Bottom shelf closeup
Top shelf closeup
It was a full house as Wendy Morton and her Planet Earth Poetry series presented Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky at the Black Stilt Cafe.
Listening as Jan Zwicky reads
The Open Mike that opens every reading allows newer poets, such as UVIC student Stephanie Warner, a chance to practice their craft.
Robert Bringhurst reads
Jan Zwicky reads
Robert Bringhurst, Carla Funk, and Wendy Morton (bottom to top, at right) listen to Jan Zwicky read.
When I first began my project photographing writers, in Calgary in the late 90’s, Bob Stallworthy was my first subject. The photo above is from that shoot. The photograph is included in my first book of portraits First Chapter published by the Banff Centre Press.
BS: In Silhouette began as a series of profiles written for the Writers Guild of Alberta’s magazine, WestWord. As the number of profiles written for WestWord grew, I started to think about what else I might do with the material. I made some very informal inquiries to several publishers in Alberta about turning the profiles into a conventional book. There was interest but the conversation always ended with the comment, “You should put these on a website.” I don’t have and didn’t have a website of my own.
I was talking with Rose Scollard, publisher of Frontenac House Ltd. and told her about the profiles and what I was getting as a response. Her initial response was similar. In frustration I said, “well, would you put them on your website?” To my surprise she said yes! From that point on In Silhouette began to take shape. To be fair to every publisher I talked to, including Frontenac House, I think the main concern was whether or not there would be a strong enough and prolonged enough market for a conventional book to make it viable.
LP: Will the collection eventually be printed?
BS: In the Frequently Asked Question section permission for use of the material has been given provided the specified conditions are met. Permission includes the downloading and printing off of a hard copy of the e-book. At the moment, there are no plans to publish In Silhouette as a conventional book. If I would ever consider this, I would negotiate with Frontenac House Ltd.
LP: What criteria do you use to establish someone as an Alberta writer? You’ve recently added an interview with Tom Wayman and one could say, despite the fact that he’s now teaching at the University of Calgary, he is considered a B.C. writer.
BS: There is no real firm criteria for determining who or who is not an Alberta writer. In my mind a person has to be a resident of Alberta for at least a full year before I would consider them an Alberta writer. Having said that, there are several writers who no longer live in Alberta who will be included in the e-book because they built the majority of their career in this province. I can make a strong case for each of those writers to be included in the e-book. In any event, the decision would always be on a case by case basis.
LP: Do you conduct your interviews, in person, by phone, email?
BS: The majority of the interviews have been done in person. A few have been done over the phone. I went out and bought a tape recorder that would plug into my phone line in order to be able to do interviews this way. So far, I’ve done one by e-mail. I much prefer the face to face interview but that isn’t always possible or practical.
LP: How often do you add profiles to the collection?
BS: There is no set schedule for the addition of profiles to the e-book. Because adding to In Silhouette means shutting the website down while making the changes, I only add profiles when I have a number of them done. When I’m ready I contact the web master and arrange to have them posted to the website.
LP: How much research do you find yourself doing before you conduct an interview?
BS: I’ve been around the writing community in Alberta for 23 years so I have come to know a lot of writers in that time. To date, all of the people I’ve profiled are people I’ve known well so the amount of hard research I’ve had to do is minimal. If I’m unsure of the titles of books or the number of books I will do a search to make sure I’ve got that kind of thing correct. Similarly, I will check on what awards may have been won, especially if I think I want to talk about a specific one. However, so far I’ve found that not knowing a lot about a person allows me to follow the conversation where ever it will go without having to impose my own knowledge on it.
LP: Have you or the publisher considered expanding the series to other provinces?
BS: There have been no formal discussions about expanding the e-book beyond the borders of Alberta. Obviously, I’ve fantasied about it. This is an ongoing project that could keep me writing until I get too old or too forgetful to do it any more.
LP: The profiles are wide ranging covering everything from biography to writing habits. As a writer yourself what do you enjoy hearing about the most?
BS: As a writer, hearing about the writing habits of others is obviously interesting. But, I must confess, I’m more interested in the person’s biography. It is the biography that tells me who that person is. I like knowing what issues each writer feels are really important in their lives and how or if those things influence their writing.
LP: During interviews people can sometimes reveal unexpected facets of their lives. Any moments like these that stand out for you?
BS: I think the most unexpected finding of doing these profiles is how many people who I’ve looked up to as writers have all of the same fears about their careers that I have about mine. Many of them have now over come those fears but when they started out, they were just as unsure of whether they could get the stories out there that they wanted to tell as I was about whether I could tell the stories I wanted to tell.
