|Harry Rankin - 1987|
Insomnia can obsessively start me into thinking stuff that would be better to let go and then do my best to get a good night’s sleep. But tonight it was not to be.
I am a member of an on-line group of photographers that own Fuji digital cameras (I have an X-E1 and an XE-3). It is the state of photography these days that the bulk of the photographs taken by these chaps consists of perfect and pristine landscapes with dramatic skies and rushing streams.
Because I pride on the fact that I am a portrait photographer I think that in a darkened room being exposed to hundreds of projections of these perfections my insomnia would be cured on the spot.
Not all those photographs are rushing brooks. Many are street shots forming part of a branch of photography called Street Photography. A pioneer was the Frenchman Henri Cartier-Bresson. With his Leica III-F he recorded Parisians and Frenchies elsewhere mostly unaware of his presence. Should it be possible for Mr. Cartier- Bresson (now dead) to hop on a time machine and come to our fair Vancouver I guarantee he would be applying for employment insurance within a month. Everybody has a camera or a phone and everybody now snaps in the streets.
For me the humanity of a portrait is the only way to stand out in this crowd of nature perfection and street boredom.
In the early 19th century the invention of photography brought affirmations that painting and art were dead as they could not reveal the detailed reality of the photograph. Fortunately this was not to be and Impressionists with their fuzzy paintings kept art alive.
Some of those photographers stationed their cameras in front of dying persons in the hope of capturing (unlike its 21st century digital use this was right on the money) the spirit or soul of the human leaving the body as seen in the eyes. But this, we know was impossible. For a second the person was alive and then in an uncapturable instant the person was dead.
But this impossible phenomenon can be looked at another way.
Many years ago on assignment to photograph Mike Harcourt (former Vancouver Alderman, Mayor and Premier) I tried to photograph his young son. The boy began to cry and ran away. I was told by his father that he thought I would steal his life.
Reality for Plato was outside a cave. Inside it men, chained to a stone bench stared at a wall. The reality from the outside was reflected on that wall but filtered through a large fire behind the men. Colours inside were muted. Real greens and blues were outside. These colours were absolutes. They were ideals, ideas and not ideas of.
Another modern writer and perhaps philosopher, Aldous Huxley thought and wrote in The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell that our brain has filters that prevent and thus protect us from stark reality. Drugs can temporarily remove them to our peril.
I believe that a good portrait, particularly one with eye contact and seen even years after it was taken and by the photographer who took it (me!) in some strange way is a vision of the essence of that person. It is an instant in which I can see his (Alderman Harry Rankin) soul, his spirit, that quirk of life that those photographers of the 19th century could not grasp at the moment of death of their subject.
And best of all even though Harry Rankin is dead, in this portrait, I can see life. It is there.