Nicholas Dubois Photography

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Looking Through Glass

Photography, since it’s earliest of forms, was designed to capture the light of what’s in front of us and to preserve it for the future. Despite where you choose to take it from here in practice, there is no escaping this fundamental truth, and though its been almost 200 years since the first photograph was captured, we continue to obsess over these superficial representations of the world in which we live.

Whether you prefer to identify as a photographer or not, our present circumstances have gifted many of us with the seemingly limitless ability to create photographs at almost no cost of effort, and we cannot seem to help ourselves. This cannot have been by accident. There must be a reason for our obsession, and if there is, what is the best way to capture what we have been looking for?

Talking around a campfire about the skills we’ve developed through our life that we are the most proud of.

I was not around when Joseph Niépce took the first photograph out of his apartment window, nor when George Eastman released the simple Brownie camera to the public en masse, so I hesitate to value these historic perspectives. Indeed, as many who have taken photographs can understand, the context in which a frame exists is often obscured later by the frame itself, so I will take it back as far as I can comfortably recollect with my own photographic memories, so to speak.

Our family journeyed to find the perfect Christmas Tree.

Gathered in a relative’s living room, I can remember colorful envelopes folded behind stacks of 25-32 exposures that someone had taken on a recent journey that they had been on. Sometimes the images would be familiar, and I could recall in my own mind the moment’s that those images immortalized. While other times, I would look on jealously as worlds unknown to me were locked behind glossy stock. The photographs would be flipped through, admired, passed on to the next set of curious eyes, and for what? Were we boasting the richness of experience that our lives have brought us? Maybe, in seeking some form of connection through the experiences we’ve had, there exists a value extending beyond our own individual memory? Maybe a combination, or some other reason altogether.

Why walk around rocks when you can climb over them?

Well, some years and many thousands of photographs later, it has occurred to me that many photographs will ultimately be shared, and the reasons behind why they are shared can be as diverse as the individuals who choose to share them, if not, more so. Yet, it has occurred to me that the choice to take a photograph in the first place can be simplified into two simple objectives. To me this is important, being the moment of creation, and also, in that timely decision to open the shutter, exists the origin of any reaction that particular exposure may in time, invoke.

A special moment between new pals.

First, we take photographs of scenes that we anticipate others might have an interest in viewing. Sometimes this instinct is spontaneous and emerges only as the image itself unfolds before us. Other times, we might have been asked as a bystander to take a camera in order to capture a complete family, not void of the loved one wielding the device. Even better yet, if you’re lucky and talented enough, you could be paid for your visual perspective of major affairs, such as weddings, banquets, sporting events, etc.

Four friends. I don’t know if they were new friends or old, but they enjoyed this view together for a while.

Secondly, we take photographs out of curiosity and personal or professional interest in further exploring what we have found before us. You might relate this to a scientific practice of photography, as criminal investigators who photograph crime scenes, or astrophysicists who capture scenes from the far off reaches of time and space in our universe. These photographs are taken with the knowledge that there is more to what we are seeing than meets the eye, and that further exploration and experimentation, might expose a novel perspective of the subject. Ironically, I feel this can apply to pure artistic experimentation as well, wherein the photographer can manipulate the interface between camera and subject to record equally novel perspectives. Such as creating long exposures that can reveal supernatural patterns previously unknown to our eye, or ‘shooting from the hip’ unaware of what is being captured within the frame. It could be argued that the strange desire to take photographs of ourselves, might fit into this standard, by allowing us to explore an otherwise impossible view of our body (As opposed to mirrors where we are seeing a flipped image). Yet, put simply, I like to think about this choice as reflective of our awe in discovering the visual world in new ways, seeing what we may have never seen otherwise, and reveling in the novelty of it.

Streaks of flowing water in a long exposure image of Tahquamenon Falls.

Now, our choice to push the shutter button exists, like many things, on a sliding scale between those two extremes of pure experimentation or observation, and entirely aesthetic composition. The two extremes are probably also mutually exclusive of one another, since without intentional observation, it would be impossible to define what is aesthetically interesting, and there would be little motivation to capture or observe a scene that lacks striking aesthetic qualities.

