Lighthouse, Revisited


Opportunity knocks, or in this case calls, when you least expect. During the summer of 2010 I was contacted by Marci Cisneros, Executive Director of Tourism  for the Grand Haven Convention and Visitors Bureau. She was serving on the board of a conservation committee that had embarked on a multi-year project to maintain and restore the lighthouse. Their outreach and education efforts would require some quality images to convey the majesty of the resource. Would I be willing to contribute my talents toward the cause? Absolutely!

Embarking of the project was something of a homecoming. It has been some ten years since I first embarked on the Pier Project, an effort to photograph the Grand Haven Lighthouse through the seasons.  At the time, the project made something of a splash, providing the foundation for an exhibit at a local gallery and art show. Invariably my interest and creative energies waned, feeling I had exhausted all possibilities. Were there any vantages left to explore?  Nearly a decade later, with my mind and creative energies focused everywhere but my hometown historic structure, I would be proven wrong.

More than revisiting the same work, the arrangement afforded the most enviable of opportunities. This was to be an inside job, providing a rare glimpse into the inner bowels of the twin lighthouses that stand atop the Grand Haven Pier.  We held in our possession the golden ticket, fully sanctioned by the local Coast Guard commander and armed with master-lock keychain, clunky black wrench, and mr friendly crowbar should the door require some gentle persuasion.

All told we paid three visits to the lighthouses, cobbled together among time constraints and weather delays. Our first visit would be a dry-run, followed by a morning shoot and an evening one. It was Mid September and the pier was lightly populated with walkers and anglers who vied for salmon. Atmospheric Conditions proved satisfactory, though far from ideal.

On each outing we stealthily gained entrance through the wrought iron doors leading into the two lighthouses. We timed our entrance for a lull in interlopers. Working the steel door was not unlike opening a crypt. First the lock, then the bolt, followed by pry-bar.We snuck our way through the doors and pulled it closed again, slamming shut and ratcheting down its daisy wheel door lever, designed to ward off the harshest of Lake Michigan gales.  With a distinctive dank smell of dead spiders and rusting metal, it was a world apart from the fresh air of the public walkway.

Grand Haven’s present lighthouse dates back to 1905, though there’s been a lighthouse in this present location since 1839. Amazing to imagine the hearty souls who’ve manned this structure over the last two centuries, their job duties requiring them to routinely traverse a rickety catwalk, as the inland sea roiled beneath them. But there was no time for romanticizing. We were on a mission.

The sun was slipping rapidly toward the horizon. We fumbled to find the timer switch that illuminated a couple humble incandescent bulbs, enough to make our way through an otherwise the inky interior. Thirty minutes of visibility, enough time to climb the stairs and commence working. The exposed spiral staircase induced vertigo as we wound our way ever upward in an ever-tightening spiral. We paused momentarily on a false floor two thirds up the tower, before ascending the final ladder before emerging into the lantern room.  The original Fresnel lens was on exhibit in the local museum, replaced by the most unimpressive of LED lights. After gaining my footing, fighting my way through a labyrinth of spider webs, and overcoming that creeping, twitching fear that surely a spider must be crawling through my hair, I commenced working.

Such rare opportunities impose upon the work a certain fevered pitch. My frenetic pace only slowed by the shear exposure, as I shimmied along the narrow walkway that encircled the lighthouse, some fifty feet above the pier, its handrails barely reaching my waist. What confronted me most was how to take it all in. There was a certain novelty to the gull’s eye vantage. But simply shooting down the line of the pier lacked a certain impact. The problem was we were standing atop of the very structure that normally provide the iconic appeal and emotional resonance.  Only the widest of angles would encompass both the lighthouse and its spectacular vantage.  Even then it was a stretch. I the sun dropped and the lights were illuminating. I became increasingly late for a dinner party for which I was now more than an hour late. I had to stay, ever obsessed about capturing that certain key moment of balance in the lights, natural and manmade. The moment came and went, and I fled with a some great shots in the bag and a special memory to last.

Though I’m ever the perfectionist, I was content. Happy with the efforts we had made, despite the silly time constraints. In a matter of a couple days I would be on the plane back to Ireland. Within a week I’d be fully immersed in Cooking School. Yet It was a fabulous first attempt. My thoughts turned to next time.

Next time we bring headlamps. Next time we turn off those blasted incandescent lights that prevented the brilliant red beacon from firing up. Next time…

“Tell me we can do this again!”  I said emphatically, more statement than question.


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