Bif & Nina's Dainty Footwear
Saturday, October 17, 2009
My perception of how shoes affect how I judge people was fundamentally changed some 12 years ago when two of my friends, Bif and Nina walked around in Dr. Martens and clunky boots. I told them that their shoe wear took away from their femininity. Bif with her tattoos and generous voice laughed at me while Nina, after a while, was bothered by my constant criticism. The two women must have had a discussion about it because they told me to wait for them in my studio. They assured me that my opinion on their clunky footwear would change. And it did.
Emily Carr's Melancholy Ron Burnett
Friday, 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?
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Theatre is much like film. Casts and the crew who work with them have a pecking order. There are positions in film like the grips. I have no real idea of what they do. Do they hold things? Many in theatre, like in film, are essential, some are also unsung. One of them is the Fight Director. In films like The Matrix
we would all understand that the Fight Director or fight sequence director would be most important. A broadsword fight in a Bard of the Beach production of Macbeth
would also be on that same league.
Then you go with your daughter, as I did tonight, to the opening performance of American playwright William Gibson’s, The Miracle Worker
presented by the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company. You would never consider that a fight director would have any kind of relevance in a play based on the early life of Helen Keller. Fight scenes here? Impossible!
Yet there are fights in this extremely fine production directed by Meg Roe
(I remember her well from her killer role as an actress playing an autistic youth in the recent Vancouver Playhouse production of Toronto, Mississippi
) which use scissor, spoons and other thrown objects that are so central to this play that without them The Miracle Worker
would fizzle. It is a fight between a headstrong little girl who is unable to connect between the signs for letters, and the real objects, things and people they define, and a just-as-headstrong woman of 20 (not a teenager!) with a past that might just prevent her from finding a solution to the process of thought through language.
The unsung hero of that virtuoso spoon fight is Fight Director David Bloom seen here in picture above left. During the scuffle for the fallen spoon the theatre was so quiet that all I could hear was that spoon drop.
Two little girls play Helen Keller, Margot Berner and Emma Grabinsky. If I understand well my program notes my daughter Hilary and I saw Margot Berner tonight. She was superb in her battle of wits with her nurse and teacher Annie Sullivan played by Anna Cummer.
I must diverge here to give my account of my extraordinary experience in having Cummer in my studio back in 2005. I happened to ask her if she could cry on demand. I had been lucky before in that I had photographed two acresses who could do just that. Cummer looked at me and left the studio. A few minutes later she returned and stood in front of my camera with a face that was ravaged by sorrow. Little tears began to pour down her eyes.
In this production of The Miracle Worker
all the other actors, Hamza Adam as Percy/Doctor, Tom Butler as Captain Keller, Jennifer Clement as Kate Keller, Marci T. House as Viney and Bridget O’Sullivan as Aunt Ev were good given that it was just about impossible to compete with Cummer and Berner's strong performances in roles designed to be just that.
For me there was one other actor who stood out. He is one of my favourites in town. Ryan Beil played James Keller, a young man who does not seem to know how to please his father. Beil has a kind of Stan Laurel universal face that can adapt to any situation. I thought he was excellent in the Main Street Production of Glengarry Glen Ross. I ache to see Beil in a comedy that goes beyond the role limitations of this summer’s Bard on the Beach production of The Comedy of Errors
. Beil can be funny and especially so if let loose!
As Hilary and I watched the battle of wits between little Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan I kept whispering in her ear, “Lauren and Rebecca (my granddaughters and Hilary’s daughters) are easy in comparison to this!”
It was around 11pm that Hilary called to say, “Lauren was impossible. She threw pens and pencils with such force against the kitchen stove, that she broke them. She refused to write down anything for her dictée. Her father has grounded her, including no TV until Monday.”
I wonder if David Bloom might have approved. In the play Annie Sullivan says, "Obedience without understanding is a blindness, too." What would Sullivan have opined on grounding?
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Peggy’s story as I see it from a thick file of photographs, began in August of 2001 and ended (photographically) in an emotional session in my studio in January 2004.
It was in August of 2001 that I received a most interesting assignment from the Straight’s art director Annette Waurick. In retrospect Waurick was the best they ever had. She was let go and ended up doing just nicely for Homemakers in Toronto. In those days the Fall Arts Preview was a big thing at the Straight. They insisted on original photographs (no handouts, please from the arts organizations!) and they would get very upset if any picture in the Straight somehow appeared in the Vancouver Sun.
There was a nice aggressive competition that suited me fine. Waurick’s request was that I “rip off” Man Ray’s famous photograph of Kiki with f-holes on her back and to somehow adapt it in colour to reflect the arts. This meant that I needed a subject who would pose undraped. I immediately called Cori Caulfield as she had and has a most beautiful back (and everything else). I liked the idea that my subject would reflect one of the arts, in this case that of dance. Cori was apologetic. “Alex I would love to pose for you but I am extremely busy. I am going to send you one of my best ballet students. She is 21.”