A second revelation is the sudden contrast between those writers who’ve had support from their families from the very beginning and those who have had to work at their craft with little or no emotional support from those closest to them. Part of the reason for this to stand out for me is that I’ve had total support from my wife since the very beginning. It is somewhat amazing to me that those who have not had any support have continued to work hard at their writing and have turned a tough situation into a successful one.
LP: Do you have any personal favourites among the profiles?
BS: As with my poetry, my favourite profile is usually the one that I’m working on at the time. There are some which have been a bit easier to do than others, simply because I knew that individual better than others. But no, in the end there isn’t one that I could pick out as being a favourite.
LP: Who can we look for in the future?
BS: I have such a long list of people who I would like to include in the e-book, I’m not prepared to give specific names right now. It might be a surprise to the individual to find their name mentioned here before I have had a chance to talk to them about being in the e-book. I can say that I have been in touch with some well known Alberta writers who have yet to appear in the e-book. I hope to include their profiles in the e-book as soon as possible.
LP: Give us a brief profile of Bob Stallworthy.
After working as a social worker for a number of years, Bob left that field and began writing professionally at the age of 37. His poetry has been published in a number of magazines and anthologies in Canada. He has self-published two chapbooks of poetry, had a nonfiction chapbook on the history of the Old Y Community Center in Calgary and three full-length books of poetry published. His fourth book of poetry will be launched in April 2009. His work has been read on both CBC1 and CBC 2. He performed his poetry at the first Spoken Word International Writers Festival in Calgary in August 2004. His third book, Optics, Frontenac House Ltd., 2004 was short-listed for the W.O. Mitchell City of Calgary Book Prize, 2004.
Bob has been active in many areas of the writing community in Alberta over the last 23 years; participating on the Executives of several writers organizations, as a member of the Literary Festival Committee for the 1988 Winter Olympics, as a member of the Steering Committee for the first Banff-Calgary International Writers Festival, as the first Writers Guild of Alberta’s Regional Co-ordinator for the Southern Alberta Region, and the founding co-chair of the Calgary Freedom to Read Week Committee. In 2002 he was the co-recipient of the Calgary Freedom of Expression Award.
He has given workshops and readings in schools all over Alberta as well as readings in Sackville, NB, Halifax, NS and Toronto, ON. He was the Writer-in-Residence at the Drumheller Public Library in February 2005.
Bob is a full member of the League of Canadian Poets, a Lifetime member of the Writers Guild of Alberta and a member of Young Alberta Book Society.
LP: What, apart from the profiles, are you writing now?
BS: I’ve put aside writing the profiles in order to complete my 4th book of poetry entitled, Things That Matter Now. This book will be launched by Frontenac House in April 2009. Once I’ve finished working on it I’ll return to writing profiles.
LP: You’ve been involved in the Alberta writing world for a long time, any general thoughts on the state of the Alberta writing community?
BS: When I worked for the Writers Guild of Alberta in the late 1980s as Book Display Co-ordinator I was often asked, “Are there writers in Alberta?” And, of course, the answer was, “ Yes, there are a lot.” Back then I believe the display that I took around the province had less than 100 books in it. When I stopped traveling with the display after five years, in 1990, the number of books was well over 200. At that time, Alberta’s writers were just beginning to garner some real national attention, albeit that attention was still a bit hit and miss.
I think it is safe to say that the number of writers now working in this province has increased phenomenally. And now national and international recognition of Alberta writers is a regular occurrence. To the point, there are five Alberta writers short-listed for the Governor General’s Awards for 2008.
The increase in the number of writers and the number of awards being won needs to be viewed against a backdrop of political disinterest with regard to culture in general and writing in particular during the 1990s. To be sure, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts was maintained by the government of the day but the lack of interest was demonstrated year after year by the lack of increased funding for the Arts. During the same period of time there was a dramatic increase in the desire to control what was being published by Alberta publishers by controlling the funding that they received. Thankfully, this never really came to fruition.
Since the last provincial Conservative leaders’ race and the last election, and with the huge increases in revenue due to the oil patch, there seems to be an increased interest in government support of the Arts in general. The current Minister of Community Spirit seems to be making a concerted effort to show support for the cultural industry in general and writing specifically in the province. In spite of the increase in optimism, unfortunately, for Alberta writers, over the last few years a number of Alberta publishers have moved out of the province or been swallowed up by bigger organizations. This does make getting published by an Alberta publisher that much more difficult.
Despite all of the problems that seem to still be associated with a genuine support of the Arts in general and writers specifically, I believe there is good reason to be optimistic. I certainly don’t expect the number of writers in the province to decrease nor the attention that they receive.
