By Tim Querengesser -- Before I drove to Yellowknife from southern Ontario I took an afternoon at my parents’ house to flip through family photographs my mother keeps in a shoebox. Inside, just as I remembered it, there appeared a photo I was unconsciously searching for. My first day of kindergarten as shot by my dad.
I stand in it with terror on my face and fragile grasshopper legs that look ready to snap. Behind me sits a school bus; to my left are maple trees. Twenty-six years later I remember this scene as vividly as the photograph captures it. The blinding white noon sun, the yellow bus reflecting the light like a golden brick under a spotlight, the subdued browns and greens of the trees the only relief for the eyes.
But after returning to Canada from a year in Africa, what jumped out at me was the light. To my eyes the photo appeared murky, as if it was missing a colour.
At 6 a.m. in Nairobi, Kenya, a golden sun launches like a rocket into the sky and bathes everything in a deep, warm yellow. Under this appeared tones unknown to my Canadian eyes. Reds, greens, blues and yellows came alive. Paint looked permanently wet. Everything looked heated, like the air. I didn’t understand it until I left. Back under the bleached-white sun of southern Ontario – a light that seems only to accentuate the place’s love for concrete – I suddenly grasped my loss. I missed the yellow equatorial sun.
Call me romantic but I think light is a reason I’ve moved back to the North. Here at the opposite end of the spectrum there’s another kind of magic in the light. In the summer it’s not the weak daylight that stirs your spirits, but the long in-between moments at dawn and dusk that don’t happen along the equator. I call this the un-light.
In July at midnight, the North sky is full of un-light – soft pastels from a hidden sun – like an omelet painted by Monet. Under this illumination the ground sometimes looks special, too. If you’re lucky on a summer evening in Yellowknife, the Precambrian Shield can open up and reveal the copper, gold and other minerals hiding within. And of course, then there’s the winter. No other light looks as special.
Without knowing his name, I grew up painting the North of my imagination in Ted Harrison colours. Like his, mine was covered in snow reflecting cotton-candy pinks, faded blues, sleepy mauves and singing reds. And I still have a picture, from 2005, of the first Ted Harrison sky I’d seen. It was early December in Whitehorse and there, as the sun rose at 10:45 a.m., were clouds reflecting soft oranges like popsicles and the powdered purples of a tacky ‘70s suit. It made my mind wander from reality to imagination. I was hooked.
If this sounds like a discussion someone named “Star Child” would have while sharing a – cough! – communal cigarette, forgive me. But I’m not alone. In 2006, “Dutch Light,” an award-winning documentary by Pieter Rim and Maarten de Kroon, explored another place with mythical exceptional light: the Netherlands. Art historians have found the work of 17th-century Dutch landscape-artists like Jan van Goyen and indoor portrait artists like Johannes Vermeer (famous for his “Girl with a Pearl Earring”) unified by unique light.
Amsterdam sits at about the same latitude as Edmonton, Alberta. It therefore experiences similar, if less intense, periods of twilight at dawn and dusk. The country is also surrounded by water. To the west is the inky North Sea and at all corners are harbours, canals and streams. Some investigating the Dutch Light myth have theorized these help create the light’s unique feel. Gasses from bogs have also been touted as playing a role. But whatever causes Dutch Light some recognize it is as much a part of the Netherlands as the windmills.
Is the light up here exceptional? “To be honest, the light in the North is so unique that artists and photographers are inspired by its quality,” says artist Ted Harrison from his home in Victoria, British Columbia. If I may add, the light in the North is as much a part of the place as the temperatures and isolation. Like my father’s photograph, it is sentimental and hard to quantify. But without knowing why, it can draw you back again and again.