FIRST FIVE YEARS

Reprinted (and slightly modified) from the original Medium article.

LONDON 1975

I’m a young 21 years old, a high school dropout from Ottawa, in the thrall of photography and of Robert Frank. I somehow scrape together the money to go to London, England. I’m going to commit, to shoot my first real project.

There’s a sinister, broke, feel to the city. The IRA is in the middle of a bombing campaign, everywhere scrawled on walls of the city are the words: THE IRA RULE LONDON OKAY. I’m lonesome and lost, standing on the outside, trying to be there. I don’t know what I’m doing.

Three months of this and I was ready to throw in the towel. Enough’s enough, I thought, I can’t stand this any more. It felt like defeat because I had been thinking, when I left Ottawa for London, that I might live there. But I was too young and naïve, too unformed, really, to work it out.

Political meeting, London, 1975

OTTAWA 1975–78

I arrived back in Ottawa, Christmas-time 1975. Got a job, got some money together. Took the London work through, did an edit, made prints, felt a dissatisfaction. My next projects became more process-driven, more about the shape of light and the passage of time. Important things to discover if you want to be a photographer.

I made sketch books.

Then I saw a girl on the street, thought to myself, must have. I set about to get to know her, and I did. We became friends. Cindy.

1977, September, she moved to Toronto to go to art school. We wrote letters to each other, I’d go visit. We got to know each other better. Things happened.

End of summer, 1978 I moved there, in with her. A couple. This is the photo I gave my mother just before I left. It’s called, Me, almost disappearing.

Me, almost disappearing, Ottawa, 1977

EARLY TORONTO 1978–80

So I’m shacked up in Toronto. No diploma or certificate to my name, bit of jail time behind me, still unformed. What can a poor boy do?

I got a job working for Gendron Industries, on an assembly line in a Quonset hut in an industrial part of town. Some days I made baby carriages, other days ping pong tables. There, there’s food on the table and a roof over my head.

And then there was the home life.

I had traveled to England to find myself in a foreign country, but I didn’t find myself. I came home and somehow lucked into finding Cindy. (Or did we find each other?) She was the foreign country I’d been looking for, the one that would help me find myself.

Me, Cindy, Palmerston Blvd., Toronto, 1978

I learned so much from her. I don’t think she actually set about to teach or change me, but her way of living and her frames of reference were exactly what I needed. Over time, past the ups and the downs, I morphed and grew. Never in a straight line, sometimes forward, other times backward and, I’m sure, lot’s of sideways.

Thought I might settle down some, so I turned into a formalist. I began shooting large-format, dead landscapes at the end of the subway lines. Removing life from the equation, except as a remnant. Withdrawing in a way. It seemed somehow fitting. Or so I thought.

Me, Palmerston Blvd., Toronto, 1979

I did, though, have a little Olympus XA camera, which I used to make notes about my life. One day, in 1980 after I had made a few big, exquisite prints of the dead subject matter I’d been concentrating on, I slid a negative from the XA into my enlarger’s carrier. I made a small print of a stupid shot I’d taken of Cindy and Meredith in Mere’s kitchen. Done, I looked from my serious work to that funny, wrong, snapshot and was struck. Struck by the fact that the “serious” work I was doing just wasn’t me, then. That snapshot showed me my way.

I didn’t come from any school, I came up from the streets, that was what I knew, that was what felt right and comfortable, felt like life. And I knew then and there that if I wanted authenticity in my work, that was where I’d find it . . . from my life.

I destroyed all the prints and negatives I had been working on for two years and sold my large format landscape gear. I bought a Leica and began to shoot everything in my life. Shortly after that I found my footing and my politics began to emerge in the images I was making.

To be continued at a later date . . .

Author: Tony Fouhse

Tony is an Ottawa-based photographer.