Shade Fanfare - 1991
Saturday, April 15, 2023
In our backwater city of Vancouver (we keep using the expression "world class" we have always felt
we just did not measure up. But we did have many vary good magazines. In 1991 my career as a magazine photographer was
established. My wife Rosemary and I lived comfortably in a large house with a
corner garden that was also large. I had an inferiority complex. I avoided
calling myself an art photographer. Photography was not considered art in Vancouver.
Friends who came to visit me and explored my darkroom would
always comment on the framed photographs of undraped women on the walls and
suggested that I might want to exhibit them in a gallery.
I did, and in particular, in exclusive only photograph
gallery called Exposure Gallery.
In the mid October1991 I was called by the Exposure Gallery
curator, Brian Lynch who told me, “Alex a show that was supposed to open in a
week has fallen through. Could you put together something for us?”
I decided that I was not going to use old photographs and I
would shoot brand new ones. I knew a fabulously beautiful woman called Lisa
Montonen. I was also bonkers about hosta. I combined two of my interests. I
called the exhibition Shade Fanfare (a hosta long gone from my garden). I would use pristine
hosta leaves and photograph Lisa in my studio with only one light and have the
name of the hosta suggest the pose. In the short time I had the 16x20 inch photographs nicely framed.
It was with those photographs that I cemented in my mind the idea that my style had a lot to do with that small studio softbox used close to my subjects.
It was a success although I did not sell one print on that
wall. For many years after people would say to me, “You were the one who
photographed the hosta lady.” In that 20th century, perhaps a tad
more permissive than this one, we men could call women ladies and even
photograph them with not much on without offending people.
That has definitely changed and yet every couple of
months I get a phone call or an email where I am asked by a woman I don’t know,
“I want some different photographs taken of me.” I always know what they mean
Looking back at my hosta lady photographs I bask in the
knowledge of my then innocence and how I did my best not to show offending
parts of Lisa’s body.
When I arrived at my first American Hosta Society Convention
in Columbus, Ohio and I brought my photographs there was a small and nice
uproar about them especially with Van Wade with whom I did a trade of rare
hostas for my photographs.
It is difficult for me to believe now that 32 years have transpired
and that all of the hostas in those photographs
are either gone or in my daughter’s garden in Lillooet, BC.
Back in 1991 hosta nomenclature was not what it is today.
Artificial Intelligence & Personal Style in Photography
Friday, April 14, 2023
|Left - Bert Stern's dry martini, bottom Carla Temple - top Ted Turtin|
For fun I participate in Twitter photo places where people
will write, “the theme for today is sunsets. Give us your awesome (or stunning)
The bulk of the entries are pristine nature, bird shots,
flower macros and of course sunsets and sunrises. Sometimes the theme is “low
angle” or “water”. Rarely do you get a glimpse of humanity.
With Artificial Intelligence here I would assert that unless
photographs take precisely orchestrated portraits, everything else will die with
AI as well as the careers of these 21st century would-be
|"Swervyn" Mervyn Fernandez |
I wrote here in One and One are One and in a few more blogs how photography from
the beginning of the first continuous tone photograph that appeared in the late
1870s in a NY newspaper has always been in a symbiotic relationship with
typography. As newspapers and magazines fade those photo jobs, not to mention
those of journalists or writers are being lost quickly.
I am 80 and there is nobody in my family following my career
steps. I take my architect friend, Abraham Rogatnick's words seriously. A year before he died he told me, “I am not long for this world. I am glad for it.”
If only these pristine nature and sunset photographers
understood that a portrait, particularly that of an unknown person or a family member, will not be
likely affected by AI.
Would anybody now understand or know that in1953 American photographer Bert Stern convinced the folks at Smirnoff Vodka that Americans
would surely understand that a vodka martini photographed at the Egyptian
pyramids would surely be a dry one? He and his large entourage flew first class
to Cairo and stayed in the best hotel so that Stern could snap his photograph
of the martini showing an upside-down pyramid with his Rolleiflex.
With Photoshop there would be no need of going to Egypt but
at the same time most of the wow factor of photography eventually began to
deteriorate. Special effects took over.
My Twitter feed is full of b+w Hollywood portraits of the
30s, 40s and 50s. The cell phone generation admires and understands the beauty
of these portraits. They are not quick snaps of the Kardashians with their
cleavage and tight rear ends.
Until the deterioration of good magazines (the New Yorker is
still around) photographs had to show class, style, elegance and good taste.
