John W. MacDonald – Ottawa Photographer – Interview

LP: John, you’re a visual chronicler of Ottawa, do you see Ottawa as a documentary project?

JWM: I guess I see myself as photographer who happens to live in Ottawa. I don’t necessarily think of myself documenting Ottawa as a project. That would imply that I have a vision and a plan which I don’t. Not at the moment anyway. We shall see what body of work I come up within 25 years or so. Lately I find myself wanting to visit more cities and do the same thing in other places. Though I am sure the same stuff goes on there. Money and my current family duties dictate otherwise at the moment.

Gustave Morin performs a poem on the streets of Ottawa at a Book Thug poetry reading in 2006.

LP: Do you support yourself by working as a photographer or are the images supported by another career?

JWM: It started off as the latter and then I was laid off in 2006. Now, I call myself a freelance photographer instead of calling myself unemployed. Sounds better. My web blog serves as a host for my photos and people can buy prints or request a headshot session which I am very happy to do. I have shot some family reunions and have a wedding coming up. I love event photography. It’s enjoyable to see the results come up on the monitor. I want to make photography a means to make a living. That’s my goal.

HRH Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex photographed during a special public event which celebrated Queen Victoria’s decision to nominate Ottawa as the Capital of Canada 150 years ago, 2007.

LP: A lot of your images are taken at literary events in the Canadian capital, why so many images of writers?

JWM: I am a book lover and started off as a book collector. I started going to the local literary events to get my books signed by the authors. It was that simple. I started a blog and wrote about my experiences on the literary scene. Then I started taking pictures for kicks, then got a better camera and started to photograph the authors and poets I saw in a more serious way. Then it suddenly became all about just getting the photograph and forgetting about the autograph.

A candid photo of Yann Martel just before a reading in Ottawa at Saint Brigid’s Centre for the Arts & Humanities.

LP: What can you tell us about the literary community in Ottawa?

JWM: I think it’s very supportive. People know each other and many get out to each other’s readings and book launches. It’s very sincere I feel. It’s not just about the networking. There’s a friendly and inclusive vibe. Here I am – not even a writer per se – and I can mingle and chat with a great core group of writers and poets. That’s why I still go out to all these readings. There really is something new to experience each time out. What I love about the events are all the visiting authors and poets who come here to read. I know it takes money and time for these people to visit and market their work. Therefore I feel that supporting this, if only by posting a photo, is my way of making a contribution and awareness. I wish more people would step outside their living rooms to attend a literary festival or reading. Arts and festival funding here in Ottawa is in jeopardy it seems on an annual basis. This is not a good thing.

LP: If a traveler with a literary bent were visiting, where would you tell them to go?

JWM: I was going to say Beechwood Cemetery to see some graves of writers but that may not be one’s cup-of-tea. A visit to a used bookstore might be in order. I like the feel of Patrick McGahern Books. Similarly, I love the Canadiana stock at Argosy Books, and Book Bazaar. I would also tell someone to check out Bywords.ca and see what literary event is happening that night and get out to a reading. If you happen to be near the Rideau Canal near Dows Lake, you just might bump into 2007 Giller Prize Winner Liz Hay out for a stroll. If you’re near Preston Street step on over to Pubwells; you might see poet rob mclennan doing some writing. Hungry for some classy pub food? Check out the Manx Pub on Elgin Street and have award-winning poet David O’Meara serve you a pint or two of Guinness on tap or choose from a huge selection of their Scotch Whisky menu. The Manx too crowded? Then head just next door to the Elgin Street Diner and chat it up with author, editor John Metcalf, whose wife runs the place. It’s open 24 hours a day, you can’t go wrong.

John Metcalf launched his latest memoir Shut Up He Explained at the Manx Pub in Ottawa, 2007.

Victorious poet rob mclennan gives the nasty Nathaniel G. Moore a pummeling with a folding chair. Smack! Spencer Gordon lays motionless after a vicious unwarranted attack by Moore, now bloodied. This is Canadian poetry at its finest.
LP: Tell us about some of your favourite photographs of writers.

Ahhh! An open-ended question. I could spend all day chewing your ear off about this. I assume you want me to talk about photos that were taken by other photographers. I think of Yousuf Karsh’s photos. Hemingway’s stark portrait comes immediately to mind. Pretty much anything done by Alfred Eisenstaedt. He is my main inspiration for the kind of photos I want to make. As for my own favourite photographs, well each one is a favourite otherwise I wouldn’t post it online. But if I were pressed I would tell you it’s always an interesting experience to have a camera at the ready when jwcurry’s around. I swear I can almost publish a book of photos just of him. He has such an amazingly comprehensive collection of bpNichol’s work, it boggles the mind. What’s more is that he is one of the most creative individuals I have ever met. People should buy more books from him just so you get the chance to talk to this guy in person.

jwcurry caught in the camera lens at a poetry reading at the University of Ottawa in 2008.

LP: Most photographers are rejected by a potential subject from time to time, any writer (or other person) you really wanted to photograph who just said no?

