The Gift - Certificate - Not
Saturday, December 14, 2013
Tonight we saw David Lynch’s lesser known 1999
The Straight Story, with Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek and with a brief
appearance at the end by Harry Dean Stanton. The film is sentimental but
brutal, too, lovingly edited and produced by Mary Sweeny, Lynch’s longtime
There was one line in the film that set me
thinking all night. The old man that Richard Farsnworth is (both as the
protagonist and as the actor) is asked by a young cyclist what’s the worse part
about being old. Farnsworth answers,
“Remembering what it was like when I was
With the Christmas season upon us as I
scurry around thinking about and buying the presents for my immediate family
and a few friends I have been thinking about those Christmases past and what I
gave and what I received. Things have really changed.
As a boy I received my share of socks,
underwear and handkerchiefs. Only once did I really get what I wanted, an
Erector set. I never was given that electric train. My mother could not afford
Through the years it is not only my wife
who has realized that I am pretty good at thinking of presents for people. She
and others consult me.
The primary rule I have for presents is
never give something you would not like yourself. For this I must include the
proviso that the fact that I may buy my Rosemary a black lace bra does not mean
I would buy one for myself or wear it. But those who read this might
understand. I have also been guilty of getting my wife an appliance (a much
needed one) for Christmas. But I always tried to soften the cold blow with
something frilly or sweet.
Rosemary pointed out that Mark’s Work Warehouse
recently had a sale of men’s shirts with Scottish tartan patterns. The price
was low and she thought that our granddaughter Rebecca, who now has a once a
week job, might want to give her dad a present. We went to store and I chose
the shirt I would wear. When we showed it to Rebecca she told us, “I don’t
know. My father is picky. Was there anything gray or subdued?”
My daughter Hilary, Rebecca’s mother craves
chocolates so we know that for Christmas we must be careful and not allow her
to over-indulge. We must find an alternative plus it cannot possibly be a
kitchen appliance! Hilary is also unlucky in that she is a December child and
her birthday was today. Rosemary gave her a gift certificate for the works at
her favourite beauty parlour.
Rebecca is a difficult 16-year old
teenager. She needs boots. A few days ago we drove to Bellingham, Washington
and visited Macy’s. At the women’s shoe department I pointed out over 20
beautiful pairs of boots. I asked Hilary if she knew her foot size. The answer
was a short, “I wouldn’t know what she would like. She would have to be here.”
In another department I saw a be-jeweled
(of the costume kind) dog collar with a little silver whistle hanging from it. I
suggested that Rebecca might wear this and that the price was the right one. Both
my wife and daughter looked at me as if I were crazy. They simply do not know
what she would like. “She is a teenager,” they said in unison.
Besides all those socks, underwear and
handkerchiefs I have received lots of useless presents in my life. I have never
been nasty and told the giver what a terrible present any one of the items was.
From my eldest daughter Ale (who I believe
may have inherited my talent for finding presents for difficult people) I have
received not one but two wooden back scratchers. When I emerge from a hot bath,
and especially in winter I immediately go for the scratcher. It (they) were a
perfect gift and I remember my daughter every time I scratch.
Now consider the safe and convenient (and
cold) gift certificate. Will Hilary remember when both Rosemary and I are long
gone about that particular 2013 birthday gift? I can bet she will remember the
two framed pictures of herself with her older sister that her older sister Ale
called me about a few weeks ago to print and find frames for.
I believe that a gift has to be a tangible
one. We cannot always be right and we do have the clichéé (more important now than ever) that it is the
thought that counts.
In this wishy-washy
politically correct time we must be cautious even in the buying of presents for
our loved ones. We must not offend or disappoint. We must give “safe”. And with
that half the reason for giving a gift is gone.
One of the gifts I
will give my eldest daughter this Christmas is my Easterbrook pen. I bought it
in Austin, Texas sometime in 1956.
In the 10th
grade my English Literature teacher, at St. Ed’s a boarding school in Austin, Brother Dunstan
Bowles, C.S.C. told me that my writing was illegible and that he would no
longer correct my homework. In desperation I went to our librarian, Brother
Myron Bachenheimer, C.S.C. with my problem. He told me to go to town and buy
two Osmiroid, italic nibs, one small and one big. He further told me to buy red
ink and black ink and an extra pen. He then taught me to write in italic. The big nib and the
red ink were to make that first letter in the beginning of each paragraph. The
smaller nib and the black ink were for the rest. In short order my homework
essays resembled medieval manuscripts! And I received very good grades, too.
There is a possibility
my daughter will not appreciate my gift.
But that chance is awfully
slim. And I will keep the Osmiroids in reserve, just in case.
