Just as I was setting up for the shoot a vital piece of lighting gear failed. This session was taking place in an improvised studio: without lights there would be no shoot. Veda was due to arrive in about 15 minutes. I had to reconfigure and improvise. Nothing like a little pressure to focus your mind.
Veda is very sharp and she always had a thoughtful response to my questions about her song writing. I especially enjoyed talking to her about creativity and the process of writing. I should transcribe these sessions, I thought, because as I negotiate a relationship with the subject I always get amazing answers to my questions. The temptation to set up a little audio recorder on a table is overwhelming. But I am working toward an image - and I feel I must remain completely focused on the image alone.
When the shoot was over I felt I had achieved something that was sympathetic to my idea of her work. What might that be? If I could put it into words there would be no need for photographs. You can find out all about Veda's music and many musical activities at vedahille.com
It started for me, as it did for so many other photographers, with Irving Penn's natural light studio portraits. In 1945 Penn rented a photographer's studio in Cuzco Peru. Such studios were based on the painter's atelier. They usually had a roof and a north facing wall made of glass. Designed to maximize available light, in Haussmann's Paris this requirement dovetailed nicely with the least expensive rooftop garrets. Later Penn would use just such a Parisian studio to photograph some of his "small trades."
Penn devised a portable version of his studio, using nylon, aluminum poles and canvas. It could be set up by two men and was most famously used to photograph the Assaro Mudmen of New Guinea in 1970. The project was attractive to me for many reasons: the beauty of the light, the incongruity of a studio set-up in a remote area, but mostly for the formalized and intimate interaction with the subjects. Like all studio work the overt and premeditated nature of the work required the subjects and photographer to become more equal partners in the production of an image.
In the yard of our house is a carport. Built from driftwood and small timber it was originally covered in a blue tarp. I changed it to white and instantly had a garage-sized soft box. A small table for the camera and lenses, nine-foot seamless white, and some remote flashes with shoot-through umbrellas completed the set-up.
Modified slightly with additional side tarps and a clamp that allowed me to hang a shoot-through umbrella from above, the studio can be used throughout the summer - but suffers from very low light during the overcast winters of the pacific northwest. Not to mention the potential for a cold, damp, uncomfortable subject.
It is far away from Vancouver, and therefore difficult for many subjects. I've tried to recreate the soft light of this studio indoors, but it requires a large number of speedlights bounced off white walls or ceilings. Could it be made portable? More on that later ...
June 2001 - January 2002 Handmade Book Created in Grantham's Landing, Canada 11.75" x 7.5" 156 pages.
By rights, photographs should mirror the memory of the photographer. They should become blurred as memory falters. Indistinct and worn. Faded, they should hold out a tantalizing promise of detail that is often impossible to resolve into a true knowledge of the past.
The photograph above shows a table under a leafy arbour in the dappled sunlight of July, 2001. I converted it to the production of books, making, what remains, my favourite. Saying so is a minor sacrilege, like saying you love one of your children more than the others. Yet it it true.
To make the book I cut apart a shopworn edition of Herb Ritt's Pictures. I painted over the imagery with a combination of gesso and acrylic medium while keeping the grey of the pages where they showed a blur of beach or a portion of indistinct sky.
I then folded the pages - adding an extra flap so that the spine would not tear when the book was filled with ephemera. The pages, once folded, were sewn into signatures using kite string. While working on this book I carried a wooden box filled with vials of ink and several dip pens. I felt very Victorian while working away at it. It was a bit of an eccentric habit but it had its benefits. My daughter would often find special things while we were walking or sometimes, while she was away with her mother. "Here. This is for your book." She would say as she handed me something.