Chris Dahl a Nagging Art Director - From Complexity to Simplicity
Saturday, August 06, 2016
In May 1986 I was under the influence, pushing and nagging, of a magazine art director called Chris Dahl
. Many photographers of this
century might think that being able to do as you please without instruction is
true freedom. The same may apply who think that editors are meddlers who
interfere and stifle personal creativity.
I must disagree with anybody who thinks that the above is
right. For me the jury is still out on museum curators. At one time I would
have stated that curators are failed artists. Now I am not so sure. But I will
leave the subject of curators to a future blog.
Right now I am going to deal
with the subject of the unpleasant fact that pushy art directors are the best
thing that can happen to a photographer. At the very least I can write here how
Chris Dahl made me the relatively good photographer that I am today.
Times have changed in this world of the diminishing
influence of print journalism and good print magazines. At one time (my time in
the 80s and 90s) there was money in magazines so these publications competed to
have the best writers and the best images that they could afford. And afford
Dahl knew, that in the 80s, I had a big studio with a very
large curved back wall called a cove and a high ceiling. It was white but if you had your subjects far
from it the cove could go from white, to gray to black. In those pre-digital
times photographs had to be taken with lights. In some cases we abused this and
used many, anywhere from three to six. These shoots involved large booms with
lights up there that could project stars on the studio floor or hair lights
that could be pointed with precision to make the hair of three guys go blood
I have picked these three images from an essay by Les
Wiseman in which he picked 6 people to watch in our city who were going to go
places. This subject was always a staple of magazines once a year. As far as I
know the only person who hit pay dirt was dancer Moira Whalley
(now known as Whalley-Beckett) who was a
producer and writer in Breaking Bad.
The rest in Wiseman’s profile have perhaps faded a
tad with the years.
But the purpose of this blog is to show how our city
magazines, and in particular Vancouver
, under editor Malcolm Parry
and of course the aforementioned nagging
art director Chris Dahl pushed style to the limit. Dahl in this instructions before the shoot (he never attended them so I did get that relief) kept
using two words that scared me to death. He said, “Alex, I want these pictures
to be heroic and monumental. They have to look like they would appear in Vanity
|Jamie King |
Of the three I remember that the most complex one was of
swimmer Jamie King as I had to make the picture look like it was taken in a
swimming pool while being able to control my lighting by shooting in the
studio. From a pool manufacturing company I borrowed the chrome pool entry
bars. I shot it all with my Mamiya RB-67 Pro-S and Dahl ordered me to use
colour negative so that the resulting C-prints (as colour prints were then
called) could be air-brushed (remember this was pre Photoshop) if they needed to
As I look at these pictures I smile. I smile because the
stress of the past is forgotten and I can now acknowledge that Chris Dahl
forced me into versatility and did his best to remove me from my then
comfortable cubby hole and the comfort of photographic business as usual mode.
And I also note that I have made a long transition from
the very complex to the very simple. It has been fun. My little Kitsilano
studio could never accommodate all those boom stands and lights. But it is nice
to know that if I had to I could do it all over again.
Thank you Mr. Dahl for pushing.
Le tournesol, le tournesol
Friday, August 05, 2016
Le tourenesol, le teurnesol Nana Mouskouri
|Helianthus annuus - August 5 2016|
There is a recent tradition in our family by my eldest
daughter Ale who lives in Lillooet. She brings Helianthus
annuus (sunflowers) in pots in the spring for us to place in our garden.
Until last year that meant the back lane of our Athlone house. This year they
have found a new home on the back lane to our Kitsilano digs (today I had some
carrot/ mango juice, so there! I may have been a hippie in my past around
They look glorious now that our three roses, Rosa ‘William Lobb’, Rosa ‘Souvenir du Docteur Jamain’ and Rosa ‘Chapeau de Napoléon’ are past
their blooming season (except Docteur Jamain which will bloom sporadically
until the fall).
But my interest in roses through the years has led me to
appreciate blooms that are past their prime. They can be beautiful and they can
helps some of us (who are getting older geometrically and no linearly)
appreciate the beauty that can be had and seen in aging.
To me it is interesting to note that the only way to keep a
remontant rose to bloom is to deadhead it. The word implies (incorrectly) that
the bloom is dead. This is not the case. In roses that are species roses and
some that are not those “deadheads” turn into lovely rose hips which are the
source of very good vitamin-c besides being attractive to the eye in a fall
garden. Many roses, in particular the once-blooming Gallicas go from red or
crimson to metallic purples that are a sight to behold.
And of course flowers and plants past their prime headed
towards fall and winter remind us of that very human path towards death.