LP: You have been taking photographs for many years, what drew you to writers?
TB: Well, I’ve also been writing. My first collection of short stories was called Wintering Over, I published an anthology called Matinees Daily, wrote for many magazines, and, during a dark and busy period of my life, ghost-wrote other people’s books. I fessed up to that last bit in an article in Maisonneuve magazine called “My Life as a Ghost.” For the record, I began publishing in the late 60s. First poetry, then reviews in the so-called counter-culture magazines of the era like Rolling Stone, then fiction. Given this background, it might have been better to have asked how I could have avoided writers.
LP: Why did you include the quotation from photographer Irving Penn (“I can say that …I found pictures trying to show people in their natural circumstances generally disappointing”) at the beginning of your book since “people in their natural circumstances” accurately describes your images?
TB: Penn’s description of “natural circumstances” is actually pretty vague since he designed a portable daylight studio and shipped it to the locations of his more remote shoots. He may have meant that the idea of “natural” is actually a highly mediated one and that it can only be approached through the artificiality of staging. That, in any event, is the meaning I took from it.
LP: Was it a challenge to find a publisher for the book? Books of photographs are expensive to produce.
TB: Indeed they are. Other publishers have been enthusiastic about the project but have suddenly vanished from my In-box when they costed the project. However, Simon Dardick of Véhicule Press pursued the project with more enthusiasm, commitment, and greater skill than the others. We applied to the Canada Council and received support from both the Visual Arts section and the Writing and Publishing section. This was particularly pleasing because so much art that combines two normally distinct areas—like writing and image-making—isn’t very interesting in either area. The Canada Council’s support of both areas was a validation of the idea and of the work itself, as well as a financial necessity.
LP: Your comments on the difference between photographing men and women were interesting, essentially that women are more sensitive about photographs of themselves. Care to comment on that further?
TB: Sure, but the word “sensitive” isolates women in a way that makes me a little uncomfortable. I’ll turn the tables for a moment and say that society finds endless ways to valorize men despite the way(s) they look. Male slackers, nerds, slobs, sexual indiscriminates, bikers, and outlaws can all find a place on the ladder of sexual status that Hollywood and society in general deliver to us. The range for women is much narrower and so often refers to their sexual availability (or not). Consequently, women have to be more “sensitive” because they’re judged by a different, and less flexible, standard.
LP: You gave each writer the instructions that your photographs would be made “where they lived, worked, or played.” Why did make this request?
TB: First, pragmatism. When I was co-editing Matrix magazine, we were, like all literary magazines, broke. So I did the editorial photography when we interviewed or profiled an author. Often, that was at the writer’s home or favourite hangout. So the work developed from there. However, there was a proscriptive side to the shoots as well as a prescriptive one. Author photography operates in what I’ll call the “everyman” mode or the “frontispiece” modes. The everyman mode takes the easy, egalitarian road: a snapshot. The frontispiece mode starts to circle the author’s pate with the literary garlands of classical art. Historically, these “garlands” were a limited set of poses, many of which were derived from classical sculpture, and a familiar set of visual references that included busts of Shakespeare or Homer, staffs, literal garlands, open books, pens, and other devices. Now, we still use many of these signs of literary and social authority, but we’re also fond of bricks (the urban, the cool), books (unchanged for the last couple of thousand years) and computer screens (savvy). So, I also told each writer that we would avoid those clichés.
LP: The writers are all English speaking and you explain why. You like to talk with your subjects and your weak French would have interfered with that. It seems though that any decision to exclude one language or another in Quebec makes it a political or ethnic issue. Do you think so?
TB: Sure it is, but if we choose to look at it that way, our feet quickly become tangled in the terminology. For instance, Anglophones are, by definition, an ethnic group within Quebec, just as, let’s say, Filipinos or Moroccan are. Who would have been bothered by a book about Filipinos or Moroccans? However, I’ll stop myself from wading any further into that swamp. Closer to Home is not about Anglo writers in Quebec, and it’s not another dusty warehouse/museum/telephone book of candid author snaps, like People magazine with a lesser degree of celebrity and titillation. It’s about the representation of writers in a more general sense, and I’m most familiar with English-language traditions of representation. Also—and this is critically important—a strong sense of common ground and trust has to be created to make a shoot successful. Remember, I’m working very hard while talking. Accomplishing all this while speaking French would have been beyond my talents.
LP: The photographs in the book are all from Montreal, have you been photographing writers from other places as well?
TB: In a limited way, yes. However, if someone comes from Dublin or Chicago, stays in a hotel, reads in a public hall, and sits in a classroom, the opportunities for establishing anything but a documentary relationship between the figure and the setting are terribly limited.
