James, Black, Harcourt & Skelly - Not Your Usual SuspectsWednesday, November 12, 2008
A long time ago I was waiting to photograph Bob Hope at a film location on West Broadway (Don Ameche was also my subject that day) when I noticed that Hope granted journalists 15 and 20 minute interviews but invited my journalist friend John Lekich to have lunch with him in his trailer. I asked Lekich about this and he told me that actors and directors had to face media so often that they made value judgments based on experience and generally gave you about 1 minute to make your case. In that minute actor and directors decide if they will open up and grant you a good interview or not. In brief even if an actor may not be too swift, experience compensates. It helps them avoid uncomfortable situations or time wasting.
I use Lekich's argument to press my case that photographers, long considered to be stupid, and in spite of it all, we do perceive stuff simply because of experience.
In Argentina we all know that the next rank for a four-star general is Presidente de La Nación. That rank can be obtained through elections but most often it has happened with a "golpe de estado". In Mexico any Mexican will tell you that only stupid and dishonest people would become politicians, "Anybody smart enough, would know better." Few Harvard graduates make it as politicians in Mexico except (and who knows why?) the exceptions have been economists working for both the Argentine and Mexican governments.
In 1975 Rosemary pressed for us to leave Mexico and move to Vancouver. She thought that Canada would be the right place for our growing daughters. In most cases she was right. In fact Rosemary has been right about everything.
There is one particular incident that makes me glory at the fact that I live in Canada and that all is well here.
Some years ago I was working under contract for Canadian Pacific Limited. The PR man Morrie Zeitlin called me one day and said, "Alex, Premier Vander Zalm is entertaining a friend who is mayor of a small town in Holland. The man is interested in trains so we are giving the Premier access to our rail yard. Meet them in front of the CP Train Station and take some pictures during the tour." At that time Vander Zalm was at his least popular. There were headlines about him every day.
I waited. Then a Volvo stopped on the other side of the station and I saw the Premier in a smart black leather jacket get out with his friend. He put quarters into the parking meter (!) and crossed the street. He beamed at me with that smile and said, "Are you ready Alex?" There he was with no police escort. No Canadian equivalent of a secret service. There he was putting quarters in the parking meter. This is what Canadian democracy is all about. We are yet (touch wood) not ready to assassinate our politicians be they unpopular or not. Many years later I had the opportunity to talk plants (using botanical Greek and Latin) with Vander Zalm and I came to realize that he really was, behind that grin, not too bad. Like all humans he had his tragic flaw. But I could sense the humanity in him.
Sensing a humanity in people is something that I have come to feel when they face my camera and I face them. I have been reading about the shenanigans at City Hall with a small measure of distaste. The fact that I live in Canada does not mean that politicians should be any more honest than they were or are in Argentina or Mexico. I have come to accept that. But it still shocks me. Were I Editor-In-Chief of the Vancouver Sun (Patricia Graham) I would assign David Baines to investigate this affair. My feeling is that Baines would probably not want to soil his excellent reputation of impartiality and honesty by delving into politics. That is a shame.
In my years of taking pictures of politicians for magazines, for political parties and for politicians themselves I have kept my humanity feeler open and here are four that have rewarded me with a feeling that I can trust them and that they will do the best for their city, province or country.
The first one was for a short time the Provincial Leader of the New Democratic Party. He was Bob Skelly. He was a handsome man who wore exquisite shark skin suits and had eyes that reflected honesty and intelligence. Unfortunately I also sense a lack of fire. It was almost as if that lack of passion was caused by a sense of tragedy. I believe this is why Skelly lost in the end. I believe that had he won, that sad streak in the man would have somehow improved us all.
I first met Mike Harcourt when our City Conselors were called Aldermen. In all my many photographic contacts with him and until a most recent one of taking personal pictures for him I had that constant sense of humanity and honesty.
I get the same feelings from Provincial NDP leader Carole James. As a matter of fact when I photograph politicians I am thinking, "Would I buy a used car from him, from her?" I am sure that James would do well even at a used car lot.
The first time I photographed Dawn Black, right, (in the middle 90s) she lost her political bid for MP in her riding for the NDP. I felt a bit ashamed of myself as I thought I was on a lucky streak since so many of the politicians I had photographed had won. I considered that in some way I had contributed a little bit. Dawn Black finally did make it and this time around she won by a smal margin a bid to unseat her from New Westminster-Coquitlam. I do hope that my latest portraits of her may have helped to re-elect her.
We Canadians deserve (but don't always get) people like her and the other three here.