In 1986 my Rosemary took me to a meeting of the Vancouver
Rose Society in the Floral Hall of VanDusen Botanical Garden. We sat on hard
chairs and I was subjected to the projection of 100 bad close-up slides of
roses taken in the worst noon lighting. That was the beginning, how could I have known, of cell phone sunsets?
I have also written in many of my blogs how we magazine and
advertising photographers were pushed, forced and influenced by very good art
directors (also called design directors). They gave us direction.
The present day photographer has no instruction or
mentorship from these art directors. And so we get pristine sunsets the 2st
century version of rose slides.
In the photographs here you can see a man, Ted Turtin
holding a lit lightbulb. He had started a light bulb company in Burnaby BC. I was assigned my Vancouver business magazine Equity to take his portrait. I soldered
a wire behind the bulb with good isolation so Turtin would not be
electrocuted while holding the bulb. Now with Photoshop nobody would look twice
at the image.
In the photograph of the former BC Lions runner “Swervyn” Mervyn
Fernandez I bought a football and pierced the back and inserted a clothes
hanger that I then bolted to the edge of the table. The levitating football
would be a snap today with Photoshop.
The contact sheet of another session with Fernandez my stylist, Inga Vollmer put gold dust on his shoulders. The personal style that I had (and have) might not be affected by AI. Person style is important and it is very difficult in a post Ansel Adams era to have style in nature and landscape photographs.
The photograph of bodybuilder Carla Temple in which I used
massive Hollywood lighting would not be considered today as the folks at AI
would probably have no idea of who George Hurrell is or the existence of such
I could be wrong but then at my age I do not have statistically
much time left to worry about my next job. I am literally out of the picture
A Breath of Life in Inanimate Objects
Thursday, April 13, 2023
In Spanish we have a lovely word ánima which is a synonym
for soul. In English we have animate which agrees with the definition of ánima
in my on-line dictionary of the Real Academia (RAE)
Del lat. anĭma; cf. gr. ἄνεμος ánemos 'soplo'.
It seems that the Latin root ánemos means soplo or to blow. Thus
to animate is to blow life into something.
This concept explains why we, or at least this 80 year old
man, finds himself attached to objects which are supposed to be inanimate.
Since my Rosemary died on 9 December 2020 I have been
slowly discarding (nasty word) some of her stuff in a dresser in our bedroom. A
few days ago I found (inevitable as she was obsessed with them) a couple of
scissors. I also found and I smiled at finding her pencil sharpener. My
youngest daughter Hilary reminded me when I told her of the sharpener, “Abi
love to write everything in pencil and if the eraser at the end did not work
she would throw the pencil away." This is why there are pencils all over the
house and not to mention scissors.
In the kitchen until recently there was a little terracotta pot
full of her pencils and our plant marker pens. The pencils were either
unsharpened or had never been used.
This frustrated me a tad. Since we left our Kerrisdale home
6 years ago and its most important darkroom I have adopted and begun to accept
and enjoy my inkjet prints. I have brought an Ansel Adams custom to them. I
sign them in the back with pencil to indicate, as Adams who did the same, that I
have personally printed the inkjet and not some lab.
Now that I have found Rosemary’s sharpener I am content in
having sharp pencils.
I can only add here that those pencils, the sharpeners and
the two scissors have something of Rosemary’s ánima or soul in them. Picking
that sharpener up in my hand is tantamount to having her with me.
A Glimpse Into a Young Girl's Soul
Wednesday, April 12, 2023
In was in 1958 that I bought my first SLR camera, a Pentacon-F
while at St. Edward’s High School in Austin, Texas.
It seems to me that 65 years later, if I am not a good
photographer, I should have quit and become a plumber.
In a phone conversation with my Burnaby daughter Hilary today I
told her that I feel that I will die unrecognized for my extensive body of work (I sort of hate the term).
Some years ago I failed to get access to photograph
Christopher Plummer when he came to Vancouver and it was then that I decided
that it was more fun to photograph people who were not celebrities and just
plain ordinary (without wanting to be deprecative ).
I believe that if I lit my files with a match and only
safeguarded my family portraits, that would be enough to confirm my belief that
my portraits of my daughters, wife and two granddaughters are (and I want to
stress the use of this word) remarkable.
They are remarkable because, since I am not a plumber but was a
portrait photographer for many magazines for many years, I know a remarkable
portrait when I see one.
