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.