Creating an expressive photograph is the same as producing a piece of inspiring music. I would realize this analogy following my early adult experiences as a touring professional musician in Canada, during which time I enjoyed an intimate glimpse into the creative and technical world of crafting, recording, and performing music. It was the early 1980s, analog tape was the mainstay of the recording studio, and genuine musicianship was what separated the players from the posers.
The quality of your instrumentʼs source sound, and oneʼs mastery of technique, was essential. If you made a mistake in the studio, the producer/engineer would stop the tape, rewind it to the beginning, and expect you to perform another take until you got it right. Post production consisted of mixing the audio levels of the various tracks, adjusting the equalization or ʻshapeʼ of the instrumentʼs sounds, and adding subtle effects to enhance the aural experience and convey the emotion of the music.
As reels of tape were spinning and recording music, so too were spools and sheets of ﬁlm, recording light. Like the recording artists of that time, their accomplished photographer counterparts were masters of their craft as well. What set them apart from the amateurs was their understanding and interpretation of light, composition, and as Henri Cartier-Bresson would infer, recognizing ʻthe decisive momentʼ. To produce an expressive photograph, they had to get it right in camera. If you made a mistake at the time of exposure, your negative was ruined and there was no 2nd chance. Post production took place in the darkroom and consisted of adjusting the tonalities of the photograph, so as to enhance the visual experience and convey the emotion of the photograph.
Today virtually anyone with an entry-level point and shoot camera or cell phone can take a photograph, export it into a simple editing program and in moments turn out what would have been the envy of a seasoned professional just a few short years ago. While this technology has reinvigorated amateur photography around the world, it has turned the professional photography industry upside down, virtually eliminating the barrier to entry into the ﬁeld. Professional photographers today are faced with the unprecedented challenge of competing with the very people who just a few years ago would have been their clients.
To earn a living as a photographer today, one must not only possess a mastery of craft, one must also be well versed in business and marketing. I witnessed this in my role as a college level professional photography and business instructor as I taught classical ﬁlm, darkroom processes, and business/marketing, to aspiring pro photo students. Of the roughly 2% of students who went on to pursue sustainable careers in this ﬁeld, the common thread that ran through them was that of an intuitive and fundamental understanding of light. What got them there was working with light sensitive materials (ﬁlm and paper); not relying on digital tools to correct their mistakes.
As the challenges in professional photography today are playing out, a similar phenomena is unfolding in the music industry. Today a child armed with an iMac, and a keyboard, can lay down a basic track, then using GarageBand, tweak the velocity, sound, and timing of the individual keystrokes, adjust the pitch of their vocal track, and render what could be perceived as a ﬂawless performance. Today professional quality recordings are coming out of teenagerʼs bedrooms, independent record labels are the norm, and music ﬁles, like stock photographs, are being shared and distributed for free. In order to penetrate the dense fog of homogenized over produced music today and take a shot at a sustainable career, todayʼs musicians must possess the same attributes as todayʼs professional photographers. At the age of 8, my son began writing expressive and meaningful music for himself. Today at his ﬁngertips is a suite of free recording software programs through which he can edit and enhance his home recordings. As a parent, musician, and self-confessed ʻstage dadʼ, I am encouraging him to master his craft (read: get it right in camera), then look to the digital tools as a means to record and enhance the emotion behind his music.
In this digital age, ﬁlm has been elevated to an elite status and to many, has a look and ʻsoundʻ akin to music on vinyl. Interestingly enough, a trend is emerging among some new artists that embraces a sound and aesthetic that is hauntingly reminiscent of the iconic music that came out of the 70s. It is this dedication to craft and zest for keeping it real, that played a pivotal role in inﬂuencing what type of photography I would choose to pursue.
As my career in music drew to a close in 1988, lifeʼs highway pointed me in the direction of the West Coast of Canada. On New Yearʼs Eve of that year as 1988 rolled over into 1989, on the dance ﬂoor of the Savage Beagle Nightclub in Whistler BC, I met the love of my life, Cathy. Unlike myself who had chosen to abandon post secondary education, Cathy was a highly motivated student pursuing a Masters degree. Proving the theory that opposites do attract, we married in 1994 and have been together since. She stood by my side throughout my various occupations, ranging from car sales to banking to owning and operating British Columbiaʼs ﬁrst private debt counselling service. Cathy supported me throughout the peaks and valleys
of self-employment, and mothered our only child in 1999. Not only is she my best friend and soul mate, Cathy serendipitously inspired me to pursue ﬁne art photography.
