With Paul Grant Gone Arts Coverage Wanes At The CBC
Saturday, August 01, 2009
Last Friday was CBC Hot Air
host and arts reporter Paul Grant’s last day at the CBC. Like many other luminaries with long years of experience at “The Corporation” he “took the package” or “was made an offer he could not refuse”. What few know is that people who take these packages are not replaced and the jobs they performed are eliminated. In Paul Grant’s case this is not quite true as his long stint as host to the popular jazz program Hot Air
has him being replaced by the charming Margaret Gallagher. Both are seen here in the photograph. I wrote about them here
. I am sure that Gallagher will do a beautiful job. But it is the other Grant position that has me losing even more enthusiasm for my CBC Radio. Grant was a most frequent contributor to a local Arts Report. Often his arts report had him sparring nicely with On the Coast
Host Stephen Quinn.
What Grant’s retirement means is that those arts reports are history until someone at the CBC with imagination and initiative (two qualities about to become extinct at our de-facto National Radio Network) can figure out a different moniker for Grant’s former job.
Gone with Grant was his enthusiasm and wonder for anything related to the arts. Some years ago when I was a member of the board of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, ticket sales for a concert involving Toronto countertenor Matthew White, right, were not moving. I called up Grant on a Wednesday (the concert was that Friday and Saturday) and asked him, “How would you like to interview a grown man who sings with a falsetto?” Grant’s answer was a short, “I would.” He then asked me, “Do you want to bring him here?” I did just that and to avoid booking problems, Grant interviewed White on a bench outside the CBC. The story ran on the radio next day and the Pacific Baroque Orchestra’s concert sold out!
There are those who say that photography and radio are not compatible. One day I called up Grant and told him, “I am having a one man show in a few weeks. The photographs are nudes of a beautiful woman of Finnish extraction holding different leaves from my hosta garden. Are you interested?” Grant came to my studio, witnessed a session and then interviewed my subject who was not wearing anything. I would say that photography, with Grant’s kind of radio, are most compatible!
Without Grant the diminishing quantity and quality of arts coverage and reporting has reached a dangerous level that puts many of our local arts organizations at the risk of disappearing almost as quickly as the quality content of our de-facto National Radio Network.
While I am no spokesperson for the arts I am sure that the arts organizations of this town would probably share my gratitude to you for a job well done. As for Gallagher, I can only request, ever so respectfully, that you dedicate a Hot Air program soon to as many versions your CBC jazz vaults might have of Gerry Mulligan playing My Funny Valentine
Addendum:Lucky for Paul, but I wonder if he'll turn up freelancing anywhere. He's not so old yet (I'd guess same age as me). But I will miss pitching him stories - I always enjoyed finding an angle for him that would work on Arts Report. The other loss is that many of Paul's Vancouver stories also ran nationally (including the one of me giving Paul a tour of PAL when we opened the building). Speaking of visual stories on radio - when artist clients touring back east emailed me about hearing me excitedly showing off my new washer and dryer.
Rich & Famous When You're Dead
Friday, July 31, 2009
|Photos by Robert Hall|
A friend of mine has just received the Order of Canada but he does not plan to be around in our present three dimensions (and that fourth one of time) to receive it. Both of us understand that posthumous awards and posthumous recognition are worthless. I am almost sure I am going to be rich and famous when I am dead. But it is not going to do me any good. I am presently attempting to convince my friend to spring for a new tuxedo and to get a round-trip ticket to Ottawa and collect the award “vivito and coleando
” (alive with one’s tail fluttering about).
It all made me remember how fleeting fame can be for even those who deserve it.
In 1967 I arrived in Mexico City from Buenos Aires not knowing what I was going to do with my life. On one side of my family they suggested I teach Spanish and English. This I did immediately. But one of my cousins seemed to know better. Robby Miranda told me, “What do you want to do?”
I answered, “I want to be a photographer but I don’t have any darkroom equipment to process the film I shoot. I would like to print my stuff, too.”
He dragged me to American Photo Supply on Avenida Madero and pulled out his American Express. “Let’s get what you need.”
If it had not been for Robby I would be doing something else today. I think I would be quite bored. Robby at the time was a dealer for Tefal frying pans and had contacts with large ad agencies. He arranged for me to teach English to the wife of a highfalutin account executive called Manrique. He then arranged for Manrique to get me to assist (without pay ) the best commercial photographer in Mexico and in Latin America. This was a German called Arno Brehme. His father, Hugo was better known as the man whose postcards introduced the world to the volcanoes and beautiful landscapes of Mexico. But Arno Brehme was shooting all the car ads for the biggest and most popular magazine, in Latin America. This was Life En Español.
