THE MIDDLE YEARS

This is the  next instalment of my photo life . . . 1985 to 1995. Originally published in Medium Vantage. You can read the previous post in this series here.

THE MIDDLE YEARS

Now where was I? Ah, yes, I met Cindy, moved to Toronto, worked in a factory, took photos. Then Cindy and I went to Europe, spent all our money and washed up back in Canada.

BACK WHERE WE STARTED, 1985

Broke, with no prospects. We decided to go to Ottawa, where we had family. We moved into a spare room at Cindy’s parents place and almost immediately I got a job in a commercial darkroom and Cindy picked up work where she could. We scraped together enough money to move into a place of our own, a small flat on Gladstone Avenue. We were 30-years-old, it felt like we were starting over. I suppose we were.

We had left Toronto, where I made my living working on production lines in factories and now here I was, in Ottawa, doing essentially the same thing. This time, though, instead of making baby carriages and ping pong tables I was printing (mostly) boring photographs for professional photographers.

Once again, I was a slave to the grind. It would be more than a year before I picked up my camera again.

MECHANICSVILLE, 1987-89

I had spent most of my years in Toronto photographing my life, but now, in Ottawa, that subject seemed spent, devoid. And, besides, I was looking for something new — a new approach, a new challenge. Then I stumbled upon a small working class neighbourhood in Ottawa called Mechanicsville.

Mechanicsville was a pretty much self-contained community. You could feel that it was a throw-back of some kind, it was a neighbourhood that you just knew was destined to be changed by progress, by time, by gentrification.

So I set about hanging out, getting to know the people who lived there, gaining access and, I thought, some insight. This was a new way of working for me, spending the time, embedding myself, going the same place over and over, rather than grabbing images, like I used to do, as I walked by.

When I finished the project the work was exhibited at Gallery 101 in Ottawa. A lot of folks from Mechanicsville came to the opening and, let me tell you, they were not pleased. There were tears and recriminations. They though I had misrepresented their lives and their neighbourhood. Perhaps (probably) I did.

I was rocked, their reaction made me think long and hard about my point of view, about my opinions, and about how photography is not a neutral medium. About this time I also got fired from my job, it would seem that I was no longer able to fit into the shapes and forms that society required. It was time for a rethink.

NEW PATH 1990–95

What I ended up doing was, I sold my Leicas and bought a Hasselblad, not that merely buying a new tool will change your mind, or anything. But I thought I might try to make my living as a photographer and, despite my proclivity to shoot street-style I knew I didn’t want to be a photojournalist. I decided to become an editorial photographer and medium format seemed like the way to go.

In the meantime there was the home life, Cindy as a constant. Truth be told, though, my memories from this time are a bit thin. Could be the drugs I started taking again (after being clean for 10 years), or it might be the fact that we were both past the blush and rush of our youth, might be the natural result of just plain settling in, settling down. Probably a combination of all that, plus other stuff I can’t contemplate.

But I was still left with the fallout from what I had done in Mechanicsville. I began looking for a way to represent the outside world (and my relationship to it) in a way that wouldn’t terribly misrepresent that which I was photographing.

So I began photographing protesters. These, after all, were people who went out of their way to express their interests and allegiances, to show the world what they believed in. How can you misrepresent them by simply taking their picture, I wondered? (I know, I know . . . every photograph is a misrepresentation, a recontextualization, an opinion; sometimes benign, occasionally toxic, or more likely somewhere in the continuum between those two poles.)

MAKING A LIVING

There was also the problem of making a living. I was at the point where I had to figure out how to turn my obviously limited repertoire of photo-skills into money. And, by the way, I didn’t understand money. I had the notion it was bad, and I certainly didn’t know how to use it. I had no commercial skills, but I was stubborn and full of desire to make money with my camera.

The idea of assisting never crossed my mind (stupid), neither did shooting lowest-common-denominator type images. So I cobbled together a portfolio that showed what I was about and made the rounds of all the usual (local) folks who might pay for photography. And barely eked out a living.

That’ll be the next instalment . . . figuring out how to turn photos into money . . .

SIGNS

Let’s begin with a thing about signs in photographs vs photographs of signs. If that’s not your cup of tea scroll down to the second bit where you will see a bunch of 4×5 portraits I’ve posted to illustrate some hype . . .

SIGNS

Signs. They advertise, direct, inform and clutter. They are used in official ways  by businesses and governments, and in unofficial ways by ordinary citizens. There’s no escaping them, they’re everywhere. Even, and sometimes especially, in photographs.

A sign in a photograph occupies some bit of the frame but is subservient to a larger complexity the photograph is pointing to. In other words, the sign informs the image but is not its point.

On the other hand, a photograph of a sign is, well, a photograph of a sign. We see the photo, read or look at the sign and maybe we grin or shake our head at the cleverness or the stupidity of the person who made the sign. But that’s it, it’s over.

Now, there are a lot of smart photographs with signs in them. After all there’s no escaping signs, they’re everywhere. Sometimes, too, a photographer will include a photo or two of a sign in a body of work. They have a place, if used judiciously, in any record of a person’s impression of the world they live in. Sure.

