Monday, September 26, 2011

Dan Bouman

Dan Bouman. Photographer. Conservationalist. Taken June 28, 2011

In 2005 Dan Bouman turned a room in the Gibsons Public Art Gallery into a giant camera obscura. Entering it was an unusual and strangely unsettling experience. It was a bright sunny day in lower Gibsons and the interior of the camera was very dark. It took about four minuted for my eyes to adjust to the light. But when they did I could see the water, the dock and fishing boats of the harbour inverted and "projected" on the wall of the room. It made even ordinary events like the passage of a car or the progress of a person seem magical. As if the movement confirmed that this was not simply a reflection or faint slide projection, but was, in fact a copy of reality. The magic was accomplished with no more than darkness and a tiny hole placed in exactly the right spot.

There is a famous scene in the Pressburger and Powel film A Matter of Life and Death (also known as Stairway to Heaven) that opens with a man in a camera obscura, observing, godlike, the daily goings on in his English village at the time of the second world war. The scene has implications for what will transpire in the rest of the film. [I've embedded the clip at the end of this post.]

Dan is also the man behind a set of very well done photos of thespians in the Heritage Playhouse. Mostly completed around 2001, Dan took some time to set up the shots. They are perfectly lit and communicate a wonderful sense of humour and drama. The photos lined the theatre entrance and I was always inspired by them every time I passed by.

On the Sunshine Coast many of us know Dan as the director of the Sunshine Coast Conservation Association. Dan is the director. His clear-headed, tireless work is much appreciated. To back up this endorsement I made an on-line donation to the SCCA the day this post went up.

Dan's camera obscura and pin-hole photography is the subject of a review in Going Coastal Magazine and a feature in The Georgia Straight by Andrew Scott. You can find out more about him in the directors page of the SCCA.

Here is an index of portraits.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Book Ten

I carried this around with me in a pannier as I cycled to work at Duthie's Bookstore on Robson Street. It became wonderfully worn. One day I was walking down Commercial Drive and I found a discarded grinding wheel. I used an exacto knife to cut a hole the exact size of the wheel in the cover of the book. I was able to fit it in. It was a snug fit and it stayed put.

Among the finds that this book records are the journals of Peter Beard. I would take a copy of The Adventures and Misadventures of Peter Beard in Africa away on my lunch break and I would make colour photocopies of key pages. It was a revelation. I couldn't afford to buy the book at the time and it quickly became hard to find. The Duthies flagship store had a large art section with a good sampling of contemporary photography. I never realized until now the influence that it had on me.

It was here that I began the experiments that would become 25 Ways to Close a Photograph. I would look at a photograph of a person and try to come up with a description of them. The exercise was inspired by a line of commentary I once read. I've forgotten the author who was praised as "being able to convey in a few lines a more compelling description than most authors do in an entire novel." I would come up with a description, print it out, and paste it over a portrait. The effect seemed to me quite powerful. I began to scour the junk shops and antique stores for old photographs - group photos worked best. The writing seemed to take advantage of a quality that was at the centre of photography itself. The context of a photo is like the glue that holds the photo in its album - often it simply lets go with time.

One of the books we sold at Duthies was the heavy and formidable An Autobiography by Richard Avedon. We had a display copy that was all but destroyed -  the spine was broken, signatures had come loose and the pages were very worn from customers flipping through the book. I asked the manager if I could have it. The answer was yes. I kept it closed for a long time, opening it one page at a time and trying to write a description of the person on the page. It was like a vault of inspiration. I felt like a man who had been at sea for years who had a secret basket of fresh crisp apples.

The influence of Avedon on my portraits is clear.

Here is a list of the books.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Chelsea Sleep

Chelsea Sleep. Musician and Composer. Taken June 13, 2011.

I first heard Chelsea play fiddle when she was about 16, warming up outside the Gibson's Heritage Playhouse. A remarkable player, she has since become a courageous instructor of younger fiddlers. Her group Bad to the Bow worked most of this summer in the recording studio to lay down tracks for their first CD. Together with Emilyn Stam Chelsea also formed The Twisted String, a group dedicated to performing the work of legendary Canadian composer and musician Oliver Schroer. Chelsea worked closely with Oliver for a number of years before his untimely death in 2008. One of the earlier students of Michelle Bruce Chelsea was also a key player in the Coast String Fiddlers, a group that inspired an entire generation of musicians. Chelsea recently released her first CD, Simple Song.

