A TRIP TO THE ROYAL ACADEMY OF ART, DEN HAAG

Okay, my time in Groningen was over. The Noorderlicht International Fotofestival will carry on until December 1st without me. I was booked and bound to go, so I trained to Amsterdam and holed up there for the night.

Next morning made my way to Den Haag to give a Lunch Lecture to the photography students at The Royal Academy of Art, now known as KABK.

Donald Weber took me to the auditorium and kindly set me up. Then explained that they never know how many students will attend. Could be 10, could be 150. By the time I started the place was full.

I began talking about my approach, about how I do it for the experience, and that learning and discovery are very important to me. As is allowing the subject (whatever it may be) to dictate (up to a point) how it might be photographed.

When I was showing some images from USER an audience member raised his hand and made a statement. As far as I could make out he told me that addicts have no agency, are in a constant state of delirium so can’t make proper decisions about anything, and that I had no business photographing them. He seemed to be implying they shouldn’t be photographed at all.

Okay, I responded, although that’s not my experience, I understand why you might think that way. Photographing “the other” is a tricky thing. There’s a lot to be lost and little to be gained treading down that treacherous path. But, properly approached, I continued, there can be worth in working with subjects that are currently considered politically incorrect. (Especially, I thought to myself, in these extraordinarily reactionary times, the reactions coming, of course, from both the right and the left.) And in my opinion, I concluded, the risk is not only worth taking, but also necessary, otherwise our culture will just stagnate.

But this back and forth didn’t really go anywhere. He was certain I was wrong, maybe even a bad man (and is, of course, partially correct, because nothing in this world is pure). I was certain that there are, in fact, ethical ways to broach tough subjects (ditto).

With that dealt with in, really, a less than satisfactory way, I continued to the end of my talk. Don and I then made our way to his 4th year class where we were going to look at and talk about student portfolios.

After a bit of a continuation of the Lunch Lecture kerfuffle, Don began showing (referring to, really) a couple of the student portfolios. These portfolios were actually book-like compendiums of bits of 3 or 4 of their recent projects. The ones he handed to me were both quite esoteric, and I don’t really get esoteric.

Now don’t get me wrong, I recognized worth in both those book-things. Problem was the work just wasn’t speaking to me. I was not their audience.
So I got this sinking feeling that I would have nothing to contribute if all the student’s work was aimed in the general direction of academia.

But when I began to look through the portfolios and talk with the students individually I was pleasantly surprised. Most of them were going out into the world and engaging with what they chose to look at and wonder about. They were bringing back their perspectives in a way that strove to accentuate the storytelling qualities of photography in a personal, authentic and non-elitist way.

I wish I had images of the students’ work to show you. But things were moving too fast for me to even begin to think about taking the time out to photograph the portfolios. Instead I’ll break up all these words with a few random pix I shot in Holland . . .

. . . Anyway, here’s a quote from Dawould Bey that expresses what I think in a very succinct way: “. . . the best work tends to result not from the imposition of an idea on a situation, but from being responsive to what is going on once you get there. Otherwise, what results is merely the illustration of an idea.”

And that seemed to be how most of the KABK photography students were endeavouring to use photography . . . in a responsive way. As a result I saw a lot of smart, curious work in their portfolios.

All this made good sense to me, especially after immersing myself in the work on display at the Noorderlicht Fotofestival.

Much of the photography I saw in The Netherlands (at Noorderlicht and KABK) was the product of going out into the world and reacting to it in a personal, rounded and politically informed way. Those reactions (photographs) were then organized so that they communicated complicated thoughts in a non-precious manner.

And that brings me to the other thing I wanted to write about this week: The differences (generally speaking) between the photography I saw in Europe and what I’m seeing in Canada.

But this is already too long, so that’ll have to wait until next week.

Right now I’ll just get myself back home to Ottawa, via a one day stopover in Amsterdam . . .

OTTAWA NOTES

SOME SCENES FROM THE SPAO OPEN HOUSE

UPCOMING THIS WEEK. OF INTEREST.
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Olivia Johnston and Janet Tulloch: Eternal Representations

Photographer Olivia Johnston and Janet Tulloch, artist and religious studies scholar, will have a conversation about Olivia’s exhibition, Saints and Madonnas. Carleton University Art Gallery, St. Patrick’s Building (no pun intended) Wednesday, November 6th, seven to eight-thirty.

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Kat Fulwider: Voices of the Streets

Voices of the Streets will showcasKat Fulwider‘s portraits and stories of homeless and at-risk youth. The exhibition happens at Thursday, November 8th, Point Of View Gallery, 55 Byward Market Square, 2nd floor, five to eight.

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Fran Ages: The Parkland Portraits

Fran Ages will be showing her suite of images showing survivors of the Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School shooting. Saturday, November 9, Cinqhole, 5b Fairmont Ave., two to five.