Peggy arrived. By then I knew she had a green tattoo of a frog on her right shoulder. I had told her to have her girlfriend draw the f-holes with a green marker. My Argentine painter friend had lent me his brushes and I had purchased at a pottery sale a mask to represent theatre.
Man Ray had placed a piece of paper on the right hand bottom of his picture with his name and date. I did the same. Working with Peggy was a pleasure. She had never posed for a camera before but she was a natural and told me that she liked being photographed and wanted me to photograph her again. This I did most willingly.
At the time she had an abusive boyfriend who did not seem to understand all of Peggy’s facets. Peggy had studied to be a kick boxer. “Alex (Peggy’s boyfriend) does not understand my career as a ballerina and never attends any of the performances. He does not understand how I can be a boxer. He is aware that I am sexy but has no idea of my sensuality. About all I do that he agrees with is our mutual interest in boarding. I am not getting along with them. Today we broke up.”
So I took five pictures of Peggy (September 2001). One as a ballerina, one as a boxer (alas this one has some nudity so I cannot show it), one as a sensual woman (the one with the rock and it has been cropped for propriety) and one as a boarder. The fifth one was all my idea. “I am going to photograph you as yourself. You are going to pose nude from head to toe and I will photograph you from the waist up. She posed, hid her breasts behind her arms, looked at my camera and began to cry.
I had a show at the Simon Patrich Gallery a few weeks later and the pictures were up. Peggy arrived with Alex. They had reconciled their differences. But that was not to be as Peggy later told me that the police had placed her on a restraining order as she had beaten up Alex in a confrontation. It was all over between them.
In August 2002 Peggy came back to my studio and I photographed her mostly undraped. I was particularly happy with the pictures showing how graceful as you see here where I used a mosquito netting to hide all the “stuff”.
In December of the same years, all pretenses of using clothing went out the window and I took nudes. I was particularly happy in making use of Peggy’s flexibility to advantage in taking pictures of her foot ever so close to her face. Peggy was cheerful and a delight to photograph. I had lots of fun.
Her cheerfulness almost disappeared the last time I photographed her in January, 2004. On the phone before we made our shooting date she told me, “Alex I am no longer dancing ballet. But I am dancing.” I knew. She had become a stripper. She had moved to Vancouver Island and had a large dog. I explained to her that I wanted her to bring all her ballet paraphernalia plus all the new stuff like red pumps and her dancer clothing.
I instructed Peggy to put on her ballet outfit and then once I had my light ready I told her to take it all off slowly, beginning with her pointe shoes and then to dress up in her new outfit. This was a tearful experience as she went from her ballerina past to her exotic dancer present and future.
Not too long after my friend ecdysiast connoisseur Sean Rossiter and I went to see Peggy perform at a club in New Westminster. It was a strange place as the club had a hermetically sealed room (all glass walls) in which the smokers could watch the show. Peggy was the best pole dancers Rossiter and I ever saw. We saw her again at the last days of a club in Port Moody. We had a nice chat with Peggy after she confirmed again her expertise with a pole and with a dancing style that had not equal except for my memories of having scene jazz dancer trained Jackie Coleman at the No 5 Orange Street in the late 70s.
After that performance at the Port Moody club I did not see Peggy again and she disappeared. Even then she was not computer savvy and even though she told me she was going to try to learn she was off my map.
I found her today. She is convalescing from an accident where she tore a tendon in one foot and is unable to work. I am not a liberty to disclose here how it happened. Since that last time I saw her she decided to improve on nature’s bounty and had her breasts fixed. This procedure brought some complications that almost killed her. But Peggy is all cheer with her dog and she is quietly living in Victoria.
As soon as she gets better she told me that she will come to Vancouver and pose for me. The idea is comforting to me; almost as comforting as having found her. She may not be computer savvy but she did respond to an e-mail of mine with her Blackberry and even sent me a snap she took with it.
I find it hard to believe that the young girl that first came to my studio at 21 is now 30.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
For many years I have put all my photographic eggs into the medium format basket. This means that I have taken most of my photographs with a Mamiya RB-67 with its 6x7 cm transparency or negative. Whenever I hold a 35mm camera, even that extra heavy tank that my Nikon F-3 with a motor drive is, I feel I am holding a toy. When all my printing happened strictly in the darkroom there were many negatives and transparencies that never saw the light of day. Now I like to make myself a large and strong cup of tea and look at some of my negatives wit a loupe. I am putting an extra effort into looking at pictures I took with those “small” cameras. Often the best excuse for using a 35camera (and still is) was its ability to let me shoot unburdened by a cable to a flash system. There was another excuse and that was Kodak Infrared b+w film. Alas it has been discontinued!