But heavily relying on photos of signs as a way to get your point across seems to me to be a shorthand way of making a one-dimensional point.

Of course, the surface meaning of the sign can be neatly recontextualized if they are smartly included in a sequence of photographs. Placing an image of a sign in a larger, complex string of images/ideas can subvert the initial meaning of the sign and move the thesis of the sequence forward.

I bring this up because of the time I spent on the edit/sequence of my new project. While I was shooting that project I didn’t really know what might be useful so it was important to have enough diverse, raw data to allow for options in the edit/sequence. To this end I shot some signs . . .

These all got edited out. In the end the final edit of my project contains two photos that feature signs . . . one of a sign, the other with one.


PORTRAITURE AS EXPERIENCE

There are only 2 places left in the Portraiture as Experience Master Class I’m teaching this summer. Four Saturday afternoon’s in June that will change the way you approach creating portraits.

Besides that, this course will give you something to talk about at the dinner table. You’ll be recounting the stories that happen when you take one small step forward towards more intimate encounters. Nothing scary, just a swell, slow approach to closing the space between you and the person you are photographing.

Go here for details and to sign up.

And . . . some portraits I’ve shot over the past few years with my 4×5.

 

CHRISTINA RILEY: BORN

We all hold some idealized vision of what it means to be a mother and how we are supposed to regard that state. We’ve all been told that Motherhood is sacrosanct.

But nothing is holy unless you are a fundamentalist. And fundamentalism leaves no space for nuance, for alternate views. Things are always more complicated that any idealized version would have us believe.

With her second book, BORN, Christina Riley dares to question what it means to be a mother. Or, rather, what it means for her to be a mother.

BORN takes place during Christina’s first year of motherhood. It’s a record of her feelings of loss of self, and the contradictions she felt between what we’re told a mother is supposed to feel and what she was actually feeling.

I asked her some questions about making the photos and the costs and benefits of making work so personal.

She is doing a KickStarter to publish BORN. Here’s the link to that, and a great video where she lays it all out, so honest and true. I hope you will support this work.

Tell me a little about the genesis of, and the motivations behind, BORN.

When I became pregnant in 2013, it came as a little bit of a surprise. I had a lot going on in my life with music and photography… was there room for a baby? Some people are filled with joy and excitement upon finding out they are expecting, but I felt mostly anxious and unsure.

I knew from my past experiences, photographing myself in my life really helped me adapt and understand my situation better. It was able to give me an outside perspective that I could study and think about, distract me from the more difficult, confusing feelings going on in my head. So upon realizing I was going to do it – have a baby, I started right away photographing myself, my changing body and the way the world looked to me. The process was comforting; shooting, editing and sharing.

Right into labor I was taking pictures. Obsessed. And it continued on since my daughter’s birth, into her first years. I think being a very curious person attributes a lot to my motivation with photography. I was determined to document my strange experience through such a “normal” and “natural” thing, that really felt everything but.

Nothing can really prepare you for how you will feel or deal with the sudden change of life. I felt so alone, overwhelmed, sad, frustrated and scared, but at the same time, so much love. I never heard of how upsetting and confusing it could be. Everyone in my life always made it seem easy, beautiful and fulfilling. Feeling lost and alone really motivated me more to keep shooting, to keep searching for solid ground, for a new me. Once I realized I really had something to say, a window into a reality people don’t often advertise but commonly experience, I was motivated to share it and connect.

You talked about motivation and how you went about getting the photos. Can you connect those two things? What would cause you to think, “I need to shoot this”? What were the critical moments you mention? 

In general when I’m living my life, I have a tendency to think photographically. I sort of have this awareness that what I’m doing in the moment could make an interesting photograph that would communicate my feelings. I kind of see it from an outside perspective.  An example of a critical moment would be times where I felt like I was really losing it, at the edge of what I could handle. I think this awareness, or ability to see and document myself in this way spawned from my previous work, Back To Me.

Why do you think your work is so raw, so bare?

Throughout my life I’ve always worn my heart on my sleeve, which I think naturally carried into my personal work with photography. Why hide what is real and true?

After going to college, assisting then shooting professionally, I moved away from my close family and friends to California. I believe not having distractions or much support for a while really gave me the opportunity to experiment more with the medium as a tool of expression and therapy. Having to deal with bipolar disorder from a young age has naturally made my life emotionally tumultuous at times, therefore the rawness of my experience is impossible to avoid. By sharing myself / my life in an open and honest way, I’m able to understand myself and be understood, which is something I have struggled with forever. Photography really helps with that.

What kinds of feedback do you get from these projects? And does that feedback help you to further understand where you’re at, or do the comments you receive just confirm what you already know?

I always get curious about how the projects will be received. Some people who have viewed Born and my previous book, Back To Me, have mentioned how much they can relate to the work – that in a way, it’s reflective of their own experience in life. That type of comment is nice because it’s a reminder that I’m not alone in the emotions that at times make me feel guilty and isolated. Although feedback is important and motivating, it’s not the driving force for me.

BORN- KickStarter
Christina Riley