Last year I was photographing November. I had 30 or so sheets of 4×5 film and a month to do it. Vertical landscapes.
But not really just landscapes, no, I wanted the photographs to represent how November feels. Psychological. And for those of you not from here, here November is a grey, bitter month. Foreboding.
But November light and skies are something else. On the right day they encapsulate more than just November. Some primal thing . . . the end of the world, or maybe some new beginning. I reckoned this would be a kind of a riff on my last project, After the Fact.
November 10th last year . . .
And then, November sixteenth last year, there was a huge snowfall. Overnight everything turned pretty. Damn. I didn’t want pretty.
A different road, six days after the previous photo . . .
Well, I was bummed. How are you supposed to photograph bleak and grey when there’s a soft white layer covering everything? So I abandoned the project and began to think about other things.
And then what happened? I’ll tell you what happened. Another November happened. That’s what. Turns out there’s one every year.
So I loaded up some film and went out to feel the biting wind on my face and the waning sun on my back. Once again I was in my glory, out in the world feeling . . .
And then it happened again. Snow. Lots of snow. This is what the short walk to the street in front of my house looked like on November 12th . . .
But in the meantime I’ve managed to cobble together ten images that seem to get the job done. (Ten or twelve final photographs was my aim for this project). If you want to see them big click on this. (Best seen on a large monitor for all the 4×5 goodness.)
I might revisit this again next November. I might not. We’ll see . . .
For those of you who like the competitive aspects of the art world, Figureworks Prize announces the big winner of their local portrait contest. Wednesday, November 10th at St. Brigid’s Centre for the Arts, six to ten. Some photography is involved.
OPAL Issue Nº 3: launch
Local photo publication The OPAL Community launches Issue Nº 3. Featuring photography from all over. Thursday November 21st, five thirty to nine at House of Common, 11B Fairmont Avenue (around the back).
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 . . .
SOME SCENES FROM THE SPAO OPEN HOUSE
UPCOMING THIS WEEK. OF INTEREST. ___ Olivia Johnston and Janet Tulloch: Eternal Representations
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.
___ 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.
Ottawa to Amsterdam by plane. Leave Thursday afternoon, arrive Friday morning. Six hour time difference. They’re ahead.
Amsterdam to Groningen by train.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 . . .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.