Friday, December 13, 2013
It was 1955 and I was in the 6th
grade of the American School in Mexico
City. For Christmas our teacher made us make some
waste paper containers out of cardboard that we painted and then the four sides
and the bottom we stitched together with string. On one side we pasted and then
varnished over an image of La Giaconda. Until that moment I had no idea of the
ubiquity of Da Vinci’s portrait of Lisa de Gherardini.
Now in 2013 her images have been buried by
selfies and cat pictures (mostly terrible ones). Our 6-year-old 10 pound cat,
Casi-Casi has a problem with having his picture taken. Perhaps it was his
former owner who deposited him at the SPCA until we liberated him a couple of
years ago. If you point a camera at Casi-Casi he runs away. I believe Casi-Casi
I wish I could convince some of my fellow
friends from social media to give cats a rest. One of the worst offenders is a
friend of mine who in her prime showed off her cat with not a stitch on (her,
not the cat).
There was another friend of mine, a most
beautiful one who would come up to me, and with her unwavering look would ask
me, “Alex, are you happy?” I really never knew how to answer except with a
It was this week that I faced a similarly beautiful
woman who after looking at my pictures, many of Bronwen’s said, “I cannot figure
out how you get your kicks.”
That statement floored me. I had no quick answer.
She was 26 I am 71. Had I been 30 would she have made the same statement? Is there
something about my age, which makes my pursuit of the undraped female on photographic
film and most recently on the X-Trans CMOS Sensor of my Fuji X-E1 camera somewhat
I have no ready answer and even though I am
no artist I might have told her that a legion of painters and sculptors besides
the Mexican photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo pursued undraped women until the very end of their careers.
I am careful not to offend the perhaps not
prurient sensibility of the viewers of this blog with photographs that exceed
their comfort level. In this age of pornography I think my images are tame. I
hasten not to use the word tasteful (I despise that word) and would hope that
my photographs are elegantly voyeuristic. Can voyeurism be elegant? I think so.
As this year closes I must give thanks to
Bronwen Marsden. I call her up and ask her if she will pose for me. Sometimes I
tell her that I am surprised that she answers my phone call. Her ready answer
is always, “If I didn’t want to talk to you I wouldn’t answer you. And if I
didn’t want to pose for you I would say so.”
And we are off for another exquisite set of
pictures in which I explore all forms of photographic techniques with different
cameras, small one and large ones. I use the former high technology of instant
film which is no longer instantly available and defer to the good taste of my
friend Grant Simmons at DISC who knows how to interpret my digital files with
his beautiful giclées.
So how do I get my kicks? Do I have to
answer? Is it not obvious?
Technical Info: I took the picture of Bronwen with a Nikon FM-2, a 35mm F-2 lens and Fuji Superia 800 ISO colour negative film. I also took pictures with the camera shown, a Mamiya RB-67 Pro SD loaded with Ilford 3200 b+w film.
La Azotea de Edward Weston
A photographic imperative
A Pleasant Ghost From A Christmas Past
Thursday, December 12, 2013
Christmas to anybody who has experienced
one in their youth is something as indelible as a first day at school or a
My first Christmases in Buenos Aires in the
40s and 50s, with the usual summer stifling heat that approached the high 30s Celsius,
involved snow that came in a can with the brand name Noma.
My first cousin Jorge Wenceslao de Irureta
Goyena told me only three months ago in a trip I made to Buenos Aires in September (I had not
seen Wency since we were 21) about how we would go to Midnight Mass after
having ascertained that the Christmas tree in my house had nothing beneath it.
Then Wency said, “Miraculously when we returned the tree had gifts all around
it.” That unexplained miracle is what Christmas used to be fpr me.
There was an attempt then to counter the
North American forces at the pass and Santa Claus was Papá Noel. Papá Noel competed with the Tres Reyes
(the three wise kings) who brought toys on January 6, the Epiphany.
It was Brother Edwin
Reggio, C.S.C. my teacher at St. Ed’s High School in Austin, Texas who one day
bluntly told us, “The significance of January 6 is that it represents the transferal
of unique rights to heaven (the Israelite’s Testament or accord with God) to
one where the formerly unclean (uncircumcised) gentiles were now included as
the New Testament. Heaven became universal.
Now in 2013 we have to
be very correct in our relationship with the events of December so today I can
ascertain that I purchased a Happy Holiday Tree.
While my entry into Canada was in
1975 and that marks my stay in these parts as 38 years, I still feel like a
stranger in a strange land.