I showed up at Brehme’s studio in upper Constituyentes, almost in the outskirts of Mexico City. The studio was built to resemble a huge airplane hangar. In this studio Brehme could shoot a car on one end, A bathroom in another and several more setups in between. Brehme had assistants, many of them but his principal one was called Seco (I believe). One day Brehme was shooting a row of Jell-O boxes. “Alex, where would you focus this 4x5 if you want to have the whole row of boxes in focus and sharp?” At 25 I thought I knew everything so I quickly answered (incorrectly), “Half way.” Brehme was much too gentle to pounce on me so with patience he explained the correct answer.
In those days there were many b+w photographs produced for layouts. Brehme taught me to spot the prints (remove traces of dust on negatives which produced little white spots on the photographs) with Spotone (a series of three bottles containing a dye that penetrated the emulsion of the photograph and when dry left no trace). I remember little else of the man except for one very important incident. He showed me an artist’s rendering of a car in a garage lit by moonlight that was supposed to be an ad featuring a Plymouth Barracuda. He showed me how the moon would naturally cast the shadow in an opposite direction. He then pointed out that the artist had put the shadow incorrectly. “The idiots have no idea of the properties of light. I will light this ad and make it exactly like what they want even though it is impossibly wrong. But this is tiring.
Shortly after he sold his studio and most of his equipment and dedicated the rest of his life to environmental issue photography. I returned to Mexico in 1989 and somehow I found him. He was in bed and looked ill. He had no idea who I was and I have little memory of what we talked about. I wanted to explain to him that he had taught me more than he would have ever suspected.
For years after I lost all contact and I don’t even know if he died or is still alive. It was only recently that I found two pictures of him (and little information on the importance of his contribution to advertising photography in Mexico). They are both taken by a photographer called Roberto Hall. The colour photograph he took in 1965 and the black and white one in 1967.
As I teach my students photography in Vancouver I note that many of them are around my age when I assisted Brehme. They are probably much better photographers than I was. And I know that many years from now I will be lucky if they remember one or two small things I might have taught them.
My friend, eager to avoid fame in the afterworld, and I, both understand that this is the normal course of events. It will not make the least difference to us once we are gone. Now if I can only convince him about that tuxedo.
The Three Gifts
Thursday, July 30, 2009
In 1962 I used to walk in downtown Mexico City to four special places. One was American Photo Supply where I stared at brand new Kodak Retina Reflex cameras. I could not afford to buy their lens caps. From Avenida Madero, where American Photo was, I would walk three blocks to Avenida Venustiano Carranza where there were two magical shops with tons of used cameras (still at prices I could not afford) that featured Edixas, Exaktas, Alpas, Asahi Pentaxes, Robot Cameras, Praktinas, Prakticas and of course the cameras that were even beyond the desires of my imagination. They had Leicas. They had Leicas with reflex housings and all kinds of wonderful attachments I had no idea what they were for. These shops both had Germanic names. One was Foto Lipkau and the other was Foto Rudiger
. It was in the latter where I finally was able to plunk enough money to get a camera that served me well into the middle 80s. It was an Asahi Pentax S-3
. The fourth location, where I would oggle at the cameras, was the Monte de Piedad or the National Pawnshop right on the Zócalo or the main square of Mexico City. I fell in love with a Miranda there not knowing that this beauty was a dog. As for the Leicas and the even rarer Alpas I felt destined to always see one behind a counter or as a jewel, the apex of photographic technology, behind a store window.
Today I visited a friend who says he is dying. My friend was holding court in his living room assisted by a fan that moved hot air in his direction. Beside me was George Bowering, his wife, architect Bruno Freschi and my granddaughter Rebecca. My friend pointed at a laundry bag in a corner. On the laundry bag I read Jai Mahal Palace, Jaipur. It was heavy. Inside was a pristine Leica IIIf (circa early 50s). It was inside what looked like a brand new brown leather case. It is the kind of case made of special pressed leather that only Germans were able to make and which not even the Japanese were able to imitate or match. My friend pointed in my direction and said, "It's yours."
That's the first gift.
I introduced Bowering, below right, to Rebecca and told her he was Canada's first poet laureate. "George, please explain to Rebecca what that is." "In Parliament in Ottawa there is a wall with plaques. One plaque reads "Prime Minister", a second reads "Lieutenant Governor", another reads "House of Commons", a fourth reads "The Senate" and the next plaque says "Poet Laureate of Canada" and that's me." From there we had an argument as to who was the first poet laureate of England. Bowering said it was Dryden.