Eating an apple in the wilderness.

So, how is this going to help anyone take better photographs? If you’re wielding heavy duty professional equipment, you might spend a lot of time thinking about lighting, framing, camera settings, and gear you wish you had that would make your pictures way better, right? And if you’re just poking at a smartphone screen, why should you even think about this in the first place when it probably will just go up on Facebook anyways?

This might all be true, but by my understanding, while technical knowledge and high end equipment might improve the objective and technical quality of your images, the subjective content of your images, though it can never be quantified, is almost completely reliant on where your mind is focused in the moments before exposure. Eventually also, in your audiences perspective in the moment they see what you’ve recorded on film. I think back to those living rooms full of friends and relatives flipping through glossy images, and try to remember those experiences, and will take notice of moments like these in the future (glossy prints being replaced by glowing digital frames). If you are the one doing the showing, it could be the elation of sharing with the people you care about, an experience that was profound or special to you in some way. If you are the observer, you might experience an empathetic response to the moments being shared with you. Many times it isn’t the technical finesse the photographer has exhibited in the shot that you notice, though it could certainly add depth to a scene. It almost definitely isn’t the quality of the print that is facilitating that personal connection (unless you’re at an exhibition). The magic is in the very human act of sharing and communicating a sensual experience (get your minds out of the gutter folks), and having the ability to do so in a way that transcends spoken, or written language. Of course the Kodak prints are all but gone, stored deep in plastic totes long forgotten, but the act of sharing photographs is more common and easier than it ever has been before.

Minto and Fender express pure joy running through the Michigan snow.

The point that I’ve been trying to get to, is on the importance of understanding yourself (the photographer) simply as a person behind a camera. Many people will try to take photographs that emulate what they have seen, and found to be beautiful in other peoples photographs. Though, as close as they may come, they will not often find an emotional depth to what they have captured. You must go out and find what in the world inspires your own eye, and photograph it, share the images if you want, but definitely go back to look at them from time to time to reflect on the adventures had in finding those images. Maybe even go back to those old dusty bins and pull out the faded polaroids and slides of decades passed. Then go out and do it again.

A rocky mountain stream.

It seems silly to put into so many words, but why wouldn’t we want to look at and share photographs when we were, in one moment, so inspired to capture them in the first place?

A Tail of Winter

Thousands of years ago, as humans migrated and spread across the terrestrial landscapes of our planet, the methods and modes of transportation diversified with each challenge faced by these early explorers. Driven not by fame or fortune, but instead by necessity, our early ancestors traveled deep into the cold white expanses of Asia and North America, following large packs of animals rich in fat and thick furs. As the snow drifted deeper, and the winds grew sharper, a relationship formed between humans and another highly intelligent and cooperative pack animal, the wolf.

Bolt and Stinky lovingly greet one of my fellow guides Luke during a snow storm.

The history of this relationship is vague and uncertain, however, the outcome is clear to anyone who as ever owned or interacted with the only animal ever granted status as man’s ‘best friend.’ From the northern Grey Wolf, a breed of dog was bred into existence that was highly devoted, sturdy, strong, and tireless. Fastened to a rudimentary sled along with a team of other dogs, these animals would pull their human companions for many miles for a fee of raw meat and a place in the pack. Thus, Dog Sledding was born.

A team of Siberian Huskies in British Columbia, 1909. These dogs were pivotal in transporting goods and equipment during the Gold Rush, as well as for early Arctic expeditions. Source: http://www.historymuseum.ca

The term ‘mushing,’ as it’s often referred to, derives from the French word ‘marcher’ which means to walk. This was the command that French colonials used to order their team of dogs to begin moving. From it’s pre-historic roots, both the dogs and the activity itself have changed significantly. Used heavily in the North American fur trade of colonial times, and the gold rush of Alaska and the Canadian Rockies, mushing spread and diversified. Different regions sported a variety of breeds, from the massive Alaskan Malamute that pulled freight loads, to the stark white Samoyed that was also used in the summer for sheep herding. Each breed had a unique set of characteristics specialized to the needs of their region of origin. Similar to the dogs themselves, the organization of dog sledding teams varied as well. In most of Canada and the Northern United States, the dogs were fastened double file onto a single cable called the gang line that would pull the sled in a narrow formation down wooded trails cut through dense Boreal forests. In the wide open tundras of Siberia, Greenland, and the northern reaches of Canada, dogs were each attached to the sled with a single line, and spread out in a wide fan formation that more evenly distributed the weight. Though the means and methods were varied, the purpose of driving a team of dogs across vast landscapes of snow and ice was never lost.