It was in the late 70s
when I was working for a gay publication called Bi-Line that I first experience
Handel’s Messiah. It was a disco version in which gay men dancing together at
the Luv-A-Affair at Seymour and Drake, would raise their fisted arms to the hallelujahs.
I think that since I have gone to one Messiah during a dress rehearsal.
I have two
granddaughters, 11 and 16, and two daughters in the late 70s. I have seen
enough Nutcrackers and another one would prove the Roman Catholic existence of
Purgatory. I do remember this one with pleasure because it came complete with
I have never
understood the constant dusting and re-mounting of Christmas chestnuts,
particularly the ones from below that formerly “ungarded” 49th parallel.
Which brings me why I
am going to rant and rave about the Art Club’s production of Nicola Cavendish’s
(directed most ably by my heartthrob favourite actress/director Lois Anderson)
It’s Snowing on Saltspring. To begin there is an important proviso. Even though
this play has been shown for many years I had never seen it!
I will rant and rave
about this play because of two very important factors. One it is home-grown and
there are now yet-to-be winged angels in the production. The location of the
play is firmly in Canada,
in our west coast on an island we are all familiar.
That second factor is
that this play, and particularly this year’s production has the most perfect
Santa Claus I have seen in years. Santa is Joel Wirkkunen. I was in delight
watching him with all his antics and dealing with Mrs. Claus, Deborah Williams
and the unseen but farting elves.
But there is in fact a
third reason why I loved the play. This Christmas play celebrated the birth of
a baby (which I hope was a baby boy and I will have to ask Ms Cavendish if that
is the case).
Nicola Cavendish, the
Arts Club Theatre, Lois Anderson and that dramaturg Rachel Ditor have all
conspired to bring back a little of my childhood Christmas back.
The cast was excellent
but I must give special recognition to assistant Stage Manager Ronaye Haynes
who played Karma the Dog. After I saw the play I was trying to persuade my wife
to go to the SPCA to see if we could fine a dog just like Karma.
John Lekich on Nicola Cavendish
Britten At Home & In A Cabaret
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
I first heard it from my mother when I was
20, “The English have not had a good composer since Henry Purcell, 1659(?)- 1695."
In the early 70s I bought as many Angel
recordings of the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams as I could find in Mexico City. My favourite
was his Symphony Number 2, A London Symphony. I could imagine the bustling
Piccadilly traffic when I listened to it. I also enjoyed his seventh, Sinfonia
Antartica. I would freeze as I listened to it. The Angel recording notes
mentioned that one of the “instruments” was a wind machine!
It wasn’t until the middle 80s that I met
cameraman Osmond Borradaile in West
Vancouver who had worked (and travelled to the
Antarctic) on the Charles Frend 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic in which the
music featured Vaughan Williams’s music.
Like many of us who had decent stereo
systems in those early 70s another record to listen and to enjoy was Gustav Holst’s
The Planets in what was then the definitive recording by Sir Adrian Boult and
the New Philharmonia Orchestra.
It was my Yorkshire-born friend Andrew
Taylor who through his father Colin told me about another English composer I
knew nothing about, Michael Tippett. At the time records by Benjamin Britten
were hard to find in Mexico City. And in the middle 80s I could hear the music of Elgar while riding an English train.
My mother, in retrospect can be forgiven by
her damning statement on British composers because in her time there were few
My first real introduction to Benjamin
Britten was a 1995 Vancouver Opera production of Peter Grimes with Ben Heppner.
I have also enjoyed Britten’s Billy Budd in CDs.
Now I can affirm that my knowledge of
Benjamin Britten has been enhanced thanks to the Microcosmos String Quartet and a
lovely soprano, Alexandra Hill. This knowledge would make my friend, the very
English David Lemon smile. After all it was some yars ago that I repeated my mother's statement to him and he frowned.
|Alexandra Hill - Alex W-H|
The Microcosmos String Quartet is made up
of Marc Destrubé and Andrea
Siradze on violins, Tawnya Popoff on viola and Rebecca Wenham on cello. This
wonderful Vancouver-based quartet has decided to play the music that they feel
passionate about which paradoxically gets little notice these days. They are particularly
interested in performing the challenging (for the performers and perhaps for
listeners, too!) the six quartets of Bela Bartok. They perform these pieces in
the intimacy of home concerts in which the venues are spread throughout the
If you are lucky to be
on their e-mail list (and I am!) you get advance notice on these concerts which
because they are in homes have limited seating capacity. A reasonable concert
ticket usually includes fine drink and cakes which I have enjoyed in very close
proximity to the quartet.
To sweeten the
program, the quartet has been celebrating Benjamin Britten’s birth this year by
also performing his three quartets.