My friend said it was someone before him. Encyclopedias were checked and Dryden was confirmed. The conversation drifted to milk because out of the blue Rebecca opined that ever since milk was homogenized people have been having problems drinking milk. She pointed out that Avalon milk was not homogenized. Bruno Freschi told us he had met the original owner and that he had pushed a dream that became a prosperous reality. Bowering kicked in that Avalon milk had been delivered to him in the very neighbourhood we were in (West Point Gray) in wagons pulled by horses.
That's the second gift.
I was in a room with two great architects, a respected free-lance writer and editor, the ex-Poet Laureate of Canada and my granddaughter Rebecca. We each held our own. I was proud of Rebecca.
If she remembers some day of today, that will be my third gift even if I am not around. And unlike my friend I do want to live.
My Father's English Elegance
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
I looked in the garden and noticed today how many of my plants were collapsing with the heat and the rapid evaporation of water from the soil. My over 35 varieties of hydrangeas were the most affected. I rapidly watered around the roots. Most of my roses are in that lull after late June and part of July. Some will re-bloom in a few weeks. The only rose that is continuously in flower is Blanc double de Coubert. Her pure white flowers dazzle in the afternoon light.
But there was another rose that seemed to be impervious to the heat or to follow the dictum that roses rest for a bit about now. The rose in question is ‘English Elegance’. David Austin introduced it in 1986 and this plant, which has fully double blooms which are blush pink at the edges with tints of bright pink, salmon and orange in centres, was deemed a sickly and poor performer. Austin “de-listed” her and she is no longer sold anywhere. In my garden she has always been a good plant. While not listed as a climber she is vigorous and a de-facto climber for me. She was one of my favourites for many years until one year squirrels conspired to eat her up. A mother squirrel had her young under my gazebo roof and in the spring her young emerged and ate whatever was closest to their nest. The tender shoots of English Elegance where right there. They systematically took the bush to the brink of death. The next year a new brood of squirrels (Rosemary kept feeding them even though I told her they were bushy tailed rats) with the memory of how good the rose was to eat in their memory genes finally did her in. All I had in the summer was one brown cane.
Peter Beales, the rose expert from England suggested, “Cut that cane to the ground in the fall and pray. If things go well she will come back.” And she did! This is the second year and I am sure that in a few years English Elegance will be the vigorous climber of old. Rosemary stopped feeding the squirrels. They moved on.
When I look at my beautiful English Elegance I notice that the blooms are not perfect like in some of my Gallicas. They are messy. But they have an elegant touch like an Englishman in a Harris Tweed jacket that may be a bit worn in the elbows. The Englishman might be wearing not quite crisply ironed gray flannels. The Englishman would be smoking Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes and would be wearing an aftershave with a hint of lavender. And, of course, the elegant Englishman would be my Buenos Aires born father, whose father had emigrated from Manchester in the beginning of the 20th century. My father resembled and talked in the manner and with the same voice of David Niven.
I am sure that my father would have never worn anything that had any of the multi colours of English Elegance. Nonetheless he might have agreed that the plant has class but would have never admitted to any resemblance to his person. It is enough that I see it. And that is satisfying.
Two Little Girls & Bubble Tea With Sheep Testicles
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
I love my granddaughter Rebecca but I have begun to realize in the last few months that more Rebeccas would never be better. If I had two Rebeccas, it would not be twice as good. It is human nature to contrast and compare. And this I have been doing every time Rebecca and her younger sister Lauren knock on the door on Saturdays. Consider that Rebecca has always eaten what is put in front of her while Lauren has a been a fussy eater since birth. She is much better now (she smells everything before daring to try it) but there is no way she will eat a Mexican tostada the way most anybody would eat it. You put the tostada in front of her which in my house is a fried tortilla with chopped meat topped with raw onions, tomato and shredded lettuce. Lauren will immediately separate all the parts carefully with her fork and eats each separately. This infuriated me on Saturday until her mother, Hilary pointed out that Lauren had gone a long way from the little girl that ate nothing. Hilary did not have to remind me that Lauren had inherited from a close relative. It was Hilary who as a very little girl cried and then had a tantrum in the dining room of the venerable St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. A waiter in a tuxedo came to us and said, "Is there anything I can do to help the young lady?" It was my wife who answered, "Yes, if you can find her some beans and tortillas."
It is these differences between Rebecca and Lauren that make the whole experience of having two girl granddaugthers that much more enyoyable.
Today I passed by Rebecca's and invited her to have a bubble tea. Rebecca instructed me to say, "Two fresh honeydew, not powder, no milk, slush and with bubbles." She then showed me how to shake the concoction and how to pierce the top of the paper cup with an oversized straw that had a cutting angle on one side. It seems that we both share a fondness for tapioca which is what the little softly chewy pearls at the bottom of the cup are. I was about to tell Rebecca that they reminded me of sheep testicles but then I changed my mind. Age seems to be mellowing me.