Jorge Luís Borges wrote (in my opinion) the loveliest
tear-jerker poem on the subject. You will find the Spanish version and a
translation into English below. The poem describes (and you must be
Argentine-born and particularly an inhabitant or former inhabitant of Buenos
Aires to appreciate what he means by gates and his description of what may have
been a house of his youth. I look at the fading (but certainly not dead)
sunflowers on my scanner and that I will sometime today throw them into our
green bin. I don’t grieve because I know that next spring Ale will bring her
sunflower pots and they will be reborn on our lane again.
calles que ahondan el poniente,
una habrá (no sé cuál) que he recorrido
ya por última vez, indiferente
y sin adivinarlo, sometido
a Quién prefija omnipotentes normas
y una secreta y rígida medida
a las sombras, los sueños y las formas
que destejen y tejen esta vida.
Si para todo hay término y hay tasa
y última vez y nunca más y olvido
¿quién nos dirá de quién, en esta casa,
sin saberlo, nos hemos despedido?
Tras el cristal ya gris la noche cesa
y del alto de libros que una trunca
sombra dilata por la vaga mesa,
alguno habrá que no leeremos nunca.
Hay en el Sur más de un portón gastado
con sus jarrones de mampostería
y tunas, que a mi paso está vedado
como si fuera una litografía.
Para siempre cerraste alguna puerta
y hay un espejo que te aguarda en vano;
la encrucijada te parece abierta
y la vigila, cuadrifronte, Jano.
Hay, entre todas tus memorias, una
que se ha perdido irreparablemente;
no te verán bajar a aquella fuente
ni el blanco sol ni la amarilla luna.
No volverá tu voz a lo que el persa
dijo en su lengua de aves y de rosas,
cuando al ocaso, ante la luz dispersa,
quieras decir inolvidables cosas.
¿Y el incesante Ródano y el lago,
todo ese ayer sobre el cual hoy me inclino?
Tan perdido estará como Cartago
que con fuego y con sal borró el latino.
Creo en el alba oír un atareado
rumor de multitudes que se alejan;
son lo que me ha querido y olvidado;
espacio y tiempo y Borges ya me dejan.
En Borges, J.L. (1964) El otro, el mismo, en Jorges Luis Borges (1974) Obras
Completas, Buenos Aires: Emecé.
Of all the streets that blur in to the sunset,
There must be one (which, I am not sure)
That I by now have walked for the last time
Without guessing it, the pawn of that Someone
Who fixes in advance omnipotent laws,
Sets up a secret and unwavering scale
For all the shadows, dreams, and forms
Woven into the texture of this life.
If there is a limit to all things and a measure
And a last time and nothing more and forgetfulness,
Who will tell us to whom in this house
We without knowing it have said farewell?
Through the dawning window night withdraws
And among the stacked books which throw
Irregular shadows on the dim table,
There must be one which I will never read.
There is in the South more than one worn gate,
With its cement urns and planted cactus,
Which is already forbidden to my entry,
Inaccessible, as in a lithograph.
There is a door you have closed forever
And some mirror is expecting you in vain;
To you the crossroads seem wide open,
Yet watching you, four-faced, is a Janus.
There is among all your memories one
Which has now been lost beyond recall.
You will not be seen going down to that fountain
Neither by white sun nor by yellow moon.
You will never recapture what the Persian
Said in his language woven with birds and roses,
When, in the sunset, before the light disperses,
You wish to give words to unforgettable things.
And the steadily flowing Rhone and the lake,
All that vast yesterday over which today I bend?
They will be as lost as Carthage,
Scourged by the Romans with fire and salt.
At dawn I seem to hear the turbulent
Murmur of crowds milling and fading away;
They are all I have been loved by, forgotten by;
Space, time, and Borges now are leaving me.
Where have the Penns, Avedons, Sterns, Halsmans, & Newtons Gone?
Thursday, August 04, 2016
|Annie Leibovitz - October 1991|
|Susan Sontag - Photograph Irvin Penn|
Around 1984 I was working for Vancouver Magazine, a biggish
city magazine in a small pond. The art directors, I dealt with, first Rick
Staehling and then Chris Dahl looked at a lot of American and European
magazines for inspiration. More often than not their inspiration had to be
toned down for conservative Vancouver palates.
By February 1982 when Chris Dahl was in charge of design (he
had come from the expertise gained in working as a designer for the weekly
) he had the idea of having two different covers in one month. The
magazine would be distributed with the alternate covers in contrasting areas of
the city. One cover was to be a portrait of my cat yawning
and the other of a
Vancouver stripper. Writer Les Wiseman and I had hoodwinked the editor, Mac
Parry into running a story about strippers based on the money the industry
earned. In the end that second cover did not run as it was rejected by the
But in these heady times of making the magazine resemble the
leading American magazines with Esquire type two page spread profiles
everything was game. Dahl came to me and said, “Alex I want you to do an Irving
Penn type cover like the ones he shoots for Vanity Fair.” I did and he was
shocked at my imitation and told me, “This looks too much like Irving Penn. Can
you tone it down?”