In the summer of 1990, still early in our courtship, Cathy invited me to join her family for a camping vacation on Hornby Island British Columbia. Having grown up on the prairies I had yet to visit a small West Coast island. With detailed directions in one hand (painstakingly written by my future mother-in-law) and the steering wheel of my Honda Civic in the other, I made my way by ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo, then travelled north on what is now known as the old Island Highway. I arrived at the Buckley Bay ferry terminal and boarded a ferry to Denman Island. Directions still ﬁrmly grasped in my right hand, I crossed Denman Island and boarded another ferry to Hornby Island.
Driving off the ferry onto Hornby Island I immediately felt as though I had been teleported into a different world. The air smelled sweet as I took in the rustic charm of the buildings, the artistʼs road signs, and the eccentric cast of locals milling about. I followed the main road to a four-way stop and turned right, my heart raced as I read the directions indicating I was almost there. To my left I saw a glimpse of the ocean through Little Tribune Bay. A few minutes up the hill followed by a gentle right curve revealed an incredible sweeping vista known as Olsenʼs farm. A hand carved sign with the words Heron Rocks appeared signaling my time to turn off the road. As I slowly drove into the forest I noticed another sign that read ʻrespect this sanctuaryʼ. The hair on the back of my neck stood up and goosebumps rippled over my body. A few moments later I stopped in front of what was the managerʼs cabin and was greeted by the campground manager, Earl Gyselman, who directed me to Cathyʼs familyʼs campsite.
Rustic shelters crafted from beach logs were randomly dispersed throughout several acres of a southern exposed waterfront paradise. The shelters were covered in tarps and housed ingeniously equipped kitchens, many of which were equipped and stocked to last several weeks. Tents and majestic Garry Oaks dotted the landscape as did an eccentric collection of furniture crafted from driftwood. This was no ordinary campground but rather a private camping cooperative that had been started in the late sixties by a group of families seeking an alternative to over crowded provincial campgrounds. I would soon learn that Cathyʼs parents were members of this piece of Utopia.
Glancing South toward the water, the low tide revealed a topography of surreal sandstone sculptural forms. Little did I realize at the time that this magical place would soon awaken the visual artist within me and would form the foundation for what was to be my lifeʼs photography. In the years to follow Cathy and I would make annual pilgrimages to Hornby Island and this place would become an oasis in which we would escape the madness of our hectic lives in the Lower Mainland. It was during our time there that I began to dabble in photography, and would return home with rolls upon rolls of exposed color ﬁlm. I recall getting the color prints back from the lab and often feeling as though they fell short of what I saw and felt when I was there. Something was missing. Color photography seemed too documentary and I became curious if black and white could better convey what I was trying express.
I would often look at a scene and wonder to myself how the various colors within the scene would render in black-and-white? I would come to realize that the color of the object had nothing to do with how it would render in black-and-white, but rather the intensity of the light reﬂecting off the object. The real epiphany occurred when I exposed my 1st roll of black and white ﬁlm, took it to the local lab to have a contact sheet printed, only to be disappointed that the glorious cumulus clouds I thought I had photographed were not visible on the contact sheet at all. It wasnʼt until I lifted the negatives toward a light source that I saw the clouds were in fact recorded on the ﬁlm. The contact sheet or proof had not been printed properly. It was then that I decided to learn everything I could about black and white photography, so I could do it myself. I immersed myself in the Ansel Adams textbooks, read the day books of Edward Weston several times (what a great read), and embarked upon a journey of experimentation and discovery of all things black and white.
In the spring of 1994 Cathy and I married on Hornby Island and enlisted the services of local vendors for our celebration. The gifts we handed out to our guests were handcrafted vases made by local potter Heinz Lafﬁn whose portrait appears in this book. We turned to local photographer Bob Cain who agreed to photograph our wedding under the condition that it be in black-and-white and that the photos be candid, both conditions of which we eagerly agreed to. It was on our wedding day while walking through Helliwell Park that Bob and I struck up a conversation about photography. I shared with him my strong desire to pursue photography as a career. Upon hearing this he stopped and offered me a single piece of advice: “ If you decide to pursue photography as a career, always photograph for yourself”. Bob, if you should happen to be reading this, know that I ended each of my photography courses with your quote. I would like to offer my heartfelt appreciation to you for this priceless nugget of wisdom.