We walked back and Rebecca went outside to tend to her roses and remove some of the not so fresh leaves of her hostas. I then saw Lauren scooting past in her bike with her new pink front basket. It was a delight to see her stop and hear her say, "Holá, papi."
It was a delight to notice and glory at their differences.
A Smile Almost Saves Me From Failure
Monday, July 27, 2009
Yesterday, fairly sure of myself I wrote this
and today after reviewing my slides of Rebecca I might just eat that hat. There is one that almost compares to that iconic (for me) portrait of Rebecca by the agave at the MacMillan Bloedel Conservatory at Queen Elizabeth Park. Why did I fail? I have several almost certain theories.
For one the iconic portrait was a grab shot. It was a shot I saw. I saw it and checked my light meter. The exposure was 1/30 at f-2. Without a tripod that's a bit iffy. I was using a 35mm wide angle and with that lens you can get away with that 1/30 second shutter speed if you press the camera to your forehead while pressing the shutter. The look of that picture has all to do with being close to your subject with a wide angle.
This time around I decided to take a tripod so I could use slightly smaller lens openings and go for my sharpness. Not only are these picture not that much sharper but they also don't have the look of the 35mm wide angle. I opted for the
very sweet Nikon F-1.4 50mm lens. That was a mistake. I
had to pull back and somehow I
pulled back more and my picture almost looks wider than the one with the 35mm wide angle. I also should have known better than to shoot on a sunny day. The contrast inside was strong in spite of the light filtering through the trees and the almost opaque plastic of the domed ceiling. I had taken the original day on a cloudy winter afternoon. Contrast was kinder and it opened up Rebecca's eyes and gave them that milky look I find so arresting. I guess I shall return.
If there is any saving grace in my project to repeat a
favourite photograph it is that this time around I was almost saved by a
smile, Lauren's smile.
Sword Excalibur & Decisive Moments
Sunday, July 26, 2009
It was sometime around 1948 and I was 6. We had moved from Martinez to Coghlan which was closer to Belgrano where my mother taught and closer downtown to the Buenos Aires Herald
where my father worked as a journalist. The moving must have involved wooden crates as we had an open one in the galpón
(a shed with a metal roof) in the back of the house. With some extra boards, a broom stick and a few bricks I made a car. I don’t remember what the steering wheel was but the bricks rested on other bricks on an incline so that each pair represented the gas pedal, the clutch and the brakes. For a while (my memory is not exact on this) that wooden crate was a real car. I drove the car and I was Juan Manuel Fangio the great Argentine driving champion. One day the car reverted to the crate it really was and no matter how hard I tried to use my imagination the crate was a crate. It would seem, as I look back now, that imagination and magic are killed, little by little (or suddenly as it was in my case), by growing up.
Not too long after a magician came to our school. I remember him pulling out of his throat a long string of Gillette razors. I suspect that children of my age then, would now be looking to see if they could figure out how the trick was performed. For me it was real. It was real magic, no different from what I was learning at catechism (I was getting ready to do my First Communion) where I marveled at Christ walking on water and changing water into the best wine.
For many years my medium format (6x7cm) Mamiya RB-67 has been my Sword Excalibur
. I honestly believe that with it in my hand I can take very good photographs because the camera is special. I have three of them but I keep using only one. The others are for backup and or for spare parts if Sword Excalibur where to be broken beyond apparent repair. My Mamiya contains all kind of (almost) foolproof devices that prevent me pressing the shutter if the film back has no film. I can instantly change to colour or b+w film because my Mamiya has multiple backs. I own five of them.
I purchased my Mamiya
sometime around 1979 and I showed it to Rick Staehling who was the art director of Vancouver Magazine. He looked at me as if I were crazy. I didn’t blame him. In comparison to other cameras of the time like the 35mm SLRs and even the 6x6 Hasselblads my Mamiya looked like a camera on steroids. It is its very heft that has made my relationship with it to grow in time to the point that I now believe that I cannot possibly take a bad photograph if I give the Mamiya all my effort and imagination.
But that Mamiya has a few shortcomings which I will argue, up and down, are the reason it is such a good piece of equipment. I have to think of every photo I take because its 120 format means I will only get 10 pictures. Film is expensive so I am extra careful. This has meant that through the years I have developed a photo/Scottish mentality of making sure everything is to my satisfaction before I press the shutter.
