Archive for the ‘photography’ Category

Old self with prop…

September 19, 2008
self in 1983

self in 1983

I have always hated to have my picture taken – as a child, as a teen, as a young woman and now as an older woman. In family photos I was always the one to scowl at the camera because it intruded and because it always felt like I had to look nice, or pleasing, or amenable. There is a primitive fear lurking in me that makes me dislike the photographic image of people, and there are scant photos of loved ones in my possesion, and very few of me. Any photo that exists and which I have accepted as being somewhat truthful, or at least, as close to how I wish to represent myself has been taken unposed and on the fly.

I am not a beauty or pretty, nor sweet or malleable. The usual caution during childhood family photo sessions was: “Look nice, smile pretty.” The reality was a sense of confusion and questioning of the need to present a fake niceness. And how does one look pretty in the first place, anyway. Reminders to “Close your mouth, stop talking and asking questions,…” made me miserable and reluctant to co-operate. There is a priceless picture of me at age eight with a violin for a prop which makes me get giggly especially since I know what a series of lies are represented by the image. It tells of a pleasant and happy child, enamored of her violin, her lips red tinted and prissy, eyes dreamy, right hand fingering the strings delicately and the left hand arced and gracefully propelling the bow. The real truth was I hated to have to play for the photographer, the starched colllar of my white blouse pinched my neck and the wool plaid skirt itched my bare legs. I was at once bored and wishing to be anywhere but there, being victimized in an interminable photo session. Renaissance Man has that photo; he dug it out of the jumbled box of family snapshots.

The above photograph was taken by Rumpole in our up North log house a couple of decades ago, on a winter evening after we had all reconvened at home after work and school. I was tired, recouping with a cigarette and listening to him or Renaissance man talk about their day. Still in my studio smock, my hair messy and my mouth open as if about to comment – yep, that was me. Not a pretty picture, but quite close to how I felt – wiped out and hiding behind the prop, the cigarette. A far more honest snapshot, not high art, nor posed than any photograhy studio portrait might be.

I invite any regular readers of this blog to post an old snapshot of themselves which they feel arrives close to a truthful portrait of them at a particular moment in the past.

The hanging…

January 14, 2008

The rickety aluminum ladder spanned five feet on the floor and ascended ten feet in height. Terry scaled it like a young chimp, sure-footed; she perched herself at the top. Imperious, like a surgeon in surgery, she held out her hand and demanded “yardstick”. She steeled herself, centering her mass. She pulled the pencil from above her ear with one hand, with the other she measured a distance down from the ceiling and ticked a mark on the dove-grey gallery wall. She, then, aligned the yardstick horizontal from that pencilled mark and measured off a distance. Then she snubbed the yardstick up to the ceiling vertically and marked off a measurement equal to the pencil mark on the other side. She poked the pencil above her ear, and held down the yardstick. “Hammer” she called out.

Flora, the curator, hopped to it; she grabbed the yardstick and placed the hammer into Terry’s outstretched hand. She stepped back and joined Looking-for-Beauty who was standing back photographing the proceedings with her digital camera. I slouched beside them and watched this young woman perching so surely on that ladder. LFB showed me some shots on her camera screen. Great photos, even if Terry was shown from the back. She took some balletic poses; her oversized black t-shirt and black tights made wonderful, unexpected, shapes against her outstretched arms.

Terry fished some nails from her waistband, held one between her lips and made to fasten the other into the wall. A couple of efficient slaps of the hammer seated the nail. She stretched to the other side, plucked the nail from between her pursed lips, positioned it with a deft touch and pounded it into place. “OK, you guys, bring the scroll,” she said and turned from the waist to watch Flora and me roll up either end of the ten-foot paper scroll and position it between the ladder and the wall.

Flora and I unfurled the top part; Terry pulled it into place at the top of the wall and secured the hanging clips to the nailheads. She scooted down from the ladder and pulled it back a few feet. Flora and I unrolled the bottom of the scroll and let it hang. Terry stood back and appraised the level of the top edge. “It’s off level,” she said. “G, please bring me the big level.” She pushed the ladder back into its original position, scaled the rungs, grabbed her pencil with a flourish and held down her other hand to receive the level. She calculated, made a corrective pencil mark on the wall to raise one side of the scroll, handed down the level and exchanged it for the hammer Flora handed up to her. Within seconds she corrected the position of the nail and rehung the scroll,  now perfectly horizontal and vertical.

Once she had climbed down, we all stood back and admired the tall multi-media painting/drawing. We scanned the overall impression made by the rest of the works on the gallery walls. Terry had hung the large works with use of the tall ladder. Sarah and I had hung all the medium and small sized works. LFB had documented the process, and Flora had overseen the positioning and sequencing of the whole exhibition. We had worked largely in silence as a team and the installation seemed to have taken hardly any time at all.

