Swimming & Not DrowningWednesday, August 05, 2009
Not too long ago I received an unusual invitation from a renowned local designer to help in a workshop that was to address the declining esprit de corps of the arts staff of one of our city’s best design institute/college. I attended some of the talks and these dispirited professor/artists spoke of classes that had students that spanned ages from 19 to over 50. “How do you weigh, the perhaps, mediocre portfolio of an older student when you consider what could be their contribution in maturity and having lived?" said one professor. They spoke of students who were not interested in drawing, painting or life drawing classes. They wanted to skip all that “manual stuff”. They wanted to do what they believed was the future of art and design, the computer. These professors had so much bureaucratic stuff to do, and forms to fill out that the act of teaching was almost curtailed. I knew of one art teacher who was suffering the effects of artistic revisionism. “I am not allowed to stress the skills and stature of Picasso, the artist, because he ill-treated the women of his life.”
Not being part of an arts institution I was at a loss of words as to what I could possibly contribute to help the people who were facing me. But something suddenly popped into my head and I asked, “How many of you have some sort of personal project that you are currently working on? How many of you who are photographers are taking pictures? How many of you who paint are painting?” The raised hand count was sparse. I was perhaps rude or even cruel in then saying, “Unless you have a personal project how can you possibly inspire your students to learn?”
As my photographic profession fades into irrelevance and I face students at local photography schools I feel a bit of that depression and stress of those professors I write about above. I tell my wife, “How can I teach someone to swim when I am drowning?”
A few days ago my friend Abraham Rogatnick placed in my hands a pristine Leica IIIf. It does not have a coupled rangefinder so it is a pain to focus. But it has that solid heft of a camera that was made when some cameras could also be and were works of art. My Leica (I like the ring of that!) is not going to be a museum piece. I am going to use it. I might load it with Kodak Tri-X or Plus-X. But I will use it.
If I have been low in spirits all these months it has to do with the fact that I have not been practicing what I preach. I have always had a personal project until now. I have not taken pictures for fun except the few, the very few, of my granddaughters. This has to change.
As an example many years ago I had a show of women in bathtubs. This was a personal project. I was hired to photograph architect Bing Thom for Western Living. It was about the Canada Pavilion he had designed for the Expo 92 in Seville, Spain. I asked Thom, “Have you designed any houses in Vancouver with a swimming pool?” His affirmative answer prompted me to photograph him floating in a pool. My picture was so well received that in that year I won a Western Magazine Award for the best editorial photograph. This is ample proof that the personal project nurtures inspiration to perform in an unusual and satisfying manner for those projects that may seem to some as being humdrum.
I believe as the commercial photographer that I am that if I have a personal project that I do for no purpose except to please myself I will soon find a way of doing it again for very good money. Art and commercial photography can live side by side, harmoniously.