A Dog & Peter Bentley
Saturday, October 14, 2006
In the 80s and early 90s being in business was a respected profession. Business magazines proliferated and profited from an interest in all things executive. In those 80s I made enough money to buy a house that I certainly could not buy now. In those early 80s I photographed tons of executives with my camera low to make them look even more powerful. In the early 90s things began to change and one of the first persons to notice that change was Equity Magazine (a Vancouver magazine founded and edited by Harvey Southam) art director Chris Dahl. Every year I was assigned to photograph what Equity called the Power Elite. I would have to photograph the most important businessmen (including the then token woman called the “Ball Bearing Queen”) with photo set ups that would make them look powerful and almost intimidating.
“This year,” Chris Dahl told me, “I want you to use no lights, use a small camera and photograph these guys playing.”
Here is one example of CANFOR CEO Peter Bentley playing Frisbee with his dog in the backyard of his Southwest Marine Drive home. I cannot help but think that Chris Dahl had a special talent to see what was coming before anybody else.
April In October At The Safeway Milk Counter
Friday, October 13, 2006
I spotted the woman, a week ago, at the milk and egg counter at Safeway. I said to my wife, "April is the important month in our garden." The woman stopped momentarily and moved on. I repeated, "April is a very important month." The woman turned back and said, "My name is April." I countered, "I know but I wasn't completely sure."
The last time I saw April was on Wreck Beach 30 years ago when I photographed her with a Pentax Spotmatic-F and a 120mm lens. I had Kodak b+w Infrared film in the camera. A few weeks later we found out that April had been involved in a terrible head-on collision on her way to Whistler. I have always remembered April because she was my first nude model.
But reflecting on it I must say that April wasn't first. I photographed my wife Rosemary and daughter Alexandra in our apartment on Herodoto Street in Mexico City 38 years ago. The reason Ale is smiling here is that she had just relieved herself on her mother.
Robert Bringhurst On A Tree
Thursday, October 12, 2006
I first met poet and typographer Robert Bringhurst in 1995. My wife and I had been invited to Eve Johnson and her husband's (architect Alan James) house for dinner. At the time Eve Johnson was a food writer for the Vancouver Sun. She liked to test her new recipes. These recipes were invariably very interesting as Eve Johnson is a vegetarian. In a dark corner of the kitchen table, where we sat for dinner, I spotted a quiet man wearing glasses. He was introduced to us as Robert Bringhurst who has an interest in native issues and has written beautifully about native Canadian culture. For many of my designer friends Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographical
Style is a bible. During the meal Bringhurst talked little except to tell us that he was moving out of a house on a nearby island and that he had purchased an artist's loft near the Grunt Gallery in Vancouver. Bringhurst became very vocal only after I stated my concern that if at some point in Canada's future Quebec should declare its independence from Canada would the native people of Northern Quebec seek the protection of the federal government? How would the French Canadian generals of our armed forces react?
A few months later I was assigned by the Globe & Mail to photograph Bringhurst in his new loft. Bringhurst was not all that more talkative but he did acknowledge feeling a bit alienated in his new digs. I decided to "take" him to the forest which was and is the inspiration for much of his poetry, The Calling: Selected Poems 1970–1995
. I snapped a few shots and a few days later I went to Lighthouse Park in West Vancouver and "push pinned" his portrait to a tree. This photograph marked the beginning of a new phase in my photography that I have called conceptual portraiture. I was late at coming to this term as fellow American (Bringhurst is an American) photographer James La Bounty (who lives on Saltspring Island) was shooting this kind of stuff long before I started.
Bruce & Stan Scream - Sam Doesn't
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
At Vancouver Magazine, Chris Dahl pushed me to innovate even though I resisted. He insisted I had to do some back projection photographs. I explained that the technique was possible in Toronto where they had the equipment but in Vancouver he could forget it. Finally just not to hear him I did a series of portraits of people in the local music industry (here you see Sam Feldman) projecting slides behind them and then taking one photograph that would include the projection and my subject. It was not easy but it calmed Dahl for a while. Then Dahl said he wanted the same thing but in colour and he nagged. We chose the Canucks as our subjects. The problem is that I had to take the projection equipment to the Coliseum as the Canucks would not come to the studio. I remember having to rent a huge white canvas to use as a projection screen. In this shot of Stan Smyl (December 1985), I discovered that to get real energy I had to ask him to scream at me. This technique worked even better years later with Bruce Allen. He shouted as many obscenities as he could (he has the reputation of being an expert at this) in my direction. Since I was no more than three feet away I can attest that this was a loud experience I will never forget. Rodney Graham and Neil Wedman (both artists at the time had studios on my floor) came to see if I was okay.
