Monday, December 7, 2009

The Project - Part 2

This is an excerpt from my book Search for Silence.

When I was 18 my father passed away from a heart attack. It was very sudden, one day he was there, the next he was not. Several weeks later we got a call from Goodall Photo on Hargrave Street asking when he was going to come to pick up his camera.

Apparently he got this camera from somewhere and decided to have it repaired. It was always a difficult thing to explain that my father was no longer alive but I stumbled through and arranged to pick it up the next day.

Bob Goodall was a gem of a man. He carefully explained how the camera worked and would not let me pay for the repairs. He also gave me two rolls of film.

I kinda felt that my Dad had given me a gift. It was the middle of winter and I went to the Legislative Building grounds to take some pictures. I rushed back to Goodalls and was thrilled the next day to get my pictures. One of them (sadly long gone now) really struck me and I began to think that maybe this was something that I could do well.

The next day, I went to visit my girlfriend and took pictures of her as well.

They were awful, she hated them, and we broke up. I put the camera away and never touched another one for several years.

I was changed though, in Winnipeg nature mostly seemed to be something to be conquered or at least survived. It's very cold in the winter and hot in the summer. with trillions of mosquitoes lying in wait for you to enter their kill zone. But of course there is also great beauty and I began to see it.


Getting older is an interesting process and as GG's dad says, "it's not for the faint of heart." One thing I have notcied is that our past lives with us. For him and for many veterans of the Second World War, memories of the past have become increasingly more significant and tangible. One thing is certain, they have certainly become more vivid for him.

For me, I seem to be defined, to a certain extent, by my memories. The scary part is that I am less sure of them now than before.

I was talking to my sister a while ago, about the day that my dad died. This is an event that is vivid in my mind. It's almost as if it happened last week. Yet she and I remember it differently, we were together from the first moment til the ambulance left and yet there is so much that is different in the sequence and the acutal content of the events that I am left to wonder what really happened. I then spoke to my brother about it and his memory is different as well.

So over the last few years I have been asking myself how much of my memory has been altered and why that has happened. I know that everyone has their own experience of an event and that our memories are tempered by our attempts at rationalizing our experiences. I also find myself wondering what role photography plays in the contruction of our memories as I do believe that when it comes to family photography the truth of the image is not always apparent in the picture.

So here's a shot of me riding on my dad's shoulders, I have no memory of it beyond the image and yet there is something about it that speaks to me of my relationship with him.

On the other hand there are some images that speak beyond the borders of the frame. The following picture speaks volumes about my parents for me. I see so many things in the angle of my mom's head and the slope of my dad's shoulders. They should have been happy. The war was over, they were together again, starting a new life. It doesn't look that way though, does it?

It raises so many questions for me and I wonder when, exactly, this was taken, and by whom? Was it the enemy, my mother's nemesis? I rather think so...

So what I have done here it take a picture that I know little about and extrapolated my ideas on it. But I have to remember, they have little to do with reality, it's only a picture, a fragment of a complex history and really, there is no context, only questions if we care to ask them.

Ralph Gibson once told me, "context is everything".

Friday, December 4, 2009

Being In the Moment

I think that one of the great things about photography is that it is so accessible. It seems, particularly these days, that just about anyone can, in the act of making a photograph, do something that has never been done before.

There was a time when my sole intention in photography was to do just that. I must admit that I found this very daunting. How does one take original, meaningful pictures when so many others have created so many great works?

Often I was told that to be a true photographer I had to do original work. But it seemed that everything I was attempting had been done before. Whether it was a landscape, a still life, a street scene, a social or political moment, it seemed that somewhere, sometime, someone had done it before.

It was no small revelation when I realized that no two moments in time are exactly the same, no two situations, no two personalities and indeed, no two viewpoints exactly coincide. Often I would go out shooting pictures with friends only to find that no matter where we went and what we shot, our pictures were always different.

This realization gave me the license to be myself and to hold to the notion that the act of making a photograph is so loaded with potential that there is always a chance to make a really powerful and perhaps even great, picture. As a matter of fact, I came to realize that the only time that I could guarantee that I couldn't possibly make a great picture is when I wasn't actually shooting.

We all know that in photography, subject is dominant, that the subject photographed is such a powerful element that it is often difficult to see beyond it. But we also know that the subject itself, regardless of its uniqueness, is not what makes a picture great. It is how the subject is rendered that is really important.

In photography, the difference between greatness and mundanity can be measured in millimeters and milliseconds. A slight shift to the left or to the right, up or down, a tiny lag in releasing the shutter, can result in absolute failure. But when we get it right, when everything works, when the lines of force coincide, when our timing, our viewpoint, our sense of rightness all come together, then photography rises on its axis, becoming the great and wonderful medium that stops the movement of time to reveal universal truth. Therein lies the key.

Photography I suggest, is not about achieving greatness. The whole notion of being a great photographer is absurd, for photography is a way of speaking visually. It is a way of saying things that often cannot be spoken. Photography is a way of looking, of assigning significance and attributing meaning.

I also suggest that often we don't really know what we think about a thing until we photograph it. The very act of seeing within the frame forces us to confront, and hopefully think about what is happening and what we are trying to say in the picture. Sometimes it is not that clear in our minds, we only know that there is something there. Sometimes the meaning of the picture is only seen when we make the print.