On Wednesday night,
the Microcosmos String Quartet exclusively played Britten’s second and third quartet
in a very interesting home in West Hastings
that had acoustics so good that I was almost blasted from my front row seat.
It was interesting to
notice the difference in complexity (even this rank musical amateur could
discern it) between two quartets separated by 30 years. That Number 3 Quartet
had a special significance for me because it reminded me of my friend (he died
four years ago) architect Abraham Rogatnick who had a particular love for Venice. The last movement
of Britten’s quartet is about his staying in the city on the year that he
chats, courtesy of Destrubé I can tell you that Britten loved rice and tapioca
pudding and liked to take cold baths in the morning or to skinny dip on the
freezing British seaside. I can tell you that he directed some of his work here
in Vancouver for the CBC Vancouver Orchestra and
that he played the piano in a home in West
Vancouver where one of the Microcosmos Quartet’s
concerts was held.
From my friend soprano
Alexandra Hill at a concert last week, December 5 at the Silk Purse in West Vancouver I heard
for the first time Britten’s Cabaret Songs (1939). Because Britten was gay the
content of the lyrics by his friend and poet W. H. Auden were deemed
questionable by the society of the time so these songs were originally
performed by a woman. And of course, again in 2013, in West Vancouver by another woman!
These songs had, for
me the influence of George Gershwin and Kurt Weill. They had a real jazzy tone
to them and of course the lyrics were full of humor that was punctuated at a
point by Hill who, with a wooden whistle mimicked the train of the fourth song,
In both concerts I can
add that there is an additional delight, obvious to some that they are warm and
intimate. But there is more.
When you sit front row
at a Microcosmos String Quartet performance or sit near soprano Hill and pianist
Annabelle Paetsch the sound is not like an MP3 file or a surround sound kind of
thing. It does not sound tinny as the sound from my PC’s speakers or coldish
(as some assert) from a good CD. This is live music. Live music at close
proximity is directional.
That means that when
you look at, let’s say, Destrubé playing his violin on the left you can hear
the instrument. But my peripheral vision tells me and my ears confirm the exact
location of the sound emanating from Siradze’s violin, Popoff’s cello centre
and Wenham’s viola on my right.
directionality is a superb feeling and I feel lucky at the privilege of being
witness to it. And best of all I am feeling as passionate about Britten as the Microcosmos String Quartet and Alexandra Hill. Some might say that the music of the 20th century is not always accessible. When you see it performed and hear it performed in real time, accessibility is instant.
For more information here
is the Microcosmos String Quartet and here is Alexandra Hill.
The Short Goodbye Goes Dutch
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
The Short Goodbye Goes Dutch.
Guest Blog by John Lekich
I was going through puberty when I first
saw the Howard Hawk version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. The movie is
full of little men and big women who are – in the immortal words of Chandler – about as
“exclusive as a mailbox”. Humphrey Bogart plays Marlowe. Lauren Bacall plays
the sultry but sensible sister of Carmen, a thumb-sucking nymphomaniac. It is a world where lighting a woman’s
cigarette qualifies as foreplay. There’s a scene in Philip Marlowe’s office
where Lauren Bacall begins a heavy round of flirtation. You can tell Marlowe
likes it. And so did I. The next time I
spoke, my voice had changed. From that moment on, I sounded like I could order
a drink at any bar in town.
Many years later, I told this story to
Lauren Bacall in front of an audience packed with her lifelong admirers. She
rewarded me with that throaty laugh before the entire house joined in. It
sounded like waves of joy crashing on the beach. It wasn’t that my story was so
great. It’s just that everyone in the place innately understood the seductive
power of the Chandler
Alex’s shots of Bronwen capture that power
so well. Here, Bronwen portrays the quintessential Chandler woman. No matter how much you love
her, it can never match the deep well of self-love she feels every time she
looks in the mirror.
world, lingerie is a business expense – a lacy distraction from a stacked deck.
Don’t like the deal? This is why it usually ends with a woman holding the kind
of gun that always seems a little too big for her hands. The telegram in her
eyes? She’d rather drink alone, with a bag full of money for a pillow. Some unseen man doesn’t know it yet. But he’s
about to be given the short goodbye.
In addition to being a devout student of Chandler, Alex is also a
huge fan of Elmore Leonard. For my
money, Dutch Leonard is the most worthy successor to Chandler when it comes to portraying
self-directed women. Alex’s pictures of Nina remind me of Leonard’s darker
side. Chocked full of ex-cons, seedy fortunetellers and crooked real estate
Nina seems like the perfect Elmore Leonard
character in waiting. Her eyes have the look of a skittish Countess who’s
fallen behind on her car payments. A
finishing school rebel who took to the wild side after her inheritance ran out,
she still remembers the proper way to wear a silk scarf. Look deeper into those eyes and you can see a
bad girl longing to use the right fork.
