||The Spirit Of Place
by Allan Casey
For the photographer Courtney Milne, there is nothingmore spiritual than to experience beauty
OR MANY PHOTOGRAPHERS, achievement is measured inrolls of film; but for a select few, the hallmark of success is bestowed in theform of the lavish coffee-table book. With the publication of his fifthsuch book, Spirit of the Land. Sacred Places in Native North America (Viking),Courtney Milne has in a sense arrived. Getting there has involved some 300,000clicks of the shutter in 35 countries, all the provinces of Canada, and 25American states. Allan Casey spoke to Milne at the country house he shares withwife and business partner, Sherrill Miller, near Saskatoon.
Books in Canada: Your earlier landscape books were allPrairie-based. Of all the places you`ve photographed, is the Prairiestill your spiritual home?
Courtney Milne: I can almost guarantee that if you areawake right at dawn you`ll see deer here. Three days ago we had 10 -three sets of twins, three does, and a young buck with his antlers startingout, and they were all fight here, milling around the west end of the house. Ilook at that and I just think, why do I ever want to go anywhere? It`s justparadise right from our bedroom window.
BIC: You were born not far from here, but you spentmany years away from the land. You worked in film and television. But then youchucked it all quite suddenly to return to the rural Prairie.
Milne: Yes, exactly. The biggest change in my entirelife was within a very short period. My first marriage broke up, I wasdiagnosed as a diabetic, and I resigned my television job. I had no money savedor anything and bought a little shack out on the south edge of Saskatoon andmoved in. I was there for 17 years at that one address. At the time I moved in,in the middle of winter, there was no power in the building and it was 40below. My dog Sasha and I curled up around the little catalytic heater on alinoleum floor in the living room of the house and that was my start inphotography, as such.
BIC: How is your diabetes now?
Milne: It`s not bad. Two weeks after I left my high-stressexecutive job, I went back to see about getting onto insulin and they justlooked at me and said, "You don`t even have diabetes. This is incredible.Your blood sugar is totally restored to normal." It was getting out in thecountry and just having that little house and getting rid of the stress andthings. Things just shaped right up.
BIC: Your three books, Prairie Light, Prairie Dreams,and Prairie Skies [all published by Western Producer Prairie Books], showed alot of people the profound beauty of a landscape that is reputed to be boring.But you took people by surprise with The Sacred Earth [Western Producer PrairieBooks, 199 1 ]. It was truly global. How did you manage it?
Milne: For five winters I took groups down to theBahamas and had workshops in photography. And, of course, as soon as you startdoing that, you start meeting really interesting people who are involved intravel, and leading groups. And so within a couple of years I was teaching inthe Galapagos Islands and Ecuador, and then I went on to do workshops onVancouver Island for five years, and the Yukon, Hawaii, New Zealand, and so on.All of these trips were paid for by the participants, and that enabled me toget to some pretty exotic locations and spend at least a tittle time shootingon my own. And that`s how I was able to amass such a tremendous amount of theworld`s landscapes on slides.
BIC: The Sacred Earth wasn`t only photographs. Thebeautiful cutlines told a very personal and moving story about thephotographer`s spiritual journey. That doesn`t happen in the newest book.
Milne: My editor in Saskatoon, Nora
Russell, likes to call me the man of purple prose. Allmy personal stories were removed from this book quite late in the project Idrink Spirit of the Land is every bit as much a "spiritual journey,"but it was decided that this was to be a book about the places, the history,the anthropology, and particularly about the legends and mythology of thoseplaces.
BiC: Great Turtle Island is how Native people refer toNorth America. Didn`t you, as a white, Scottish -desce n d ed Canadian,feel trepidation photographing all that aboriginal culture?
Milne: I see absolutely no difference in Spirit of theLand and The Sacred Earth, in that respect. Both try to depict the notion thatregardless of race, creed, colour, or language, we share something profoundlyimportant that has a lot to do with the earth, and that cuts right acrosscultures. So the very act of showing images of the world can be shared, whetheryou`re born a Cree Indian or in my case, a transplanted Scotsman. And that`swhy I think there ought not be criticism about that approach because I`m nottrying to be somebody I`m not. I`m simply wanting to share my vision of the wayI see nature, the way I relate to the wilderness spiritually, and some of theconsistencies and similarities of that way of seeing with the Native view.
BIC: For the viewer, it`s pretty hard to separate yourphotographs from pure spirituality. Is photography your form of prayer? Milne:I had a show of my prints in the Canadian embassy in Tokyo, last summer. I wassitting with the Canadian ambassador and through an interpreter I asked thisJapanese gentleman, who was the president of the Japanese Photographic Society,if at times does he feel like, when he looks through the viewfinder, it`s astate of meditation? And he came back very abruptly in Japanese, and then itwas translated to me: "Meditation is meditation, photography isphotography. The two don`t mix."
BIC: You might have taken that as quite an insult.
Milne: Sure, sure. And maybe the truth is, I`m waymore evolved in my pursuit than he is. That`s the irony. In any case, I believethat there is nothing more spiritual than to experience beauty. And if that isso, then photography just becomes the excuse for, or the means of, gettingaccess to this beauty all the time. Framing it, leaving out the things thataren`t so beautiful and isolating the things that are exquisite. That pursuitis a completely spiritual act and there certainly are times when I amphotographing that I feel that for anybody to even speak to me would just beincredibly intrusive. Photography is my form of meditation.
BIC: And yet you catch yourself wondering about lifewithout a camera around your neck.