Jim Taylor & Two Ice Cream Sodas
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
In August, 1984 I was dispatched for the second time, to photograph Province
sports columnist Jim Taylor. Vancouver Magazine art director Chris Dahl had not liked any of my first batch of photos because Taylor was not wearing his glasses. "Nobody is going to recognize him without them. I don't care how thick those glasses are, Alex, go back and shoot him with them on." So I reluctantly returned with my eldest daughter Ale in tow to soften the embarrassment of the "re-shoot". Somehow I was able to position my Norman 200b light in a way that it did not reflect in Taylor's eyes. The early laptop he is using was one of the Tandy/Radio Shack models. It was cutting edge. As serious as he look here he was very warm and gracious at having to pose for me a second time.
It was a relief to leave Taylor's house and I told my daughter, "I feel like having a strawberry ice cream soda. It was a hot Saturday afternoon, in the waning days of a late August summer. We went to Bar Centrale on Commercial Drive. It is now long gone but then they served the best coffee and the best strawberry ice cream. I asked for a couple of ice cream sodas. The young Italian attendant told me, "We don't have them here." So I asked him for:
1. Two tall glasses and two long spoons.
2. A couple of scoops of strawberry ice cream in each glass.
3. Two bottles of San Pellegrino.
Ale and I had the best strawberry ice cream sodas of our life.
Bill Vander Zalm - Winner & Loser
Monday, October 09, 2006
Bill Vander Zalm faced my camera many times during his ascent to power in the NPA, during his time as British Columbia Premier and after as a retired politician making good with plants. He always treated me fairly. It was difficult not to like a man who had once given me advice on how to keep a Boston fern alive. It was in Gardenworks in Burnaby and Vander Zalm was wearing Dutch wooden shoes and an elaborate headdress and costume.
But it is our date in August 1993 that I remember the best. He had resigned in 1991 and had almost disappeared from sight. Mike Campbell, de facto editor of Equity Magazine had secured an interview with him (at the Wedgewood Hotel) on the condition that the interview be not too intrusive and the photograph a pleasant one. Mr. Campbell stressed this latter point with me. The fire was crackling in the interview room and Vander Zalm, as always, was beautifully dressed. I chatted with him about our mutual interest in plants. At the time his favourite plant was Ilex crenata
, a form of Japanese Holly that resembles a box hedge. I used all the rules of photography that I knew to make the man look attractive, honest, rested and comfortable. This is the picture that ran. But just to prove how photography can lie I took another in b+w. Now when I look at both photographs I wonder which is the honest one?
Rick Staehling - Art Director
Sunday, October 08, 2006
I first met Rick Staehling about 27 years ago at Vancouver Magazine. From him I learned the ropes of shooting for magazines and a few things more. In many ways an editorial photographer (one who takes photographs to illustrate articles and essays in magazines) has to be subsirvient to the needs of the art director. A good art director will make the photographer aware of this in a most gentle manner. And Staehling was gentle, except once (even though he tried his best). He called me up one day and told me that he wanted me to photograph some sewing machines. He mentioned that since money was involved I would perhaps rise to the situation and accept the assignment. I hated the job. To make it all worse Staehling used a printing technique (mezzotint) to make my fine grain photographs look like coarse Grey Poupon Mustard. Quite a few years later, at the opening of a group photographic exhibition at a local gallery, one of my co-exhibitors (a woman) told me, "Alex I really admire you, I could never photograph sewing machines." I almost punched her in the nose! It was that evening that it finally dawned on me that Staehling, in gently assigning me to photograph just about everything that could be photographed, trained me to understand that commercial photography and art photography could go hand in hand without any conflict as long as I kept my pride in check.