GETTING TO NOORDERLICHT FOTOFESTIVAL

In which I make my way to the Noorderlicht International Fotofestival . . .
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Ottawa to Amsterdam by plane. Leave Thursday afternoon, arrive Friday morning. Six hour time difference. They’re ahead.

Airplane, Amsterdam

Amsterdam to Groningen by train.

Dutch countryside

Arrive Groningen.

Groningen Station

Walk through drizzle to the Noorderlicht offices where I meet Regina Broersma, who cooly and calmly coordinates the festival. She wrangles a million little and large details, makes the whole thing smooooth.

Regina

She takes me down the road and up a flight of steep Dutch stairs to the hotel they have arranged for me. A modest place where 8 or 10 other Noorderlicht exhibitors will be staying. I smile. It’s my kind of place.

My room
The view from the roof

Won’t sleep. Walk around Groningen, get a feel. It’s still Friday.

Friday night, thirty six hours without sleep. I crash. Twelve hours later, eight Saturday morning, I get up and bump into David Klammer, who has work in the festival. A funny, enthusiastic guy. He’s here with his friend, Herbert Wiggerman. We go for breakfast. I’ll end up spending a lot of time with these two. Big, eccentric fun.

David Klammer at breakfast

Back at the hotel David and I trade books. His, FORST, shows the time he has spent in a forest outside Hamburg. A mining company wants to clear those trees so they can dig more. Anarchists and forest-savers are occupying the forest. Putting up a fight. David hangs with them, photographs.

David showing Herbert the dummy of his book. Below, a small version of FORST.

All that took a while. Lunch and then a walk to De Zwarte Doos where my work was hung.

I had sent files of the 27 images in the show. The folks at Noorderlicht would print, frame and hang the work. A scary prospect because you’re never sure how that’s all going to turn out. I enter the building with some trepidation. Please let it look good.

As soon as I saw it I relaxed. No, that’s not exactly right . . . I didn’t relax, I became excited by how great the prints looked and how wonderfully the work had been hung.

I looked at my wall of pictures and couldn’t figure out how they had done it. Each image a block in a puzzle that, somehow, meshed perfectly.

The Dutch are masters of exhibition design and that inventiveness and attention to detail was apparent at all the exhibitions at the festival.

Here are a couple of examples: Photographs by (top) Marvin Leuvrey, at the Oude Conservatorium and (bottom) Daniël Siegersma, at the Noorderlicht Gallery.

And speaking of design, have a look at the catalogue. The folks at Noorderlicht wanted to make it affordable (in keeping with the theme of the festival this year). Foldable/pocketable newsprint for €5 (less than $7.50). Lots of photos, lots of writing. Context.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get to the opening.

Some drinks at the Noorderlicht International Fotofestival opening

On second thought, I’ll end this here. This is already too much information. You have other stuff to do, right?

Tune in next week when I’ll finally have a look at some of the work exhibited at Noorderlicht . . .

OTTAWA NOTES

CHRISTINE FITZGERALD AT STUDIO SIXTY SIX

Christine Fitzgerald has been photographing at-risk/threatened species for a while now. Her commitment to this is hard to ignore.

Captive, her new work on display at Studio Sixty Six, shows us parrots.

Installation shot: CAPTIVE, Christine Fitzgerald at Studio Sixty Six

Parrots are trafficked. Sometimes someone “needs” a parrot and, like a good consumer, they buy one. After a while the thrill is gone so they resell the bird or let it “escape”. As well, like any animals “owned” by humans, a certain amount of abuse and neglect occurs. The lucky (if that’s even the right word) parrots are rescued and rehabilitated. These are the birds that we see here.

The images are shot with a digital camera and then transformed through a number of complicated and labour intensive historical techniques involving glass plates and exotic chemicals and pigments. This results in very beautiful prints. But here the sentimentality, heroic scale and overwrought qualities that infused much of Fitzgerald’s earlier work has been dialed back.

Hyacinth McCaw ©Christine Fitzgerald

What we see are images that, while romantic, also have a slightly forensic feel. As well, the modest scale of the prints lends them a feeling of intimacy which suits the subject matter. These tweaks to her approach make the images in Captive Fitzgerald’s best photographs yet.

With work like this, though, it’s difficult to know where to draw the line between the commodification of a commodity (precious prints of trafficked parrots) and the photographer’s deeper agenda.

At any rate, these images have me thinking and talking about parrots. I suggest you go have a look and draw your own conclusions.

Cacuta moluccensis ©Christine Fitzgerald

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 . . .

UK FALL 84

This is a continuation of a history of my early years in photography. (First published in Medium/Vantage.)  Here is a link to the previous episode.

UK FALL 84

I’m not sure what we were thinking, beyond some romantic notion that by going back to a place we’d both briefly been before, a place where we’d had some intense experiences, we’d somehow be born anew. Or something. But in the fall of ’84 we sold everything we owned, scraped together some money and went to the UK.

