a trick of fog and mist

Fog. The weather forecast said — promised — there would be fog in the morning. So I arranged my schedule (okay, I don’t actually have anything even remotely resembling a schedule — but if I did, I’d have arranged it) so I could be downtown early in the morning. Because fog, right?

Here’s a meteorologically true thing: the only difference between fog and mist is their density as measured by the degree of visibility. They’re both just localized collections of water droplets suspended in the air. They’re essentially stratus clouds — flat, lazy, featureless clouds — hanging on at or just above ground level. Here’s the difference between fog and mist: if you can see for more than a kilometer, you’re in mist; if you can see less than a kilometer, you’re in fog.

waiting for the bus

waiting for the bus

I had both. Fog and mist. Most of the time there was a layer of fog about 10 to 20 meters above the ground, beneath which was mist. Sometimes the cloud would dip down and I was in fog; sometimes it lifted a wee bit and I was in mist.

It was very odd and strange, and even if it made photography confusing as hell, it made for an interesting walk. One moment visibility would be only a few hundred feet, the next you could see for a couple of block; one moment it was chilly and damp, and the next moment if was…well, it stayed chilly and damp, but the degree of chilliness and dampness shifted radically.

chill breeze by the river

chill breeze by the river

I was on the street by around 6:30 in the morning. At that hour, there weren’t a lot of people about. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve held a straight job, and I’d forgotten the simple fact that most folks go to work by themselves. Aside from car-poolers and folks who take public transportation, people don’t generally go to work in groups. Almost everybody I saw that morning was alone. One solitary person, moving purposefully through the fog/mist. It made them all seem isolated.

heading for the diner

heading for the diner

Isolated, but not unfriendly. I photographed several people as they walked toward me, and as they reached me I usually smiled and showed them their photo. Most of them paused long enough to admire themselves, make a joke, ask a question. The guy in the photograph below looked at his picture and said “That’s pretty good. But why did you take my picture?” I guess it was a good question because a very attractive young woman had been walking in front of him, and I didn’t shoot her photo. I said “Because you’re so purty.” He laughed, punched me gently in the arm, said “Fuck you,” and wandered off still laughing.

because you're so purty

because you’re so purty

I know that right now you’re almost certainly wondering about the etymology of fog and mist, because that’s just the sort of person you are. And aren’t you in luck, because I can tell you there’s some uncertainty about the etymology of ‘fog’ but not about ‘mist.’ Most linguists suggest fog is related to the Dutch vocht and German feucht (which, if there is any justice in the world, has to be pronounced fucked). The origins of ‘mist,’ on the other hand, are pretty clear. It comes from the Old English term mist (what a shock), which apparently referred to a ‘dimness of eyesight.’ That Old English term is believed to derive from the Proto-Indo-European meigh which meant ‘to urinate’ (and no, I’m not making this up).

In photographic terms, this means if you’re shooting in fog or mist your autofocus is fucked, which could leave you pissed.

on court street

on court street

Here’s a photographically true thing: as atmospheric conditions, both fog and mist can be dense enough to bitch-slap most autofocus systems. One of the things I’ve come to rely on with my little Fujifilm X10 is its quick and accurate autofocus, and even though it tried valiantly, the X10 wasn’t always successful.

At first it was a tad frustrating when I chimped a photo and saw it wasn’t in focus. Then I reminded myself that sharpness is a bourgeois concept. It’s also a relative notion. If the photo shows what you want it to show, that’s all that counts. Besides, black-and-white photography is more about form and line and shape and geometry than about clarity. Fog and mist are made for b&w work.

old woman

old woman

At one point I saw this stooped figure approach, moving in a slow rolling sort of gait that was oddly gorilla-like. I shot the photo above and another, and waited for the person to walk into the patch of light at the corner. It turned out to be an old Slavic-looking woman, which left me in sort of a moral quandary. Not in regard to shooting her photo; that seemed immediately inappropriate. The quandary was whether or not I should offer to carry her bag. It didn’t look particularly heavy, but that wasn’t the issue. However, it seemed a rather impertinent offer; I know how my own mother would have reacted to that offer. “What…do I look too old to carry my own bags?”

So I lowered my camera and stood there, waiting and trying to decide what to do. She shuffled on by without even looking up. And I continued on my way.

outside the bail bond office

outside the bail bond office

The fog started to lift pretty quickly after that. The X10’s autofocus breathed a sigh of relief and went back to work. There were more people on the street — some still making their way to work, some already working, some making deliveries, some just hanging out, some taking their dogs for their morning ‘walkies.’

The people with dogs were always willing to stop a moment and allow their dogs to be praised and admired. Here’s an odd thing: all of the dog-walkers I met that morning were happy to have their dogs photographed, but every single one of the people were reluctant to be photographed themselves.

in a hurry

in a hurry

Near the end of my walk I saw this woman in the photograph below standing along the promenade overlooking the riverwalk. I shot a couple frames of her standing there. She looked so sad and forlorn I felt I should speak to her. So I said “Excuse me?” and when she turned I told her I’d just taken her photograph and asked if she’d like to see it.

She smiled and said yes. When she saw it she laughed and said, “Oh good, you got the old lights on the bridge. I was just standing here admiring them.”

on the promenade

on the promenade

We chatted for maybe five minutes. She was just out taking a walk in the fog, and was as happy and cheerful as anybody I saw all morning. There was nothing the least bit sad or forlorn about her.

It was just another trick of the fog and mist.

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9 thoughts on “a trick of fog and mist

  1. I adore this post. And those photos, especially ‘heading for the diner’ although the backstory on ‘because you’re so purty’ is hard to resist. Next time you’re heading out at 6.30 in fog or even mist, call me – I’ll be there. Without the dog.

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  2. There is no justice in language: feucht is pronounced [fɔɪ̯çt].
    The German word Mist on the other hand has the meaning of “domestic animals excrement mixed with hay” – my uncle used to have a Misthaufen at his farm.

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    • Thanks Steffe…it IS a special feeling, and it’s made even more special (for me, at any rate) to be walking in misty weather and seeing almost everybody else going to work, knowing I’ll be able to go back to a warm bed in just a couple of hours.

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