I was so happy that I could do my little bit, in spite not being able to see clearly the measurements as Sarah and I worked with the tape, level, hammer, hangers and pencil. But it was Sarah’s first time in doing an exhibition installation, and I could help her routinize the system of hanging a series of same-sized works. It is a method much like riding a bycicle – once you have mastered the skills and routines, doing it once again even after a long absence is the same as getting back on the bike and riding off. I must say, I returned home afterward with a certain feeling of satisfaction. I like being part of a work team; it feels great to accomplish such a job.

At the exhibition opening next Saturday, Sarah, LFB, I, Terry and Flora will have the pleasure of seeing the young artist’s reaction to seeing his works hanging in the gallery space. We know his studio is not large enough to permit such a preview of how his series looks, up all together in a space designed for viewing the impact of this body of work. I know we are all hoping he will have a spurt of pleasurable satisfaction and pride when he first casts his eyes on all this. His work, after all has been a labour of love and deserves love of labour from all of us in bringing it to public viewing.

Cement Plant…

December 13, 2007


In 2004, on an August summer evening, Rumpole took me to take reference photos of the local cement plant. I planned to do a painting of the plant for a fundraiser for the local municipal art gallery the theme of which was – “Paint the Town.” To my thinking, local historical buildings and scenic views did not represent our town of suburbs, downtown core of cement buildings, malls with their massive concrete parking lots, the hard paving that we travelled on daily and were surrounded by, everywhere. For some reason, the cathedral of cement, from where all this suburban skin originated – the local Lafarge Cement plant – seemed an appropriate icon for ‘our town’.

So there we were, the two of us, at dusk. We wandered around the plant grounds. It felt abandoned, with a few cement trucks parked, ready to resume their next morning’s labour of moving wet cement to add yet more hard surface to the steadily encroaching spread of our community – bridges and overpasses, house basements, driveways and walkways, streets, mall parking lots – all multiplying like a grey mold. Rumpole didn’t seem to be as excited as I was by this place. He was more interested in making sure I took “The Proper Picture” and followed me around, taking the camera from my hand to see what the photos were like, and giving instruction on how best to take pictures. After all, it was his camera that was being used, and he has strong ideas as to what constitutes “good photos”. I was pretty pig-headed, myself, as to what kind of reference I needed to work from, so as we walked about in the failing light, we engaged in our usual heated discussion. Finally, I growled at him to back off and let me do my visual note-taking by myself.

There was something engaging about the persistence and vigour of the tall evergreen that flanked the plant. It suggested the power of nature to endure, to reclaim its primacy over any attempts to supress it. Thus it was this picture which I felt the most useful to work with and from.. It also approximated my idea of what constitutes the notion of “picturesque”.

This cement plant sits alongside a road many townies take regularly to access the ferry across the river. It is a landmark that goes largely unremarked, I suspect, not of as great importance or noteworthiness as the mountain that looms over our community, and which has been painted and photographed innumerable times. And yet, there it perches, this amazing structure, and has persisted in its peculiar architecture for over forty years. In terms of time, this is not so long a period, and yet as far as history of our town goes, its presence has been pivotal to the steady growth and spread over this region. So, how could it not be an important landmark, of sufficient interest to be used as an image representing the specifics of our town? I went with it, whole hog!

The painting, in oils on canvas, was three feet square. The scale was an important consideration to me. The painting grew apace, with a lurid and angry reddish sky. I delivered it to the gallery, still slightly tacky, as reds take a longer time to dry. It sat among the rest of the fundraising paintings and photos, like quite an odd man out. The mountain was represented at least in ten works; the parks, the dykes and historic buildings, nostalgia inducing, made up the rest of the images on offer. I could see that my painting might be a hard sell – not many people could live with a painting of an industrial subject, say, above their floral couch or looming over their dining room table.

At the fundraising auction, my painting did not incite vigorous bidding. A lady picked it up for $300. Well, at least it got some money for the art gallery, so that was fine. One thing though, I never took a picture of the painting for my own records, but that’s not so big a deal – it’s out there somewhere, even if it takes up a spot under someone’s bed.

A year ago, I was browsing through a second-hand store in town. Tucked in a corner, between a bookshelf and a ratty armoire was my painting of the cement plant. No price tag on it. I hunted down the clerk and asked him how much was being asked for the painting. $350, he said, “and it’s by a well known local member of the Mountain Club. It’s an original, you know – a real steal.” Later, that evening, I casually mentioned to Rumpole that my painting ended up in the second-hand store.

He studied my face, looking for signs of disappointment and dismay. “I’ll go buy it back. I like that painting.”

