Emily Carr's Melancholy Ron BurnettFriday, October 16, 2009
It may have been some 10 years ago that at a photographic group show at the Exposure Gallery (it was then on Beatty Street) I was chatting with a pleasant and young female photographer who had a picture on the wall next to mine. It was a show in which we were invited to use basic and or primitive box cameras. I think it was called The Low Tech Show. The pleasant female photographer, who was a recent graduate of the then Emily Carr Institute of Art & design, (it now has the far loftier name Emily Carr University of Art + Design with the corresponding accreditation and that mysterious replacement of & for a +) told me, “I really admire you Alex. I could never be a commercial photographer. I could never photograph sewing machines.”
Some 15 years before an apologetic Vancouver Magazine art director, Rick Staehling had called me and assigned me to do just that. I took the job because honest money from any quarters is honest money. This young woman somehow knew about my sewing machine job. I looked at her and kept my temper knowing that had she not been a woman I would have punched him on the nose!
My relationship with the institution that is Emily Carr has been a varied one. For about 13 years I was an artist/techer in the Outreach Program of Emily Carr Institute of Art & Design that was pioneered by wonder woman Nini Baird. We artist/teachers (as we were called) went to teach photography, printmaking, painting, etc to remote communities of the interior. They were usually on weekends. The program was partially funded by the Province. It was Baird’s contention that the folks in the interior paid some sort of culture tax yet got nothing for it. Baird left Emily Carr for the Knowledge Network and the program at the institute soon died.
I was later called with some regularity to teach something called Photographics to fourth year design students. I was never asked to show any kind of qulifications. I was hired on the merits of being a photographer who worked in that real outside world, that commercial world. Others were hired like designer Ray Mah and photographer James O’Mara.
I was particularly proud that one year I had my students design a record album, the inside sleeve and the centre of the record. I told my class that I was going to bring a real, live rock star. I brought Art Bergmann. I told the class that Bergmann had to approve of their individual designs and that he was going to be difficult about this. My students rose to the challenge. I remember putting in a expense for a bottle of Chivas Regal. “What’s this?” the institute accountant asked me. “You don’t expect me to bring in someone to pose for my class without paying them, do you?” I told her. They paid.After those Photographics classes I was never called again.
In early August 1997 the Straight assigned me to photograph the new president of the institute, Ron Burnett. When I went to his office he confessed a love for photography and that hatched an idea in my head. I had forgotten about this until I found Burnett’s files today and noticed the Straight tear sheet. I wondered how I had taken this photograph. The contents of the file soon refreshed my memory. I took 10 pictures of him with b+w negative film. I processed the film and chose on of the frames to print. I printed it and put a stiff cardboard backing. I wondered why I had done that. It seems I placed the print/cardboard combination on a stand outside and then put an old Pentax S-3 on its side on a tripod. I had the shutter locked on B and must of somehow placed Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida in front. I am not sure if the camera had a lens or not. With cloudy day light I photographed the setup with my medium format Mamiya RB-67.
I never saw Ron Burnett again. I looked at his sad face today and wondered why he had stared at me like that. Burnett has been at the institute, now turned university, for 14 years. I wonder if he is more cheerful now. I wonder if the art students that are graduating from his university are now reluctantly willing to “sell their souls” to commercial endeavours while pursuing their art. Or are they like that young woman in my past who was so proud of her art that she might have opted for being a restaurant server than to photograph sewing machines?