By October 1991 I had ripped of Penn’s style to my
satisfaction and made it my own and because of the general ignorance of many
people in our small pond nobody noticed any resemblance to any American photographer.
And by then Penn was gone from Vanity Fair.
When Annie Leibovitz faced my camera in October 1991 I was
on assignment for the Georgia Straight, a Vancouver arts weekly that had yet to
make the transition to colour or to use it on their covers. I could shoot my
b+w photographs with glee.
Leibovitz faced a Mamiya RB-67 Pro-S, a very sharp 140mm
macro lens and Kodak Plus-X Panchromatic b+w film. I used a soft box and a hair
light. The flash system was a Dynalite and my tripod a Manfrotto. I am pointing
out the equipment because Leibovitz told me, “This is most strange. I have that
same equipment and it almost seems like I am taking my own portrait.”
The portrait was inspired by Penn and by Chris Dahl’s
insistence that I imitate the master. But I was comfortable thinking that I had
a adapted the style and made it my own.
Part of my own style has been to never work with an
assistant so that I can be one on one with my subject. I may take only a few
pictures of my subject but what is important is to connect verbally first. That’s
my style no matter what kind of camera or kind of lights I might use. Be it a
film camera or a digital camera.
I will stop this blog right here and will continue on the
subject of Helmut Newton on another.
Mel Hurtig - 24 June 1932 – 3 August 2016
Wednesday, August 03, 2016
I photographed Mel Hurtig in January of 1993 for the Georgia
Straight. Charles Campbell, the then editor of the weekly chose the top left
photograph because he thought it was zany (a word often then in Campbell’s
vocabulary). Mr. Hurtig charmed me and I found him intelligent and most willing
to listen (as opposed to most other politicians). We had a long chat and I have
forgotten the thread. But for at least one year after, I received political
propaganda from the man.
Some years ago while teaching at a downtown photography
school one of my students, an English young man whose last name was a most
poetic Strand asked me in the presence of other students, “Alex can you show us
photographs of people in magazines that still exist?” My rapid answer tinged
with that inevitable sadness as Strand had indeed struck his mark was, “Most of
my subjects from existing magazines are all dead.”
The Smell of Paint in a Studio
Tuesday, August 02, 2016
As a commercial photographer in Vancouver since 1977 until the recent zombie apocalypse
that brain-deaded the industry that at one time paid for work I did more than just
my signature magazine photography. I traveled across the country and the US for annual
reports collecting daily and hefty day rates and whhen I drove (can you
imagine?) I was paid for gasoline consumed.
The folks at Emily Carr when it was known as ECCAD (Emily Carr
College of Art and Design) gainfully employed me even though I had no relevant
master’s degree in Art Appreciation. I worked for a program called Emily Car
College of Art Outreach Program
( It was Nini Baird's baby
and I was with it for close to 12 years). I (and other artist
teachers, as we were called were sent to communities in the interior on
weekends to give instructive seminars. I went to places like Atlin and to a
town (twice) that no longer exists called Cassiar.
To fourth year graphics students I taught something called
Photographics in which I had to impart to my students what it was like to work
in the outside world. I remember, fondly that I brought Art Bergmann as a real
rock artist to pose for photographs and my students had to design record covers
for Bergmann. To make it more realistic Bergmann gave his opinion on the work
presented to him. I remember going to accounting with my expenses which
included the purchase of two single malt scotches. I was paid quickly and all I
had to do was mention that it was a fee by the artist for services rendered.
The third job I performed (at least twice) for the college
was to shoot the pictures for a school brochure.
The man in charge at the time (he wore green boat shoes) had attempted to use
photography students to shoot the brochures with disastrous results. Let me
One of the smells that will lure anybody into ecstasy is the
smell of paints, oil paints, acrylics, linseed oil, wooden floors and paper of
a studio. The activity of many students in that studio is also fascinating. The
problem is that little if anything happens if you wait. You must create those
decisive moments in advance and put them on paper as a shot list.
Unless you do that the head of the college found out the
smells of paint did not transfer to the photographs.
It was at Emily Carr where I first heard the term undraped.
They used undraped models in the life drawing classes. When I showed up to
shoot these I remember that the models became understandably paranoid. I told
then I would only photograph them from the rear.