JWM: That’s the great thing about being a candid photographer. Your subject can never say no. Thankfully, I have very few negative experiences thus far. When rebuffed I always respect the person’s wish not to be photographed. It’s just common sense. However, I did have this one experience earlier this year where I asked for a posed photo of a visiting author who was doing a reading at a local bar. He agreed and we went outside for the brief shoot. And when I say brief shoot, it’s like, okay stand here, some chitchat then click, click, click. Done. I took three or four photos. I eventually posted one of them on my blog. It turned out rather nice I thought. Five months later he sent me an email to ask me to remove the photo. I happened to like the portrait very much and convinced him to let me to keep it online. He did – thankfully. But what is especially gratifying is when that same scenario gets played out, and I get an email from the person wanting to buy prints or have the photo used for an author photo or for promotional use. That’s a great feeling of accomplishment and a sense of approval for me as a photographer.

LP: What writer(s) do you really, really want to photograph?

JWM: I’ll keep this one simple. Someone with gobs of cash and who wants a new photo done every other month or so. Know of anyone interested? Seriously though, my wish list is very long and never ending. Chief among the tops are J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, Harper Lee, and J.K. Rowling. I would have loved to photograph Morley Callaghan in his youth and the late Canadian author, Hugh Hood.

LP: Your photographs have a really finely detailed look and while it appears you light some subjects, many are shot in available light. Describe your work techniques.

JWM: I always say that if a photo is worth taking, it is worth taking well. While I realize that we live in an image-driven society and people have access to all sorts of cheap cameras and camera phones, I personally want to have a camera that can be as flexible as possible and deliver the best image in a portable format: wide-angle, telephoto, macro, etc. I am a stickler for quality. I need a camera designed to take the best possible photo in any lighting situation. The quality really comes from using the best lenses available. ‘Fast glass’ as they say. As most (literary) events are in the evening and/or in basements, the lighting is usually sub-par. Lenses that are rated f/1.4 are in order for a ‘proper’ exposure in my experience.

I have almost entirely given up on using flash because I don’t think it lends itself to the photograph I want to make. It’s also intrusive. Not just to the audience members and the subject being photographed, but into the photo. You are putting light into a situation that’s not there to begin with. In a sense, the photographer is putting their footprints or presence into the subject matter of the photo. But if it is absolutely needed I see nothing wrong with on-camera-flash. It’s a tool like anything else. Now, if they can just make my D-SLR shutter quieter, that would be amazing! At times the shutter clicks are just as, if not, more annoying at a literary reading. Oh well. Sorry!

William Gibson book launch at an event hosted by the Ottawa International Writers Festival, 2007.

LP: You photograph a quite a number of political events. Do you photograph as a dispassionate observer or are you involved in events?

JWM: Being in a government town, it’s difficult to avoid *not* photographing these types of events. I would like to say that if I am wearing my photographer’s hat I can be quite dispassionate. I don’t like wearing stickers or labels or pins, save for a poppy. Some people might think that if I post a photo of a person who happens to be affiliated with a particular government party or cause that I am endorsing it. I don’t necessarily believe that this is so. I think my photos are done in a photo-journalistic, observational style. I photograph interesting things that happen around town and that which happens to catch my attention. If I am interested and engaged in in the subject matter, I feel that someone else might share in the visual experience, too.

LP: You and your wife have a son and have just been blessed with twin girls. How is that affecting the photo life?

JWM: I thought that with the birth of my son that my time for photo outings would be over. But you just find the time. It’s what I do. I am about to turn 41 and I still can’t believe the powerful feelings a parent can have for a child. It truly is a blessing to have children in your life. I know that some people can’t have this experience for one reason or another, and I am extremely proud to be a dad. But we all know it gives one an excuse to take more pictures.

LP: What do you read for pleasure?

JWM: Books are expensive and a luxury nowadays. They seriously cut into the diaper budget. I read blogs for pleasure. Mainly photo blogs. I just counted my RSS feeds. I have 114 of them I read on a daily basis, providing they are updated, of course. About 98 of them are photo-related (the rest are mainly other writer’s blogs.) I read these photo blogs for pure visual eye-candy appeal, and to keep current on what’s going on in the photography world at large. I keep thinking I should write a newspaper column on just the subject of photo blogs. I think the market is absolutely huge for people interested in reading about photography. It’s just not enough to be taking photos but to people like to read about other people’s photographic experiences. It’s quite fascinating.

John W. MacDonald self portrait

LP: Are you available for work, and if so, where/how can clients contact you?

JWM: Yes, I am available. I am willing to fly, take the train, bus, or boat to get to you. Does that sound too desperate? You can contact me via my web site http://johnwmacdonald.com. If you’re on facebook, send me a request. I’ll add you to my awesome group of friends.

Stephen Rowntree is subjected to my bookish torture in the name of getting a cool photograph.

Dr. Maria Tippett at the podium responding to audience questions from her book THE LIFE OF YOUSUF KARSH at the Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, 2007.

Scott Griffin and his wife were in Ottawa for the International Writers Festival. Taken during a photo-op at Rockcliffe Airport 18 April 2006, he’s pictured at Ottawa’s Rockcliffe Airport in a CF-WMJ, his Cessna 180.

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