Our search for meaning is a personal quest, each of us making choices as we live our lives, always seeking, always evaluating. Some people give it up, not photographers I think.

For photographers, a picture can be part of the puzzle, a chance to make some sense of our lives. Our pictures are our milestones. Some acting as questions, fewer as answers, about what it means to be human at a particular time and in a particular place.

What's important is that we have the chance, to try to understand the world on our own terms, visually, and to share our findings with other souls. Who knows, we might find meaning in the search, satisfaction in the sharing.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Project

I'm almost afraid to think of how long it has been since I made the decision to do this project. It started as a book and reaches back all the way into the mid seventies.

I have always felt a sense of urgency about my life. My father passed away in his early 50's and I had always been told how much like him I was. So I expected to have a short life. I resolved, not so much to pack as many experiences into it as possible, as to experience each day as fully as possible.

As my life progressed I found this more and more difficult to do. It seemed that much of my life was spent trying to cope with the world around me and my role in it. In the early sixties I felt anything was possible and focused on being the best person I could be, the best son, the best brother, the best catholic, but when it came to school, man, that was a tough one. But I digress and will return to that later.

It was in the 70's that I came to realize that my goals might not be met and I became an angry young man. I realized that this was destroying my experiences and my relationships. So I found myself reading and article in Psychology Today titled "Growing Up With The Dream" by Daniel Levinson, which led me to understand that my life consists of dreams, the dreams we construct about how we want to live, what we want to experience, set our direction, and the dreams we have at night, are how we sort and rationalize our experiences. I know this is a simplistic perspective but when it comes down to it, I'm a pretty simple guy.

So I began by looking at the origins of my dreams. Not the ones I had at night but the ones I made for myself, my goals and my ideas of myself and my life. Of course, my parents played a big role in this and I quickly realized that it was my father whose influence was the greatest.

For the most part, he was a remote character. Of my brothers and sisters I was probably closest to him but I never really knew him. I mythologized him in my memories.

The most important thing I knew about him was that he was a pilot before and during the war and I wanted to be one too. I was obsessed about flying. He seldom spoke about it but we had picture albums with snapshots of airplanes and the odd one of him. They fueled my imagination.

Francis Robert (Jim) Emler

This is a fleet Trainer I was told, a sweet airplane to fly. He liked open cockpit airplanes as they were the first he flew.

He was in England during the war and although he was an American, he apparently came to Canada to join the Canadian Air Force in 1939.

I thought this was fantastic and often tried to get him to talk about it but he never would.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Old Dog

As you can see from my picture in the last post, I'm not as young as I used to be and, consistent with my age I suppose, I'm not always ready to embrace new technologies.

So forgive me for posting on something that others have been doing for some time now but as I have told my students in the past, it doesn't matter if it has been done before, it's what you do with it that counts.

So here are a few forays into the world of HDR.

I feel a bit nostalgic about this picture as it was done during a sunny time in Vancouver. A time which seems sadly long gone and due to return not for many months.
If you don't know about HDR perhaps I can take a few minutes to give you the basics. HDR is an acronym which means "High Dynamic Range", it means that by stacking multiple pictures over top of each other, each taken at a different exposure, one can extend the range of the capture beyond what we normally see. This means that we can see color in the shadows even though they might normally be seen as black. So by doing say, 5 different exposures from two stops under exposed to 2 stops over exposed, stacking them together in Photoshop, and using a very sophisticated program like PHOTOMATIX by HDRSoft, we can create a picture that "sees" into the shadows while maintaining highlight quality.
The look is very illustrative but also photographic.

I got a chance to use this technique in September when we went north to visit our friends, Steve and Juliette in their wonderful hand-built home. Here's an interior looking into their living room from the staircase.

You can see the love that has been put into this house over the years. It has been built from trees that were growing on the property and recycled materials that they managed to scrounge. As you can see, these people have big hearts and great imaginations.

Here's the yard to the west with the greenhouse.

How could we not feel inspired by beauty such as this?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Starting Out

Portrait of me by Miranda Robson

Hello and welcome to my blog. I've been involved in the visual arts for over 35 years primarily as a photographer. For the last ten years, almost to the day, I have been involved in teaching photography here in Vancouver, British Columbia. It is without doubt, one of the best things I have ever done.

So I'm starting this blog for a couple of reasons, to give a forum for my thoughts and to stay in touch with the some of the wonderful people that I have met over the last ten years. If you are not a former student please know that you are welcome too.

Those of you who know me also know that I live, sleep, eat and breathe photography, or perhaps I should say imaging as I am now considering other mediums as well. (More about that later.) You also know that I am as excited about photography now as I was when I first started. How lucky we are to be involved in the arts! Every day there is something new to discover, I never know what is going to happen and what I am going to see.

By the way, Gaetanne and I went to the Winsor Gallery on Granville Street yesterday to see the drawings of BRIAN BOULTON and multi-disciplinary work of CHRISTIAN NICOLAY. If you get the chance, go see it, both of these artists do wonderful work. It is one of the most inspiring exhibitions I have seen in some time.

Here's a portrait of my dear Gaetanne. I did this shot a few years ago at Chesterman Beach at Tofino. It was her birthday and I had just given her those binoculars (after many, many hints!)