It is a big and heavy camera that more often than not has to be tethered to a studio light system. I need to check the light with a flash meter. I have to be fussy and fuss around. This does not mean that when I have to I cannot set up that camera and one light in under three minutes and take the picture of a busy actor or politician in the allotted 8, 9 or 10 minutes!
Where the Mamiya seems to fail (and I am not all that sure about that!) is in its inability to shoot quickly, from the hip (as they say) and capture moments with an extemporaneous quality that smaller cameras are good at.
Much has been said and written about Henri Cartier-Bresson’s dictum that one must wait for the decisive moment to happen and to be ready for it. I believe to the contrary. I believe that decisive moments can be hurried along by the photographer. A case in point, I explained it here
where I rang the bell at a door and ran back in wait of the person who would open it. I use this principle in most of the photography that I do. But I will admit that when things happen (wonderful unexpected things) I do my best to notice them most of the time! Sometimes I can photograph them or I simply set it up. It many not be all that extemporaneous but it will do for me.
Switching from my Mamiya to any of my Nikons or Pentaxes must feel (to those who own guns) like letting go of the AK-47 and picking up a .22 caliber pistol. I feel like those Nikons and Pentaxes are toys. And treating them like toys I tend to take many pictures that seem eminently forgettable. One of the reasons is that these cameras almost feel alien to me. I don't use them much.
Thanks to my interest in taking pictures of my granddaughters (the hate it when I suggest we go to my studio to take some portraits with the Mamiya or I carry out the lights to the garden) I have been using my two Nikon FM-2s and one Nikon FM with some sporadic success. They are compact and light and I have a whole gamut of lenses but I seem to use mostly the moderate wide angle 35mm lens. Because I tend to use ISO 100 Ektachrome or Plus-X in b+w I find myself using maximum lens openings and slowish shutters speeds like 1/30 second. The pictures are pleasant but often they have their technical flaws. Sword Excalibur provides me with pictures that to my eye have few if any technical flaws. I guess one has to get used to the trade-off and accept that candid pictures can have charm.
There is one picture that is not in the least candid. I posed Rebecca and had her move up and down (ever so slightly) and then swing her face from left to right (ever so slightly). I instructed her to look at the camera with a cold seriousness. She rose to that request and provided me with this photo that I repeat here. I took it at the MacMillan Bloedel Conservatory at Queen Elizabeth Park when she was 7. I love how it looks like it may have been taken in Mexico with the beautiful blue agave behind her. I love the no-nonsense look of her little button-down blouse.
I will freely admit here that I used Photoshop to lighten the sparkles in her eyes. I am not the purist that some people might think I am. For me this is the most perfect photograph of Rebecca that I have ever taken and when I look at it I grieve in that I may not take a picture like that again.
As a photographer who harps about creating decisive moments I have a better chance of taking a picture like that since I don’t have to wait for it to happen.
That brings me to the meat of today’s blog. I decided on Friday and told Rosemary that we were going to return to the MacMillan Bloedel Conservatory on Saturday and take pictures of Rebecca and Lauren by the agave. I took two cameras. One was a Nikon FM-2 loades with Ektachrome 100G (my favourite colour slide and transparency film). I took another camera. It is a camera I have not used in many years. It is an extremely heavy Nikon F-3 with an attached motor drive. In its heyday it was a serious peace of photographic equipment. Thinking of my 20s I loaded it with Kodak Tri-X
Rebecca tried to thwart me every step of the way yesterday. She absolutely refused to wear a beautiful dark blue Mexican dress that her mother wore a few times at about her age. There was lots of shouting, “I hate dresses! I will not wear it, it’s too big for me and I cannot bend over as my breasts will show!” In the end with a bit of pleading and logic she relented and wore it. I found a little top from Oaxaca for Lauren in our Mexican trunk.
When Rebecca stared at my camera yesterday she would watch my shutter finger. As soon as she saw me about to press she would give me a wishy washy smile. Many exposures were ruined. I told her to stop it. She didn’t. I then covered my right hand shutter finger with my left hand and that was the end of it!
I have come to change my mind a bit about my Mamiya Sword Excalibur. Perhaps that beautiful no-nonsense-I-mean-business Nikon F-3 does have some of its qualities. It is not too late in my photographic career to discover it and perhaps even profit from it. As I held that Nikon F-3 I felt a bit of magic. It was exciting. No, I wasn't driving that car/crate. I had not gone back that far in time. But I was feeling that electrical pulse going through me. I was taking pictures again just like I had done those many years ago. The weight in my hand, the decidedly loudish (a most expensive sounding sound) motor drive. I was in control of the decisive
"Tune in" here to see the results in a few days.