This Wednesday evening at Simon Fraser University at the downtown Vancouver campus Woodwards there will be a panel discussion by 10 Vancouver photographers on the theme: How images affect us. The discussion is being sponsored by the Vancouver Chapter of C.A.P.I.C. ( Canadian Association of Photographers and Illustrators in Communication). Each photographer has prepared a (up to 18) images (they are in black boxes so some of them will hold multiple images. After the presentation there will be back and forth communication between the photographers and the audience, which will probably be made up mostly by other photographers and illustrators.
My contribution is based on the idea that it is impossible to take a photograph without knowing that something similar came before. If the photographer studies other photographers (contemporary or from the past), painters, sculptors, musicians, writers, plays, operas and film these art forms can provide a starting point for inspiration. Inspiration can be out and out imitation but soon the photographer will adapt the style of the former into a personal style of the latter.
My journey into photography began when I was 8 or 9 and my mother took me to the Lincoln Library on Calle Florida in Buenos Aires. The library run by the United States Information Service was a front for the CIA. Often the library was subjected to bomb scares or met with university students holding signs and or shouting “Yankees, fuera de la Argentina”.
One of the singular surprises of this library is that with proper documentation (and easy process) you could take books home! Even today in Latin America people must read library books at the library! My mother left me at a table and by random choice I picked up a book or magazine called American Heritage. In it I found b+w photographs of soldiers and officers of the American Civil War taken by Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardiner and Timothy O’Sullivan. The men in the photographs looked very much like the men and young men walking on Florida. But it hit me for the first time (my first awareness of mortality) that the men in the photographs had been dead for at least 86 years. I have been obsessed in my interest in everything related to that war and the photographers and illustrators (like Winslow Homer).
By age 13 I had read a book on Grant’s role in the Battle of Shiloh. Last year I read the excellent Mathew Brady biography by Robert Wilson. The portraits of ordinary people (not soldiers but probably well off) who posed for Brady in his NY studio so inspired me that I decided to imitate their look. I did this by mounting a large soft box on a tall boom stand in my garden (a cloudy day). I placed a gray backdrop behind and posed my friend and model Caitlin Legault. The photograph which I took with b+w film with a medium format camera I believe at the very least captured the spirit of Brady’s technique.
The other boxes below represent only a few of the people who have influenced my photography and helped me develop (through inspiration and outright imitation) what I consider the Holy Grail of photography. And that is a personal style.
The photograph of Iggy Pop is not all that similar to that of Goebbels. When I was about to photograph Mr. Pop (!) I mentioned that in his black suit he reminded me of the famous portrait taken by Alfred Aisenstaedt. Pop became agitated and told me he had been in the very house in Geneva a year before.
Of Canadian author Robertson Davies I had seen countless photographs of the man posing with his glasses in his mouth. I opted into turning him into my childhood idol, Da Vinci.
Most of the other box/panels are self-explanatory. But I would like to add something to the one of Degas. My granddaughter when young posed by the Degas Ballerina Aged 14 at the National Gallery in Washington DC. When I found out that the lovely Sandrine Cassini (when I photographed her she was with Ballet BC) had started her dance career at the Paris Opera Ballet (just like Marie van Goethem, the model for the Degas sculpture) I could not resist. Cassini then revealed that from the Paris Opera Ballet she had gone to the Monaco Ballet. I simply asked her, “Did he photograph you?” Her answer pleasantly surprised me. “Yes Helmut Newton photographed me.”.