Inuit hunter and his dogsled team travel the frozen polar sea of Baffin Bay in search of seals, walrus and polar bears in northwest Greenland. The dogs are fastened to the sled in a fan formation, each attached to a line that runs directly to the sled. Source: https://blog.education.nationalgeographic.com

Today, with the rapid progress of motorized transportation, the utility of dog sledding has diminished, however the spirit remains in both the people who have experienced the power of a dog team, and the dogs who never lost their desire to run and pull. Across the world, Mushing has developed into a highly competitive sport that is both brutal and genial, where your competition is the ceaseless arctic wind, and your team is comprised of the most loving and devoted companions you may ever know.

The two Siberian Huskies in my kennel, Lou and Sparky, demonstrate their ceaseless enthusiasm for running.

Though the activity today is mainly sport, there are still pockets of the world where the most efficient mode of transportation in the winter, is by dog team. Far north in Greenland, Nunavut, Alaska, and Siberia, the price of gasoline is too expensive to justify the use of snowmobiles for longer commutes, and thus teams of dogs are still utilized as transportation in these communities. Arguably the most famous use of of dog teams came in 1925 when the conditions that winter were so harsh in Alaska, that neither ships, trains, nor aircraft could deliver a priceless cargo of anti-toxin to a remote town struck with Diphtheria, an illness fatal to children. A relay of dog teams delivered the medicine over one thousand miles from Nenana, Alaska to Nome, Alaska in just five days, saving many young lives. The event today is memorialized by a statue in Central Park, New York, as well as a one thousand mile race held every year in Alaska called the Iditarod that comes to completion in the same remote town of Nome.

Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog Togo of Nome serum run fame, 1927.
Source: Spirit of a Racer in a Dog’s Blood, Stephanie Clifford, New York Times

Now, despite the romantic history of dog sledding and the ways in which it has affected the world of people, arguably the most incredible part of this story are the dogs that have made it all possible. Indeed, many a sled dog has endured the harshest conditions ever known to exist on the planet, and still carried on diligently to fulfill their duty. Though dog sledding in its most original form has all but died out, the indomitable spirit of the sled dog lives on in each canine bred for such a purpose. For the past several months, I have been immersed in their world, caring for twenty three Alaskan Huskies bent on doing what they do best. Throughout the experience, I have been taken by each one’s ability to both love what they do, and to look after me in return. As we glide quietly through the deep snows of the Boreal North, there have been good days and there definitely have been harder days, yet these canine companions of ours never fail to carry myself and my spirit forward with compassion and intent.

An Alaskan Husky named Chuck. The Alaskan Husky is a breed that has been specially bred for speed and endurance. They are often used in the contemporary race scene.

Eight Alaskan Huskies excited to be running a new trail behind 2017 Yukon 300 finisher, Lynne.

For me, dog sledding has been in dedication to them, to their heritage, and to the spirit of what they embody. Though the work is hard and the nights of winter are long, when I walk out to greet each one in the morning, eyes glinting, and tails wagging, I know just what they hope to do that day. What they were born to do. And we run.

Lady and WXCL resting during a 20 mile run.

Leaders Chuck and Cyborg resting at the front of an eight dog team.

The content of this post is a collection of oral traditions gathered by myself from a number of fellow Mushers, as well as my own personal experience. It only reflects my narrow understanding of the culture and it’s history, and is in no way exhaustive or objective. As are most cultures, dog sledding is far too complex to be summarized in one post, and I urge anyone interested in the subject to do their own research, or even seek out a dog sledding experience of their own!