We had a number of good things come out of the shoot. The Twisted String were well known for doing an entire-band jump in the middle of some songs. So we got a bit of air time. We also took a lot of shots of her with her violin. Given who she is, Chelsea has a lot of these and at one point she said, "you know, I have SO many pictures of me with a fiddle, I'd like something different." So we did that. One of them came out of post-production, solarized, not quite showing the tom-boy fiddler most of us know.

As a photographer the first question you run into is "is the post-processing going too far?" I've thought about that quite a bit as I go through the editing stages. Sometimes an approach to photography seems to hinge on an idea of truth. People can have very strong views on whether editing and post-processing is legitimate or not. Epistemology is contested territory in any field but it seems particularly problematic with photography. In the end I think there is no falseness in photography - only in how the photographer presents it. Said another way there are no dishonest photographs - only dishonest photographers. It's a shift in emphasis on Richard Avedon's famous statement "Every photograph is accurate. None of them is the truth."

I'm not sure why there is a need to deny the editing and post-processing in order to make a photograph seem more "artistic" or spectacular. Surely, as with any media, all the decisions someone makes are part of the art. Perhaps photography seems so invisible, and brings the subject so close, that the genius of photography is going into the world to find an exact moment - not staging it or making it up after. Obviously as a photographer who works in the studio you can't avoid staging your photos - an this leads one to be more generous with acceptance of post-processing also.

Find Chelsea Sleep's work here.

Here is an index of portraits.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Book Nine

Book nine seems unexpectedly productive. It has one of my favourite passages. A favourite because it actually happened. It goes like this:

Wednesday March 8, 1993

A week into March and still the snow persistently falls. I walk to the vacant field at noon with my father's Polaroid camera. I want pictures of the ground, traces, the footprints in the field, but instead I am drawn toward the playground. Everything is black and white except the slides and monkey bars which are blue and red. I take the pictures but I must put the polaroids next to my skin, against my chest, so that they will be warm enough to develop. I walk back across the empty field with pictures forming under the warmth of my shirt.

That night I dream of a Polaroid camera for photographing paintings. The pictures do not develop like ordinary pictures–as if someone were slowly turning on the lights in a darkened room–but rather they develop as the artist produced the painting, brush stroke by brush stroke. I point the camera at you and squeeze the release on the shutter. The picture forms slowly, through all the years of your life, your face growing into the frame; while the background flows by like a road through all the places you have ever been.

The book also contains some typographic poems made in an early graphics program for windows. They were inspired by Herbert Spencer's Pioneers of Modern Typography. I remember thinking they might make good postcards. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Here is a list of the books.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Giorgio Magnanensi

Giorgio Magnanensi. Conductor and Composer. Taken May 30, 2011.

The morning opened with torrential rain, and although it stopped by noon (when our shoot was scheduled) it was still grey and overcast. This shot was done right at the very end when we tried some very formal, very still shots. Giorgio had on a white shirt, the backdrop was white and his beard and hair were shades of grey - the whole thing came out flat and soft.

Initially I was very disappointed. In my head I wanted high-contrast. But each time I encountered this photo in my editing it jumped at me. I decided to emphasize it's natural character even more in the processing stage. The surprising result is better than I could have hoped. When I met Giorgio to give him his print for the sitting, I gave him the choice between this and another more high-contrast print in which he is speaking and looking very prophet-like. It was at a gallery opening. Nadina Tandy was also there. Everyone emphatically agreed on the image above.

I have since had this one enlarged to 2 x 3 feet and mounted on aluminum. It seems to emerge directly from the early history of photography.

Giorgio Magnanensi is the Artistic Director of the Vancouver New Music Society, and even though his work necessitates a certain fluidity with technology, he still writes all his compositions and scores by hand. He brought a CD of his recent work with Veda Hille titled Young Saint Marie. He was great to work with, full of ideas and new ways of thinking, affable and generous with his time. And yes, he does have a fantastic beard.

Find Giorgio Magnanensi's work here.

Here is an index of portraits.