Of course, that knife in her hand doesn’t
belong in a tea service. It seems that fortune has made her a master of the
short goodbye. And, as always, that goodbye has a very sharp edge.
Mamiya RB-67 Fuji 100
Nikon FM-2 Fuji Superia 800
Nikon FM-2 Kodak T-Max 400 pushed to 800
Pentax MX 20mm lens Fuji Superia 1600
All b+ws, Leica IIIF T-Max 400 pushed to 800
" I don’t do boudoir or lingerie with a toy gun.”
Monday, December 09, 2013
I took these photographs of Bronwen Marsden with a Leica IIIF
and its Summicron 50mm F-2 lens. The film was Kodak T-Max 400 film pushed to
800 IS0. These photographs (scanned 8x10 prints on Ilford FB paper) are part of
a series which illustrated an essay by my writer friend John Lekich on the
women of Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard novels.
The purpose of using the Leica for some of
the takes was that the camera is contemporary (early 50s) to much of Chandler’s output.
I showed the four photographs to a lovely
young woman over coffee. Her comment was, “I don’t do boudoir or lingerie with a toy gun.”
In Favor of Uncertainty in a Perfect Digital World
Sunday, December 08, 2013
The Short Goodbye Goes Dutch
Today I put 2013 into my head and
subtracted 1975 from it. I will confess I used a pocket calculator. The result,
38 years, is the time I have spent (almost as paid magazine work has been spotty
in these last three years) as a magazine photographer in Vancouver, British Columbia.
|My Leica IIIF|
If I can boast of any measure of success it
has something to do with the fact that for most of those years I always came up
with at least one useable image for my assignments. I can count on the fingers
of half of one hand the times I was told to re-shoot. A re-shoot the worse
command any photographer can get from an art director.
|The sure thing with the Polaroid back & Fuji Instant Film|
That measure of success has mostly to do
that when possible I liked to leave nothing on chance. Before the advent of
digital cameras, I used Polaroid back to check my shots and their exposure, or
to see if my camera was working properly. Before the Polaroid, the expensive
Polaroid back that mated with my medium format camera, I relied on two of
everything, a plan B and, yes, a plan C. On any job I always had a backup.
|Bronwen Marsden - Leica IIIF - Kodak T-Max rated at 800|
The 90s fight between the film camera and
the digital camera had a milder but no less important precursor situation. In
the mid 50s the king of cameras was the beautifully crafted rangefinder camera.
Some of the better units had a something called parallax compensation. Since
these cameras had a separate viewing system for the photographer that was not
looking through the camera’s lens as was the case for the then new-fangled
single lens reflexes, you mostly got what you saw through the viewfinder. But
parallax compensation did not work well when you got close. If not careful the
tops of heads were cut off, or the feet of people standing, etc. Finally by the
mid 60s the lovely rangefinders, the Contaxes and the Leicas were in decline
and professionals depended on the reflex cameras where the image through the
lens was exactly what you got. Of course it all depended on your exposure and
other factors like careful focusing. Not putting film in a camera could make
the tenderfoot professional into a has-been tenderfoot professional. I did that
trick and many more that I will not list here.
Recently I had an assignment to photograph
a baroque group from Quebec.
My Fuji X-E1 digital camera did not fail. What failed was the connecting safe
sync that mates my camera to my studio flash system. Luckily I had brought my
medium format camera and I was able to complete my job with no problem.
For fun I photographed one of my favourite
subjects, Bronwen Marsden as a woman from a Raymond Chandler novel. I photographed
her in her bedroom and I used to Nikon FM-2 cameras with film, one Mamiya RB-67
medium format camera with film and also the Fuji X-E1.
But there was an extra
camera in this pleasant photographic endeavour. I used an early 50s vintage Leica IIIF with a not very bright rangefinder and with no parallax compensation.
I took almost one roll of film. Many of the pictures are not quite in focus
(the focusing between two and its limit of one meter is untrustworthy. But I
experienced some disappointment at cut off writs, head, feet and very important
a theatrical gun and a cocktail cup.
Since I can remember working as a
photographer I have never worked in conditions of being exposed to uncertain
and unpredictable results. Even the pinhole body cap of my Mamiya with which I
can take very nice pinhole photographs I check with the camera’s Polaroid back
makes some sort of instant film for my back).
On the other hand there was a thrill in
discovering gems among those “severed limbs”.
I believe that we in the 21st
century we perhaps need a bit more of uncertainty in our perfect