If you overexposed it a bit (or a lot) you got light going through the film and bouncing back from the pressure plate in the camera. The effect was a light halo in dark areas. The effect was and is called the halation effect. Many film manufacturers in an effort to “improve” the film started putting anti-halation layers on to their film base. Luckily Kodak never tried to do that with their infrared film of which I have about 35 rolls left in my fridge.Kodak b+w InfraredMore Infraredand more
Lauren & Pancho El Esqueleto
Monday, October 12, 2009
Rosemary and I worked in the garden today and I think both of us became melancholy as we saw our garden in decay. It is about this time (before all those rains come) that we change our mind about some plants and move them around. Some plants have gotten so big that they need to be divided and moved. The fall garden, after a while, looks like it’s been worked on. But the melancholy, at least for me, dissipates as I notice all the warm browns, yellows and reds of our plants, thistles and hostas. Many of the roses are full of hips this year. A few of the them surprise me with blooms here and there.
I walk into the house and I go to our busy but friendly living room and I notice Abraham Rogatnick’s life-size papier mache esqueleto (squeleton) that peacefully reposes on my psychiatric couch. We have affectionately called him Pancho and he still has the thick rope around the neck. Abraham bought Pancho in Mexico sometime in the 50s. Last year when Abraham had a premonition of his death (he died last month) he started giving some of his stuff away. I was the lucky recipient of Pancho and the rope which Abraham used to hang him from his door for Halloween. He (Pancho) is much too precious that I would ever consider hanging him outside for the forthcoming Halloween. He will be safely inside. Perhaps it was last fall that I photographed Lauren with Pancho. It was this first Polaroid (and alas, one of my last Polaroids as the Polaroid Company went the way of Packards and Studebakers, De Sotos and Oldsmobiles, not to mention Minoltas ) that I was happy with and here it is. Lauren has informed me that this year she is going to dress up as a witch for Halloween.
As for me I am literally closing one Andrea Camilleri book (all checked out from different branches of the Vancouver Public Library) to open the next. I have been keeping it at one a day. I am into the 8th tonight (The Scent of the Night
). I feel that Salvo Montalbano and I are friends. I long to have him show me around his home town of Vigata right in the middle of a hot Sicilian summer. But I would starve as Montalbano loves fish and I don't. I wonder what Sicilians like for dessert?Vigata è una cittadina immaginaria creata dallo scrittore Andrea Camilleri, in cui sono ambientate le storie del commissario Montalbano e altri romanzi dello stesso autore. La cittadina di Vigata è sita nell'altrettanto immaginaria provincia di Montelusa. Vigata è il nome immaginario di Porto Empedocle, la città natale di Camilleri.
Inspired By Winslow Homer
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Saturday, when we celebrated our Thanksgiving had one uniquely pleasant moment that extended for the 49 minutes of Winslow Homer – An American Original
a DVD film I took out from the Vancouver Public Library. In the past we had seen a series of films on composers like Bach and Beethoven involving children so that the composers were seen as humans with human foibles. These composer series had been a success but I was not ready for the sheer beauty of this one featuring Wayne Best as Homer and the wonderful Ryan DeBoer and Tamara Hope as the two children who befriend the artist who seeks escape and quiet from hauntings of the civil way battles he sketched for Harper’s Weekly.
Rebecca knew a bit about my fondness for
as I had taken her to Washington DC’s National Gallery to show her my favourite American painting, Right and Left
by Homer when she was 6. I had to explain to her that Homer had sketched battle scenes but mostly scenes of soldiers waiting in their camps for Harper’s because there was yet no method for printing photographs onto magazines. The halftone process had to wait until the late 1870s and the photogravure was much too expensive, and it too was also only perfected in the 1870s.
The film inspired me to take portraits of Rebecca in the garden but I was somewhat thwarted by her contemporary T-shirt and jeans. Had we only had a dress! But Rebecca is going through a period where she hates dresses and she cries and stamps her feet when I demand she wear one. This time around I covered her with an old Scottish sweater of mine. Rebecca is sensitive to wool and complained constantly on how it made her itch. Still, she did pose for me and I was able to take a few images that pleased me. I took advantage of the situation to mention the plants in our pictures which have such nice fall colours. In particular I noted the peeling bark maple or Acer griseum
that Rebecca is leaning on. The other plant is a perennial called Kirengeshoma koreana
. Next spring we are going to add other plants, shrubs and trees to Rebecca's present excellent knowledge of roses and hostas.
I hope that spring brings a new aesthetic to Rebecca and she just might pose in dresses.