is almost immediate and inescapable, the inner depth of my mind knows this and has yearned for this eternal clearing in the absence of light.     

A Closing to Absence

In our rush to blind out the darkness and quiet of stillness, we have forgotten absence and the glow of simplicity, we have forgotten its place in our lives, and how our souls our art needs to bathe themselves in it.  It has been replaced with fire and energy, with lighting and quaking earth, tsunamis, and winds that never cease.  We fixate on these and howl like rabid dopamine-hungry wolves in their energy. How can the nature of the universal transmutation of consciousness be written in simple inflexible words and barked out of the artificial carapaces of tradition?  This is like the lone fruit tree from which one shall reach up for its sweetness, slumber under its cool arms, and take solace in its patterned place in the world, being replaced with lines of apples, shipped from faceless farms, laden with life chocking chemicals, then given cute names like school children in the factory of life.  It is no wonder this symbol has been blotted out from the very beginning.  Alluring and convenient as this may be, it is void of stillness, of self-meditation, of understanding of what is given and free is so much closer to some universal truth than what is packaged and vellum wrapped in any quaint palaverings of man.

The photos you ask?  Well, I always enjoy the luxury of capturing these images, bringing them home, and basking in another finished project. Yet in this case, I would say they are simply one key player in a larger narrative.   And are they good?  Good to one is trash to another in this mercurial art world, so I would not even fathom a guess as to the nature of their “goodness”. The images however help to drive a stake into the ground, a lighthouse from which I can orient my way in this world.  A statement to the blind, about the places I have been and the things I have done.  My sign to the future that I was here even when I am not. 

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