Shortly after Cathy and I married, our three-bedroom/two bathroom home in the suburbs of Vancouver was soon reduced to a three- bedroom/one bathroom home. My ﬁrst darkroom was now in play; the smell of developer, ﬁxer, and glacial acetic acid occasionally escaping the 3 x 4ʼ space. Our annual trips to Hornby Island offered me a brief window through which I could explore and experiment with my camera and ultimately escape from the stresses of my business. Subconsciously I sought out subject matter that was soothing, simple, and contemplative. Iʼve always had a profound appreciation for the Japanese aesthetic and it would often ﬁnd its way into my compositions. Wandering the surreal landscape of Hornby Island, I learned to slow down and see. Eventually the concept of pre-visualization would become subconscious. Standing under the dark cloth of my 4 x 5, I imagined how the tonal values in the scene would appear in print. Having gained a reasonable understanding of proper zone system exposure and development, it was time to delve into the ﬁner intricacies of printing.
Enter Bruce Barnbaum and Don Kirby. I attended intensive printing workshops with these gentlemen on two separate occasions. The ﬁrst time was in 1999 just 3 weeks after the birth of our son, the second time occurred 3 years later. It was during these visits that I saw ﬁrst hand true mastery of craft, and came to better understand the power, luminosity, and expressiveness of a ﬁnely crafted silver print. It is also during this period I learned techniques, which through practice, would allow me to truly express for myself what I saw and felt at the time of exposure.
The workshop days were long and exhausting. It was during one late evening lecture that Don conducted what I would best describe as a soul-searching mind exercise. He put a simple question to the participants, asking that while they formulate their answers they not speak to one another, nor reveal their answers until it was their turn. The question was this: What is the purpose of your photography? The room fell silent as each of the participants contemplated their answers. I wrote my answer down immediately while others shifted awkwardly in their seats. To my left a middle-aged gentleman began to weep under the pressure. After about 15 minutes of intense silence Don began to canvass the room for answers. Participants from walks of life ranging from brain surgeons and architects, to aspiring artists, began to reveal their answers while Don recorded them on a chalkboard. Answers such as ʻto share beautyʼ, ʻrecord a special momentʼ, ʻto help me relaxʼ, ʻto make moneyʼ, ʻto document my travelsʼ, ʻto record natureʼs gloryʼ, ʻescape from realityʼ, ʻget away from my wifeʼ were written on the board. Looking to establish a common thread, Don would circle the common words from each answer then conclude the lecture with another question: “When you speak with other photographers about your work, do you use these words?” As Don did during the exercise, I will leave it to you to decide for yourself the meaning in this. Incidentally my answer was one word: legacy.
In 2004 I sold my business, Cathy quit her job, and we moved to the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island. While my wife furthered her career, I began construction on what would become a state-of-the-art darkroom. This room would be my creative sanctuary, where my negatives came to life, and the parallels between music and photography would begin to reveal themselves.In the years that followed I immersed myself in photography and was given the opportunity to share what I had learned of photography and business with the professional photography students at our local college. Of the many occupations I have had in my lifetime, teaching was the most rewarding. During this period I also developed a profound appreciation of what it felt like to be a full-time professional artist, building a dedicated gallery in our home, mounting exhibitions and participating in shows and festivals as often as time would permit. The act of putting myself ʻout thereʼ would prove to be humbling beyond words. More often than not I would return home from a show having not sold a single piece. This pattern would repeat itself more times than Iʼd care to admit yet on occasion be interrupted by shows that were very successful, leading me to believe that the business of selling wall art, especially photography, is a totally random act of the Universe. I would often joke with my fellow artists and artisans that if I ever unlocked the secret to selling art at festivals, I would write a book about it. I persevered and over time my prints found their way in to homes and ofﬁces across Canada, the US, and abroad and would be published in two ﬁne magazines and a book featuring photographers whose work I had admired for years. The stars were starting to align themselves in my favor and it felt as though I may actually have I shot at building a career in this ﬁeld.
During the summer and fall of 2010 the Universe tossed me the Mother of all Curve Balls. I began to experience unusual and progressive weakness in my arms and hands. I would learn that the symptoms were that of a rare and terminal neurological disorder called Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS. A disease for which there is no cure nor effective treatment (yet), ALS invades the lives of approximately 2 out of every 100,000 people around the world (not including family, friends, and care givers).
Within a short period of time, the insidious and relentless demon that occupied my body would paralyze my arms and hands. I was told it would only be a matter of time before the paralysis would spread to the rest of my body. By the fall of 2011, I could no longer pick up a camera much less a piece of paper. My career path shifted from that of an active mid-career ﬁne art photographer, to an artist living and working with ALS.
The collection of photographs you are about to view are therefore ﬁnite, created between 1995 and 2010. They are my legacy and my songs. I hope you enjoy listening to them.
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