LP: What do you find is the greatest challenge to a photographer creating portraits? Is it technical, is it personality, location or a combination of everything?
TB: May I just say “a combination of everything” and be let off the hook? If not, I’ll put the availability of useable light at the top of the list. Then comes personality. For instance, if the subject insists on being seen in front of a bookcase with fingertips grazing the temples in the Arcadian mode of calm repose, I’m sunk. There is, however, another element in the photographs that’s hiding in plain sight. I’m also a printmaker, and that part of me paints with light—to borrow a phrase from Ansel Adams—on the computer. The camera does not see as the eye does; that re-creation must be accomplished by the printmaker.
LP: Do you crop your images when making prints or do you print them full frame (i.e., everything that was on the original negative or digital capture).
TB: Except for tiny bits of trimming around the edges, the vast majority are full frame. There are a few exceptions—Rawi Hage and Norm Sibum, for example. The whole full-frame thing is interesting, though, because it links to a naïve notion about the authenticity of the “documentary” image. That is, cropping is associated with lying. It’s nonsense, though. One of the first principles of all art is that of selection, and a full frame is as much of a selection as a partial frame.
LP: Montreal has a great tradition of documentary photographers. Were/are any of these photographers and their work influences on you?
TB: I wonder who you have in mind. Sam Tata? Gabor Szilasi? Louise Abbott? Serge Clément? Of course, with Serge, we’re drifting quite far past the borders of the “documentary,” but if I had to make a link, it would be with his work. He’s a very fine artist.
LP: Scanning other books on the market that showcase writer portraits reveals that they are all black and white images. You photographed originally with black and white film but now shoot digital images so have files in colour but choose to print everything black and white. What is it about black and white photographs and images of writers?
TB: There are playful and speculative answers that might nevertheless have some weight. I could say that pre-20th century frontispiece portraits are black on white, or that we see Eliot or Faulkner, or Stein primarily in black and white, and that current representation wishes to borrow from that historical authority. That has some truth in it. Also true is the fact that the colour in an uncontrolled environment can be very distracting. Colour can also make it more difficult to design a coherent frame.
LP: What makes you include or exclude details from a photograph? Your photograph of Sheila Fischman has space (walls) around her but that space is filled by photographs and mirrors while in your photo of Trevor Ferguson almost half the space is taken up by a blank wall?
TB: Trevor’s wall isn’t blank! It’s filled with patterned wallpaper that works with the patterned couch he’s sitting on. The figure is then isolated by a ground of pattern. That’s one of those designed frames I was talking about. The image of Sheila is intended to speak directly to the written text, which is about memory, loss, and reflection.
LP: You include a short description of your visit and photo session with each writer. Was it difficult to keep each piece so short? I assume that with at least some of the writers you could have written several pages about the session.
TB: The short descriptions were intended to function in ways that paralleled the function of the photographs. Like the photographs, they describe a point (or points) in time. They are suggestive of personality (of the writer-photographer as well as of the subject), and they may at times contradict the implications of the image. The idea is that neither mode communicates anything like an essential truth about character, that both are representations, that the writer being portrayed is the object of different kinds of gaze. The book, as an idea, at least, is a function of both text and image.
LP: Are your personal favourite photographs based on the image or the session/relationship with the writer?
TB: On the image entirely. I left each shoot (there were over a hundred) cursing myself for opportunities missed and technical things done poorly. I cursed myself again when I saw the failures of the negatives or the digital captures. There were only a few times when I looked into the viewfinder, immediately knew I had something good, and got it. Those were the times when I knew there was something more than chance at work in this enterprise of making photographs.
LP: Will we be able to see any of the photographs in an exhibition soon?
TB: The work has been exhibited a number of times already but the show has not travelled widely. Art exhibitions face the same problems as art book publication: they’re expensive. If the book had been conceived and marketed as the kind of collection that I dismissed earlier as a “warehouse,” there would probably be more interest in another show. Viewers and funding agencies like work that claims to speak of a locale or a people. My only claim for the photographs and written portraits in Closer to Home is that they speak of representation itself.
LP: Is this an ongoing project or does the book signal the end of this group of photographs?
TB: It’s an end.
Terence Byrnes’ work can bee seen at this website: www.springfieldfolio.terencebyrnes.com
Anonymous Bookshelf will be an now and then feature that caters to the need in all those who enjoy books to check out other readers’ bookshelves. Whether it is snobbery (Look at those books!) or jealousy (Look at those books!) we all want to have, at the very least, a quick peek.