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.
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.
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.
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.
This post is reprinted (and slightly modified, with lots of extra photos) from the original Medium article. It is a continuation of a previous drool. article which outlined my first five years as a photographer. This is the next four years . . .
LATE TORONTO 1981-84
I wanted to shoot my life. That included my home life and the small circle of friends Cin and I had gathered. But I also wanted to shoot a larger life: sex and the body, violence and life in the city.
I finally figured out, too, that if you shoot with an open mind, let the camera do the work while your brain is somewhere in the background, you end up with what I call “piles of data”. That data can later be mined; you will find rich seams that run through it and, by carefully editing and sequencing, by arranging images into arcs of non-verbal narrative, you can define something.
I felt I had gone from emulating Robert Frank, from shooting the expected point of view (expected, if you have studied the history of photography), and was moving towards using photography to define my own intelligence, my own point of view, my own politics.
7 YEAR ITCH/TORONTO 1894
In love, like life, you go through phases. Passions fade and shift, what was once new turns into the dull routine of existence. One way to combat this is to try to live and learn in the subtle shifts and textures of a long-term thing. That is what Cin and I decided to do. Without much discussion, it just seemed like us. Determined.
We had a small circle of friends in Toronto, we’d go out, do stuff. Cin was working in kitchens, being a receptionist, making art. I was working on production lines, taking photos. We were both still interested and figuring things out. Things like what did we have to say and how can we express it, how can we get along, what do we want to do? You know, the standard stuff.
Cin and I never really had 2 nickels to rub together. End of the month we’d be rolling quarters to make the rent. One time we were so broke I had to sell the gold ring my grandfather had left me. We were approaching 30 and getting tired of what we were doing and where we were going in Toronto. So we decided, without much discussion, to move to England. Before we met Cin had lived there for a year, I had spent 4 months in London. Let’s go back, we thought.
Problem is, as we were soon to discover, you can’t go back . . .
This week we have Daniel Sharp writing about Christian Villemaire’s show at Exposure Gallery. And at the bottom of this post is an update about my call for recent photo school grads (with a bit of editorializing). But before we get to that let me tell you a story . . .
. . . I met Lordish Lewis in Rosedale, Mississippi. We talked for a while, she made us lunch. Afterward I asked if I might take some pictures of her.
While we were shooting a man crossed the street, came toward us. Lordish said, that’s my father.
She introduced us. He stretched himself to his full stature, looked into my eyes and told me, I’m 68 years old, I got 12 children, I been a man.
I replied, you’re wife must be quite a woman to have borne so many children.
Still looking right at me he said, took two wives.
There used to be a city called Hull. But in 2002 it was merged with some adjacent municipalities and that whole shebang was called Gatineau. Hull was gone.
These recent photographs reflect Christian Villemaire’s ongoing fascination with the streets, buildings and people of old Hull. Undertaking something like a project of exploration of his personal history and examination of his own identity, Villemaire ventures through the streets of Hull, taking pictures. He is curious but does not really know what he is looking for. He says, “I don’t belong to Hull. I don’t live there. My parents are from Hull. I always visited. I am taking pictures as an outsider, but not as a tourist. I visit these places over and over again, looking to capture these pictures.”
Villemaire’s larger project is titled HULL ( ), from which the photographs on display are selected. The title is inspired by the highway sign announcing the border of GATINEAU (HULL).
The parenthetical bracketing of HULL is a poetic notion of displacement. The old Hull is almost an afterthought, a sign of a former location, but the bracketing can also grammatically indicate that HULL could be considered separate from GATINEAU. A key image in the series, the photograph of the road sign GATINEAU (HULL) marks the entrance to the uncanny, awkward spaces of this exhibition.
Villemaire shows us photographs of places in Hull, in winter, mostly on overcast days. There is an odd feeling of emptiness in these spaces. People have come and gone. Of course there is the implied presence of the photographer, the viewer, the observer. To some people these spaces will seem familiar, if you know Hull. But there is an ineluctable strangeness to Villemaire’s choices of where he is looking. Curiosity and wonder inform his view, more so than estrangement and disaffection.
The E.B. Eddy building is photographed centred and square, on an empty street, with a grey luminous sky above and an empty field of snow in the lower part of the picture. Villemaire says this photograph shows a little about what we do with our heritage in Hull. The old factory is a beautiful building but it is not currently being used. It is a part of the heart of the history of Hull. Villemaire remarks that at least it hasn’t been destroyed. The mood of the scene as a quiet grey moment in winter shows the viewer this beautiful, lonely, seemingly abandoned historic industrial building in a place that used to be called Hull. The image is a eulogy for the past but somehow also conveys hope.
All but one of the photos in this exhibition are exterior images with no people. Most of the photos are square-format prints. Formally, the architecture and roadways contribute to dynamic compositions, forceful diagonals, emphatic horizontals and thrusting verticals. At the same time as these images convey a certain desolation of winter and perhaps an economic despair, there is a peculiar and awkward humour in some of the pictures. In the picture titled “W” the neighbourhood is a bit rundown, but why is that stop sign so short and does the declaration ARRÊT have any reference to the poverty of the neighbourhood?
One of the images that Villemaire says stands more as documentation is the interior of the hockey arena Centre Robert Guertin. The arena represents one of the older buildings in Hull that is destined to be demolished. Even so, Villemaire belies the claim for simple documentation when he relates that this is where his son practices hockey and Villemaire himself worked in the food concessions in the arena as a teenager. So in all these images of the streets and buildings of Hull, Villemaire selects his subjects and his point of view partly with a documentary impulse to preserve how the city looks – a document of this history and culture. But as well, he is always exploring the psychic space of his own life and his memories, and in making these photographs he is demonstrating a longing for beauty and hope for the future.
Last week I sent out a call asking recent local photo-school grads to drop me a line. I want to speak to them about their trials and tribulations. I want to find out how it’s going for them, how their expectations were met and not met.
Aside from 3 SPAO grads who I actually know, and a nibble from the commercial side of the biz, there were no other responses.
Unless, of course, you consider the many emails I received from photo school teachers and students across the country, and in the USA. Great, but it’s the local scene I want to try to understand.
That I received so much interest from outside the city and hardly any from inside suggests to me that the Ottawa Photo Scene is broken. Either that, or the folks here in Kapital City figure I’m a dickweed and don’t want anything to do with me.
I can live with being thought of as a dickweed. Geez, I probably am a dickweed (but, I like to think, not exclusively a dickweed). But the lack of verve, of cohesion, the lack of desire to raise the bar and form community that I see over and over again in this photo scene kind of bums me out. Or at least harshes my buzz.