Gravity of Love

Working in a variety of places, and meeting countless individuals with inspiring histories and experiences of their own, one of the most rewarding opportunities of setting out, away from my roots and into the unknown, have been found in the experiences I have come to share with the people that have been there since my entry into this world. Despite the physical distance that always tends to come between us, these moments bring closer an understanding that we can never truly lose what we have come to know and love.

When I left my home in Rochester, New York for college in a town that I had barely even visited to live with people I had never met, I imagined that leaving was a way to move forward and discover what was ‘out there.’ I wasn’t wrong, but in leaving, I discovered a that there was more to exploration than just experiencing something new. Life is the accumulation of every moment you live, so when the moment passes, I have found that you do not actually leave those moments and people behind, but you carry them with you wherever you go, and with each new moment or relationship we can enrich our past, our hearts, and our minds. I have experienced both sides of this process, and each in our own ways I’m sure, so have we all.

Before I left my small college town in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, my parents were setting out on their own journey to the deserts of central New Mexico in search of their own growth and discovery. It was terrifying for myself, and I’m sure also for the rest of my family. What I thought to be the only true home I had ever known was going to pass out of our lives, and into the past. I decided to stay in New York to preserve my heritage, and viewed New Mexico as a foreign place to visit when I could, and leave when I wished to return ‘home.’ What I failed to realize, was that I had done the same thing several years before, and my parents were about to set out on a journey that would shape our lives in a completely unexpected and significant way. New Mexico would eventually grow, as do all changes that we undergo, into an important part of who we have become, and where we are headed, though Albuquerque has now also passed into the history of our lives.

Now, sitting here in a small Michigan town on the shores of Lake Superior, which has only recently grown in familiarity to me, it is easy to forget the fear of change and growth that plagues us with each new transition we face. The one constant has always been the close friends I have made along the way, and most importantly, my family. Two thousand miles away, a distance that at time’s feels like it should be measured in light years, only possible to be traversed in the cabin of an aircraft far above the world. My parents have recently returned home after a journey to visit me up here, but more importantly, to share a world that has become my life.

My Mom and Dad with Prim and Mr. Schue!

Though they had never been here in particular, this trip for them was certainly not the only time that they had taken time out of their lives to travel long distances in order to share with me my own. From the shores of Lake George, New York, to the Vail Valley of Colorado, my parents have done all they can to explore my life, and I myself, from the Rio Grand Valley in New Mexico, to the Hill Country of Texas, have done what I can to explore their own. With each crossing of paths, I have come to discover novelty and wonder in the people that have always been there, and the further growth of a bond that has always seemed limitless.

This isn’t always easy to see, and often times, the weight of the past or obligations of the present can distort our perspective enough to completely miss opportunities, and never is it more important to measure these parts of our lives, than when it all seems to have grown stale.

So we went sledding, my parents and I. We rode, and we talked, and despite the Upper Peninsula’s descent into my own normalcy, we discovered here together, things that none of us had ever seen or done. We loved some dogs, we walked out on the northern ice, and passed the time catching up until eventually we had to say goodbye for our next adventure.

Lake ice at Whitefish Point, Michigan

But, despite the miles that filled the space between us as they flew south, the separate worlds on which we live, seemed to orbit a bit nearer, held close by the gravity of love.

Thank God I’m A Country Boy

It usually starts with one dog, blearily crawling out from their barrel, to initiate the cascade of shrill howls that kickstarts my awareness every morning. Who needs an alarm when you have 150 Alaskan Huskies, hungry and ready for the day, right outside of your window? Granted, this certainly isn’t the only howl I’ll hear through the night, but it always seems to be the one around 6AM that rouses me from my bed and into the darkness a northern dawn.

Downstairs I can usually hear our resident expert Lynne rustling around the kitchen downstairs and preparing to go feed our next-door neighbor’s dogs before I can get out of bed. My roommate Scott continues to sleep soundly, woken up a bit later, presumably by another howl. Throwing on a sweater and my headlamp, I head downstairs to get the day rolling.

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