I thought we were going to look for jobs. Cin thought it would be a good idea to take a train waaay up north, and go on a walking tour. Even though I’m no Nature Boy, even though I’m no fan of staying in hostels (the British versions of which are straight out of Dickens, or something George Orwell could have written about: harsh, regimented, often run by tyrants), even though we had hardly any money, I said, “Yes”, and off we went.

We’d walk through country for days, stay in small towns. I was stuck in a place where there was really nothing I wanted to photograph, so what I did was I shot our passage through the land, 2 people on their way to, really, nowhere, through the desolation of the UK at that time. (This was the year of the miner’s strike, a last-ditch attempt by working people to stave off the heavy hand of Margaret Thatcher. It was super violent, the verge of Civil War and that juju permeated the whole Island.)

Done, we went to London to look for jobs. We were tired and beat from our walking excursion and the social and economic climate there was just brutal. After a week or two we knew this was not the place we wanted to be. So we thought, “Where do we go from here?”.

TRANS EUROPE EXPRESS

Sick and tired in England, we bought one-way train tickets to Thessaloniki, Greece. Our friends Avi and Meredith were living there and we thought we would visit them. Feeling the failure of our UK plans, kind of depressed, nearly broke, we dragged our sorry asses across Europe to get to a place where we could rest, assess.

We passed through Paris, Dole, Vallorbe-Simpion, Venice, Ljubljana, Belgrade and Skopje. We would exit the train and spend a few hours or a day or two in each place. I felt unconnected and sort of uninterested; the only point seemed to be to reach a destination. The images I shot reflect this, passing scenes, mysterious to me, and the train taking us somewhere.

Once we got to Avi and Mere’s place in Thessaloniki, we relaxed and faced the inevitable: We had hardly any money and zero prospects. Time to go home. We went to Athens and booked the cheapest flight we could find. It wasn’t leaving for 4 days; we holed up in a fleabag hotel and waited it out.

Then we were back in Canada, back where we started. No money, no prospects. But we still had each other.

RIPPED ME A NEW ONE

Way back when (2001) I took my portfolio down to Toronto to show it to some of the folks there who have their thumb on the pulse of photography.

Last meeting of the trip was with Clare Vander Meersch. She looked through my portfolio and more or less ripped me a new one.

What Clare told me was (and my memory might not be totally accurate here), the photos were swell but were missing something. They seemed old-fashioned (or, maybe, already dated) and formulaic. Of course she said more, fleshed out the reasons for her reactions. It was a well-measured, though quite critical, response.

As I departed the meeting I mumbled to myself that she didn’t know shit. After all, I was having some success, right? And what the fuck does she know, anyway? Stuff like that.

(I should mention that I was having some success as an editorial and commercial photographer at that point. I was known for shooting classic-type B&W portraits. Lots of people dug them.)

Got in my car and began the 5 hour trip home, turning her comments over in my head the whole time.

Halfway home I wondered to myself, I wondered, what if she’s right? Could that be possible?

As I drove into my driveway in Kapital City I knew she was. Right.

That set off two years of struggle, soul-searching and exploration. I wanted to change my approach, change how my photos looked and felt and, mostly, change what they meant to me.

I won’t bore you with the rest of this story except to say that I finally, in a desert outside Los Angeles, figured out a new approach, a new (for me) way of working. It felt more modern and, somehow, true to me.

(I should mention that the changes in my work, from pre-2001 to now, are not radical. More, they are subtle shifts. Evolution, not revolution. This, in part it seems to me, is why the changes seem right.)

You see, I’m not the kind of guy who can think to himself, hmmm, my work needs to look more modern, and then just mimic someone else’s work I’d seen that struck me as modern (or trendy). Yes, there are certainly other photographers whose images have a similar look and feel to those I make (tell me a photographer’s name who has come up with something completely new in the last 30 or 40 years). But I had put in the work and the self-reflection, the trial and the error (so many errors), to arrive at this new point of departure and it just felt right. I was now at a location (in my brain) where I could set off down a new, different, path and look for new meanings.

I have always held that fateful meeting with Clare close to my heart. I thank her for her honesty and I thank myself for getting past my (bruised) ego. It changed my life.

WORKSHOPS

Speaking of critique, opinion, change and progress . . .  I want to mention that I’ll be teaching two Master Classes this summer.

One is about portraiture. It’s not a technical class (though there will be bits of that). It’s more about teaching an approach to portraiture that explores the space between you and the person you are photographing. The aim being to not just end up with a likeness of your “subject”, but rather to show you a way to work that allows for a fuller experience.

Click this link for more details.


The other deals with sequencing, or, rather, it will introduce you to a philosophy, strategies and approaches to photography that will add nuance, depth and complexity to the work you produce.

Click this link for more details.


The time and location of each Master Class is yet to be determined, but they will each probably happen one morning or afternoon a week, for four weeks. The location will be The National Gallery of Canada or SPAO.