Milne: Having had that experience now for 10 or moreyears, of wanting to be by myself and spend long periods of time with thecamera pursuing beauty, there is also a niggling feeling that says, if you wantto go beyond this, you can`t do it with the camera any more. And so I keepasking myself, what is it that the monk has that I don`t? Is he or sheobtaining something by simply sitting quietly in nature, without any mechanicaldevices? Are those people gaining something I`m still missing because of theway I pursue what I am doing?
BIC: Anyone who has read and viewed The Sacred Earthwill know you have a great appetite for the mystical, an eye for significantsigns. Can you tell the story, for example, of how you met your wife, SherrillMiller?
Milne: A psychic from Vancouver told Sherrill that shewould meet this guy coming from a distance who made his living in photographyin an unorthodox way, and that she would meet him through a woman named Sharonor Shirley. Sher-rill mentioned this to her friend Sharon, who was theorganizer of my workshops on Vancouver Island. Sharon phoned me up and saidthere`s this woman you`ve really got to meet. I said no, I`m off photographingthe sacred places of the world and no one is going to hold me down and get meinto a domestic relationship right now.
BiQ But en route to photograph Mount Shasta, you didmeet Miller.
Milne: We went out and had breakfast together andtalked, so then I said, I`ll see how long it takes me to photograph Mount Shasta.If there is a little time left at the end I`ll be back in Vancouver and we canspend some time together. The gods were definitely working towards therelationship because the first morning of the first sacred place is that MountShasta sky in the book that`s all colours of the rainbow. That one at dawn overthe ridge. And it was like a voice just came to me and said, you show up withthe camera and we`ll look after the rest. It was bing bing bing bing I got allmy pictures of Mount Shasta and then some and went zooming back to Vancouverand had two or three days to spend with Sherrill before I flew home. Thingsjust happened with incredible speed. We were already starting to plan a trip toMexico and then a big trip around the world. She left herj ob, left herfriends, left her family, sold her place. Burnt all her bridges in Vancouverand went off with this guy with no guarantees. Quite amazing.
BiC Far from tying you down, Sherrill`s been anenormous part of your success. You`ve completed a travel book together, thePilgrim`s Guide companion piece to Spirit of the Land, and she runs your officeon the road. I`m curious about your working relationship.
Milne: We`ve been a real team. And in being part ofthat team for five years she hasn`t had much else in her life. She asks mequestions like, "Who are we, apart from the project?" And it`s afunny question, but it`s a serious question because we really don`t know. Herhealth has suffered as a result of all the travel, and stresses of the travel,and stresses of the book projects. So we`ve had to make some compromises. Themain one is that she doesn`t travel much with me any more, that if I continueto do the books and the travel, I`ll do it on my own.
BiQ Though it`s somewhat hard to separate from thespiritual element, the conservationist message in your books is devoured bynaturalists. Do you consider yourself one of them?
Milne: As long as it`s understood that I don`t knowthe name of every bird and animal out there, like Thoreau or Grey Owl. I`mcomfortable being seen as a person of the wilderness because that`s where Ifeel my heart belongs. I grew up in the middle of Saskatoon, but in one of themost beautiful and natural areas you can find anywhere: spadina Crescent. Thewhole park was my bicycle trail. I can remember going down to the river inSaskatoon and petting a beaver on the shore. I didn`t know any better andneither did the beaver, so neither of us was scared. The whole magic andmystery of the river was right there in front of me. Waking up on a springmorning and hearing that huge crack when the ice used to go out, it was a verymagical time.
BiC What about photography itself? Do you trace thatto childhood as well?
Milne: My mother spent a significant amount of time inJapan, learned Japanese, and came home with the art of tray landscape-making-where you form mountains out of a special kind of clay and decorate themwith bridges and trees, and use all kinds of special painting techniques to paintthe soils. So in a way, she was a photographer with the brush. She was doingthese very realistic mountains and I took a great interest in that, as well asdoing some of my own. I would take the 50 or 60 little figures that she had,and I would make parades of people up these mountains. She would very gentlysay to me, "In the Japanese tradition they do a mountain with just one ortwo little accents of life, not a lot. And not in the middle. Somewhere awayfrom the middle." So she was teaching me asymmetrical balance in imageswhen I was five years old. She had a real appreciation of beauty, a realappreciation of the arts. It`s a little bit bewildering to me that I went allthrough my schooling without really getting into painting, or photography. Therewasn`t much money around in those days so the idea of owning my own camera whenI was a teenager wasn`t a reality. I was well into my adult years, and wellestablished in the wrong career, before I realized that maybe before I reallyhad an opportunity to explore, get my own camera, and see what was possible.
BiQ Do you think you will ever take your own dare, soto speak, and leave your current career to explore life without a camer-a?Milne: I guess one of the things that keeps me from putting the camera down andmaking that plunge into a non-photographic existence is that I wouldn`thave a way to share beauty with others, and I do see that as an importantmission. I certainly have friends who keep reminding me of that, people who sayto me, "Thank you for sharing this stuff. It means a lot to me." Andit means a lot to me that it means a lot to them.
BiQ And what about the Prairies? Have you mined itsphotographic potential already, or are there more books to be found here?
Milne: I`ve kind of given myself a lifetime goal,which is, I`m sure, totally impossible to achieve, but a nice thing to strivefor. And that is to make a photograph that reflects each day of the year, 365photographs that would reflect the season`s change, early and late, hot and cold.
BiQ That sounds like a great book.
Milne: A great book! I`ll bring it out on my 85 thbirthday.