As I look at these pictures I can remember most fondly the
smell of the paint, the rustling of the paper, the scribbling with charcoal and
I wonder how brochures are being shot at the University in this 21st
The Found Card & the Process of Remembering
Monday, August 01, 2016
Today is a British Columbia holiday. It is a lazy BC Day. It
is sunny, the afternoon is almost hot and my Rosemary is asleep with her cat
I am attempting to file stuff that I hurriedly threw into
plastic bins when we moved from our old Athlone house five months ago to our
new Kitsilano digs. A flood in the basement 10 days before our move made my
throwing a hurried one.
Attempting to file it is taking longer because I
find stuff that I have almost forgotten.
Seen here is a card (it folds and I would write in the
inside) that might have been a Christmas card from 1973 0r 1974 before we left
Mexico City for Vancouver in 1975.
I look at the card and I think of Jorge Luís Borges’s wheel
of time. The spokes of that wheel have turned (inexorably) in a forward
(clockwise, is time clockwise?) manner. And yet when I look at the card I can
smell the air of Arboledas, Estado de México, and remember that both Rosemary
and I were wearing short white leather ankle boots that had a three-inch
foam-like sole. I note that Rosemary’s
eyebrows are very marked (I was the one who plucked them for her) and I know
exactly where it was that I seldom got my haircuts.
Moving that wheel forward again to today, as my Rosemary
sleeps, I am in a happy wonder that all four of us are here in BC (Ale, the
oldest in Lillooet, and Hilary now in her new house in Burnaby).
Burnaby BC is where we first lived when we came to
Vancouver. The pessimist, my Rosemary is unhappy that Hilary, Bruce, Lauren and
Rebecca (soon) are all back where we began. Hilary the optimist is happy that
she is back to where it all began for her.
One way or the other, with Rosemary and Casi-Casi in bed,
I can consider myself a lucky man and the wheel can keep turning. I look
forward as to where it might be in a few hours, days, weeks and months. And
like Borges said, I remember only that which I have not forgotten from my past.
The found card is part of the process of remembering.
Sunday, July 31, 2016
Rosemary and I returned from a three day trip to our older
daughter’s home in Lillooet BC
was pure and very hot (over 40) and the people very friendly. I cooked so the
food was relatively good. We slept well. Waking up in the morning and going
outside in our daughter’s almost one acre property was a liberating kind of
activity particularly when we stared at the mountains on either side. Her
house is smack in the middle and parallel to the Fraser Canyon. The silence was
palpable except when large trucks and 4x4s with their diesels roared by.
We went to an activity called We Love Lillooet and I met Margaret Lampman the mayor (a most pleasant woman) and
Wendy Fraserthe editor of the local Lillooet News (another most pleasant woman). It occurred to me
that one day I might want to live in Lillooet except for one important vacuum
that for me exists in most small towns of our province.
I was born in a large city, Buenos Aires and lived for
many years in another, Mexico City. I am used to traffic rumble, smog and other
negative amenities of the big city. But I am also attracted to big city culture
– the arts. I like theatre, dance visual arts, large and very good libraries.
I was aware that Lillooet had lots of arts and crafts
with a major on the second part of that – the crafts. But would I ever be able
to see a Picasso exhibition or witness a Bach Mass with all the trimmings of
period instruments? Would I be able to go to concerts of new music and music of
the avant garde?
In Lillooet I would miss my Arts Umbrella Dance Company
performances and all the other dance activities of Vancouver. I would miss some
of the theatre (perhaps not all of those musicals). I would miss the culinary
variety of an ethnically proliferated restaurant culture.
Netflix, and communicating with my friends with facebook
would not be to my liking without something more.
And yet I have a troubling confession to make that has
been made almost acceptable by the statement of my friend, Vancouver composer,
I told him at a recent concert by the divine cellist
Marina Hasselberg (a solo cello recital) that I could not abide with one more performance
of Bach’s Concerto for 2 Violins in D minor, BWV 1043. With a smile he said to
me, “You are done with it.” That is true I thought. I further told him that if
it weren’t for the fact that I would drive Rosemary crazy I would play all my
very many Piazzolla CDs all day and nothing else. His comment (one I would
concur with) was, “I don’t understand why so many attempt to interpret
Piazzolla. He is and was an original.”
Last night I listened to a fine Lester Young record and
one with Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz and Paul Desmond (all together!). It struck
me that I want to go less to concerts, and theatre and dance, an art exhibits and
very definitely any photography ones. What could be wrong?
I feel stressed out if I know I have to go somewhere on a
particular day of the week or some near evening. I want to get into bed to read
and enjoy the morning papers with Rosemary over a Spartan breakfast-in-bed.
Former Vancouver Magazine art director Rick Staehling may
have been ahead of my time (and his) when in the 80s my rock columnist friend
Les Wiseman and I would go to the Commodore (with all kinds of comp tickets)
for really good punk concerts and to see bands from all over the world.
Staehling would tell us , “I prefer to buy the CD.” I am beginning to
Does Lillooet beckon?