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.
Reprinted (and slightly modified) from the original Medium article.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Seven in the morning, Cindy and I are at a gas station outside Hemet, California. We’re leaning on the hood of our rental car, eating breakfast burritos and drinking coffee. Across the parking lot, on the other side of a chainlink fence, a group of men has congregated, looking for work, waiting.
Some kind of commotion begins and one of the men from the group comes running over to us. He says, there’s something wrong with that guy, I think he’s dying.
Somewhere in the background I hear someone call an ambulance. People are gathering and doing what they can to help the dying man until the medics arrive. There’s nothing we can do, so we stand there, in the parking lot.
While we’re waiting, watching, the guy who has come over tells us, I’m Johnny Slaughter Junior. Junior. My father’s Johnny Slaughter. Senior. He was a soldier in Vietnam, my mom’s Vietnamese. I grew up in Vietnam with her, I never knew my dad. He wasn’t there. When I got older I came here to look for him. I found him but he told me he don’t want to know me. So here I am.
In the distance a train goes by, its whistle blowing. The medics arrive but the man is already dead.