Just a note to let you know this site is on a break. I’m concentrating efforts these day on my photography site at www.dondenton.ca/blog. Check it out.
Renowned Canadian poet, novelist, artist and librettist, P. K. Page has died aged 93 at her home in Oak Bay, British Columbia.
Just two days ago I’d stopped by the Cadboro Bay Book Store and asked Amber what was new in the store and she pointed out a new chapbook Cullen by P.K. Page, published by Outlaw Editions. I bought a copy and after heading out realized I was passing by the street P.K. lived on so I turned back and drove up the street thinking that if I saw someone at the window or other signs of activity I’d stop by and ask her to sign the book. The house was quiet and dark though so I drove on.
I remember a few years ago during a photo session the conversation turned to aging and facing the end of one’s life and she said (as I remember it) that she was not afraid of dying, what terrified her was not having the chance to finish all the creative ideas she had.
LP: You’ve got a new book out, a travel book, Beyond Belfast, published by Penguin. What’s it about?
WF: It’s about a two-month, 560 mile hike I did along the Ulster Way “the longest waymarked trail in the British Isles.” It was bogs, banshees and blood sausage. With sheer-drop coastlines, crumbling castles and many’s a pub.
LP: Why Northern Ireland?
WF: I was raised by the daughter of a Belfast orphan, and Northern Ireland has always been there, lurking in the background — not the least of which is due to family rumours of a lost inheritance and a possible castle of my own. My grandfather’s past is murky at the best of times, and a mystery lurks at the heart of the story.
LP: One of your first books was Hitching Rides with Buddha, where you hitchiked across Japan. As a slightly older person than you were then, were there any differences or challenges in the physical act of traveling?
WF: I’m certainly more creaky and less patient when it comes to bad meals and questionable sleeping arrangements. I camped on the trail several times in Northern Ireland, and I when I woke I always felt like I’d just come from the wrong end of a pummeling.
LP: What’s next? Are you working on another novel?
WF: The next book is a Christmas memoir with an illustrator. It’s a gift book about my own childhood in northern Alberta titled Coal Dust Kisses.
LP: Will we ever see another Canadian political/historical book from you?
WF: It may be a while. I really feel I’ve said my piece — and anyway, my Canadiana usual springs out of anger and outrage, and lately I haven’t been angry enough to launch into another extended harangue. Irked, yes. Annoyed, certainly, But not really angry.
LP: You’ll be on the road promoting this new book, do you bring reading material and if so, what for this trip?
WF: I’m reading a travel/political memoir titled Untapped. It’s about the scramble for Africa’s oil. It’s fascinating — and sobering. (Although I love writing fiction, I prefer reading nonfiction.)
Will Ferguson’s website is: www.willferguson.ca
Sometimes you don’t need a face for a portrait.
I had photographed the late Timothy Findley for my first book First Chapter and following that photo session he sat down for an interview and lunch with then Calgary Herald books editor, now best selling author in his own right, Ken McGoogan. I joined the pair and Findley’s partner Bill Whitehead and continued to take a few photos but mainly listened in. What I was treated to was an entertaining hour and a half as Findley and Whitehead, the practiced tag team that they were, traded stories, memories, observations while eating, smoking and drinking wine. i think Ken just hung on and tried to get it all down. It was an incredibly enjoyable lunch and I think this image showing Findley’s hand, glasses and wine remind me more of that encounter than the other, more traditional, portraits I took that day.
In 1969 photographer Gerry Deiter accepted an assignment to cover Beatle John Lennon and artist Yoko Ono as they spent a week in bed in a Montreal hotel. Deiter covered the entire week of the Bed-In For Peace but the photo essay ended up getting bumped from the magazine by a a breaking news story so the photographs were never published. The photos remained largely unsen until 2002 when Deiter started to exhibit them. The photographs started gathering more and more attention, culminating in an exhibition at the Royal BC Museum, a show that opened December 5, 2008. Just a few days later on December 9, Deiter suffered a heart attack and passed away.
The photographs might have disappeared from view again except for the efforts of Deiter’s friend Joan Athey who secured the rights to the images and has now compiled them in a book ‘Give Peace A Chance”. The book received an official launch in Victoria at Swan’s Hotel. More information can be found at www.peaceworksnow.com.
Joan Athey kicks off the book launch
Playwright and poet Charles Tidler gives a reading, a blow up of a Deiter photo covers a window
An overflow crowd listens and watches
Partners in life and work, writer Sandra Shields and photographer David Campion work together on long term projects, chronicling subjects they find both important and interesting. They now have a site dedicated to their work, www.fieldnotes.ca. The stories here have appeared in a number of places, magazines such as Geist, online at The Tyee and in books such as Where Fire Speaks, published by Arsenal Pulp Press. They’ve looked at, and explained, life with a disability, a tribe in Africa facing wholesale lifestyle changes and the Calgary Stampede.
I’ve always thought that documentarians were the poets of the journalism world, under appreciated and under paid, but they get closer to the core of a subject than anyone else and these two certainly prove that.
These are the two opening paragraphs from Sandra Shields essay in Valley To The Sea:
‘JEN SLEPT IN HER CAR outside the Deroche Hall for a few nights the spring she met Rope. She was seventeen and had just gotten a rose tattooed above her right breast and didn’t want her dad to find out. Her parents lived across the field from the Deroche Hall in a house they built when they got pregnant with Jen, next to a trailer court named in honour of Jen’s great-grandfather Joe Kelly, who had once been chief of the Lakahahmen Indian Band.
Rope was twenty-five and lived in his own trailer in Joe Kelly Estates. He was a white kid who grew up on welfare in Surrey. He moved out to Deroche when he got a job in a sawmill near Mission. When he learned Jen was sleeping in her car, he said she could stay with him for a while. They had met a few days earlier on a double date and had gone to a movie that none of them liked, and in the back seat on the drive home Rope fell asleep and spilled beer all over Jen. They became buddies but didn’t want to date each other. He slept on the couch and gave her his bed. ‘
Those two paragraphs draw you in and tell you more than you thought possible in such a short burst of writing.
David’s photographs both complement Sandra’s writing and tell their own version of the story.
This is the full uncropped version of the photograph at top. Photograph © David Campion
See much more of their work on their field notes site. You can also look at some of David’s fine art work at www.davidcampion.ca.
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.
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