As evidence I have here a scan of a framed photograph of
Rebecca which I took in 2012. I printed the b+w negative on Kodak lith film
(Kodalith) and developed it as if it were a continuous tone b+w photographic
print. I then put it on top of silver card. In a gallery situation with
overhead lights the effect is of a 19th century Daguerreotype. That effect
is lost when the frame is placed on the scanner bed.
But that does not take away from my belief that this is more
than a snapshot, more than a portrait. It is a glimpse into the soul (life
spark) of my Rebecca. I have many more like these. Perhaps it is not because of any skill I may have but the fact that this woman (she is now 25) has a face to launch ships galore to their perdition.
If I were living in Toronto or New York, and not in this
backwater provincial city that thinks it is a world class one, Rebecca would
have her future assured and I would have more than a park bench with my name on
it as legacy.
Los Sin Techo of Vancouver
Tuesday, April 11, 2023
|Villa Miseria 31 - Buenos Aires|
31, Barrio 31 o Barrio Padre Carlos Mugica es una villa miseria ubicada en la
Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires, Argentina. Está repartida entre la Comuna 1,
que contiene al barrio de Retiro, y la Comuna 2, correspondiente a Recoleta.
Every time I visit my native Buenos Aires I marvel of the
ingenuity of the people who live in the Villas Miserias. Miseria in Spanish
leans more to the idea being poor.
The Villa Miseria 31 is the most famous and probably the
largest. It is close to the enormous train station of Retiro in downtown Buenos
Aires. Many of these shanty towns spring up near the uncertain ownership of
land by railroad tracks. Pope Francis when he was an ordinary Jesuit was a frequent visitor of Villa 31. One of the major freeways to leave town pass over Villa 31.
When you walk or drive in downtown Buenos Aires in the
evening you will spot the cartoneros. These are people that pick up all the
cardboard and paper from offices. This for them is a steady source of income. If Buenos Aires adopted our Vancouver city method of recycling these people would lose their income. On the afternoons before my Kits "garbage day" a friendly woman greets me as she collects what will give her an income and perhaps preventing her from becoming homeless.
It is obvious that Argentina is a third world country and
beginning this year inflation had passed 100%. When I last went with Rosemary
to Buenos Aires the black market dollar (called Dollar Blue) was at 164 pesos.
Today it is at 395 pesos.
And yet I might guess (without any statistical evidence)
that there are fewer homeless in Buenos Aires than in Vancouver. The Buenos
Aires homeless are called “sin techo” or without a roof.
I remember that in the early 50s when visiting
dignitaries would come to Buenos Aires, Presidente Juan Domingo Perón would
build walls to hide the shanty towns. That would be impossible now. Why?
Ever since I can remember the dream of any Argentine was to
have a “casa de material”. This meant they wanted a sturdy brick home. The houses in the Villas in some cases can have three to
four stories. You can spot water tanks on their roofs along with satellite dishes.
Some years ago, when Mike Harcourt was no longer Premier,
he gave a talk at the Simon Fraser University Downtown Campus. I will never
forget that he said, “To eliminate homelessness you have to build homes.”
Much is being written about preserving the look and the
spirit of Vancouver’s Chinatown. I believe (again no evidence, just the gut
feeling of an 80 year old man.) that this is impossible. It would transform
Chinatown into a sprawling museum.
The people who lived in that place did so for two reasons.
They could not afford to live anywhere else or they might not have been allowed
to buy property outside the area.
Chinatown was a ghetto, no different from the original
one in Venice.
Now I think we have to redefine the concept of what a ghetto
is. Vancouver (the city) is being populated by people with money. It is
increasingly becoming impossible for people who live here (and their offspring)
to buy or rent property. They are moving to the suburbs or to islands. These suburban
sprawls are not in an exact place but they are ghettos nonetheless.
Before the new Emily Carr was built and right after Finning Tractor left the area on Great
Northern Way I wondered what would have happened if the city had put lumber
(2x4s) and fiberglass roofing in one corner of the large then empty space and if people might have moved in. Like
in Buenos Aires they would have illegally tapped into power lines for
This did not happen.
It seems that in our fair city we prefer for the homeless
to live in tents on streets (is a tent a roof over their head?) as we eschew anything
that might be a shanty down because Vancouver is a first world city in a first
world country. We are not Brazil with its favelas or Argentina with its Villas
Miserias. In fact even Mexico city has
sprawling shanty towns.
Vancouver will soon have a new "world class" art gallery that will cost billions. Mike Harcourt might have suggested that the money could be used to build homes. And architect Abraham Rogatnick famously stated that the Vancouver Art Gallery should stay where it is.