Narratives & Job JarsMonday, November 08, 2010
Perhaps one of the best paying photographic jobs that I ever had was one that was dependable, consistent and relatively easy. I had a gentleman’s contract with Canadian Pacific Limited to shoot trucks, trains, railroad crews working, and stuff related to personnel. It was the latter category that brought me much grief. I was often dispatched to places like the Vancouver Club or the Terminal City Club (I had to wear a suit and tie) to photograph a retiring CP executive. These increasingly became more elaborate and resembled good old American roasts where the poor retiring executive (not often a woman) had to take embarrassing insults, the projection of equally embarrassing photographs as young men and then received gifts that ranged from rocking chairs, golf clubs to a fishing rod. Had I been the retiring executive I would have died on the spot.
There was one gift that had me perplexed for many years which only now has really hit home. These CP executives were sometimes given an elaborately wrapped box that would contain an empty jam jar. This jar was called a job-jar and the wife of the executive would write, on little bits of paper, little jobs that the now retired and idle man would have to execute at his leisure. Imagine a man who once had at his disposal the control of several rail yards with hundreds of locomotives now being asked, “Please repair the leak in the upstairs toilet.” Sometimes the “roast” became racy enough that the job-jar task would involve a reminder that the gentleman had a husband duty to perform, less golf and more…
In the last few months it has slowly but surely set in that while I may not be a retired CP executive, the freelancer’s phone is not ringing off the hook (an expression my granddaughter would have no concept of). We might settle in for the night around midnight and get up after a longish breakfast in bed with the Vancouver Sun and the New York Times, around 10. Rosemary often asks, “What are you going to do today?” I wonder if I should take out an empty jam jar from underneath the kitchen cupboard and tell Rosemary of its purpose.
My somewhat morose and melancholy friend Mark Budgen has suggested I get my house in order and re-do our will and specifically write in instructions on what to do with an eventual incapacitation, “Pull the plug on me dear wife!” This is stuff that fails to cheer me up on these increasingly gloomy, dark and rainy days of fall!
But the most jarring event of late was a question that arts photographer David Cooper asked when I ran into him at a play on Granville Island last week. “What are you doing these days, Alex? Are you doing any shooting?”
A lawyer, lawyers, a doctor, doctors and bus driver, drives, a prostitute, turns tricks, a chef cooks and important to me if I will insist on calling myself a photographer, a photographer shoots.
My answer was a defensive and court, “I photograph my granddaughters and other stuff.”
The loss of my studio in September 2009 has made it a tad difficult to physically leave home and go to the studio and plan some sort of project. While I have access to the Focal Point studio it still is not my studio and it is rather sparse. It has no windows.
I have been shooting some actors with my iPhone and then writing accompanying blogs. I have been taking photographs of Rebecca and Lauren. One was the Halloween shot as zombies another was Rebecca with her blond wig getting ready to go to her first high school dance. I have a project in the works of taking portraits of Lauren with different toys formerly owned by her mother, aunt and grandmother.
But there is one project that I would like to continue that became an unlikely arsenal in my bag of photographic tricks some 12 years ago. It was then that I began to understand that one picture does not tell as good a story as several. After some experimental work I decided that five (not four or three) but five pictures told a good story and particularly if it was the story of a person.
To have a person come into a studio with the idea of taking an ultimate and very good portrait can be a terribly difficult task at hand. I discovered that taking five distinct facets of the person was easier, more fun and ultimately more rewarding.
This meant that my final “product” would consist of five smallish (never bigger than 4x5 inches) photographs matted with five separate openings on one long frame. One of my better ones and gratefully appreciated by their subjects was Art Phillips at 70 and Carole Taylor at 50. I did the same with their children.
In my photo classes I teach my students of this concept which I call the narrative. They quickly understand the paradox that taking five good pictures is far easier than taking one good picture.
The narrative lends itself very nicely to the nude. Since I teach nude photography the narrative is a major part of my class. One example is to bring in a model (much more fun if the model has not posed undraped before) and to shoot her or him (we use both sexes) in a gradual state of undress so that only the fifth and last picture reveals all. Sometimes we begin in the opposite direction and shoot from fully nude to all dressed.
Another variant is to take five tight portrait shots (head and shoulders) in which the model is slowly removing all clothes. The five portraits, is skillfully taken would reveal in just which one the model was naked (and perhaps more vulnerable?).
My favourite kind of narrative is to explore what a person does in some unique way. One of my most successful narrative involved working with Vancouver Symphony Orchestra violinist Karen Gerbrecht. The idea was to take violin shots that were in some way “anti violin” shots. One of the setups involved taking portraits of an almost-to-term pregnant Gerbrecht where I used lighting to hide the fact that she was undraped and only in the final (5th) image could the viewer finally discern that the violinist had a stomach!
I would like to continue shooting my narratives. I have a few in the works. These narratives almost always involve some sort of nudity. Could it be that a person’s story somehow has to reveal all at some point? Could I be wrong?
But what is important is that the next time I run into David Cooper I will answer, "Yes I am shooting. And lots."
The narrative here, of Karen Gerbrecht I shot with Polaroid b+w instant negative. I used it with my 6x7 cm format Mamiya RB-67. Because the Mamiya lenses have generous coverage the resulting images were not 6x7 but square 7x7. Alas the good film is not made anymore.