“Nope,” I said. “Once a painting is done and out in the world, it needs to find its way on its own. It has its own legs; let it end up where it ends up.”

“But, aren’t you feeling somewhat sad about it being remaindered?” he asked.

“Well, this is a good lesson about ego, self-importance, preciousness, letting go – it is a good lesson for me to think about.” I said.

Come to think of it – all those men who make roads, foundations, cement buildings do so in anonymity. I have my funny little signature appended to a part of my painting of the plant. The painting is one of many out in the world a mere speck of colour on a stretched sheet of canvas. It has served its purpose for me as its maker. It may, in its small way, cause people seeing it to wonder why someone might have lavished so much time and attention to crafting such an image. If it makes anyone, just one more person than myself, see the meaning, and importance that a cement plant has in our lives, my labours will have served their purpose.

Pursuit of the Picturesque…

April 9, 2007

Certain acquaintances have made painting pilgrimages to Tuscany. These have involved month-long sojourns in small villages and hill-towns where daily activities of “plein-air” painting are interspersed with leisurely long lunches and prolonged wine-soaked dinners.  They return home to suburbia, laden down with numerous picturesque paintings and also with a plethora of photographic references which can be used to churn out yet more pictures.

A friend had travelled to Russia – St. Petersburg, Moscow, Novosibirsk, and came back with many pictures of the Soviet Wedding-Cake architecture of Moscow, and of the ornate Imperial architecture of St. Petersburg.  She expressed huge frustration about how the locals discouraged her from making photographs which might broadcast negative impressions of their homeland. They were insistent on what was worthy of being photographed, and frequently interrupted her efforts to take images of subjects of a non-picturesque nature.

My daughter-in-law’s mother and friend visited here last summer.  They had come from the Scotland, bearing their cameras.  They wanted photographs of the main gate in China-town, of the groomed exotic nature of the Sun Yat Sen Garden, of the view seen from the gondola as they rode up the mountain in Whistler – a panorama of peaks diminishing into hazy distance. While walking near the river, they may have noted small tugs nosing floating logs into booms, or the occasional log-handler jumping from log to log, but an image like this they did not deem worthy of photographing. They did not note the peculiar beauty of the sulphur hills by the waterfront, it did not fit their idea of the picturesque.

It seems to me that many people traverse the globe, ceaselessly and persistently, seeking the unique, different, exotic and memorable views that are already plentifully available in their own little corner of the world – if they bothered to look and consider with fresh eyes.

On becoming a medical illustration subject….

February 15, 2007

Being raised in a medical family, at an early age I became desensitized to seeing the human body represented in various stages in a variety of image making media.  For our family of children, Father’s various textbooks and medical journals were as available for our perusal as perhaps the ubiquitous National Geographic magazines were in many North American homes.

I particularly loved to look at the very fine line drawing illustrations of muscle becoming ligament and the layering and inter-relationship between closely spaced muscle forms which help to articulate the various body parts.  The close observation by the illustrator created a clarity of understanding much more than did photographs of the same muscle masses. Later as an art student I reveled in drawing parts of the skeleton available in the studio, and also in trying to establish the skeletal structure of the posed model in life drawing classes.

It was always the photographic depictions of skin conditions, in early years in black and white, and in later ones in full colour, that caused in me the greatest discomforting reactions.  For, it was obvious to me that the bodies photographed were of persons still living, despite the fact of anonymity being scrupulously observed.  Faces were blocked out with little black rectangles. Disembodied torsos, one after the other, illustrated massive infections in a staggering variety. However, the pictures did not convey the agony and discomfort of the patients, they merely depicted conditions.

It was not until 1988 when I was in hospital for treatment of AML (acute myelogenous leukemia) that the opportunity, if it may be called that, of becoming a medical illustration subject presented itself. During the first rounds of chemotherapy, Ara-C was one of the medications administered intravenously. In response, my body had a major allergic response to this medication. I itched terribly and developed a livid, mottled red rash all over my torso and legs. On rounds, the doctors stated ” Yes, this is a classic Ara-C rash.” They prescribed a little green pill to mitigate the itching. They probably called the medical illustration department to summon the photographer to capture forever this classic example of rash.

I was shortly visited, on a lovely sunny spring afternoon (good light) by a very brisk and officious man bearing a shiny aluminum photographer’s briefcase.  He introduced himself and explained what he was about to do; this while assembling lens to camera body in a no-nonsense manner. He asked me to climb out of bed and stand near my IVpole and drop my hospital gown.  I complied with this request in as modest a manner as was available to me.  If I blushed, he really couldn’t tell due to my overall rotten tomato colouration.  He looked through the lens then decided the angle of the photo would be wrong;  I was very short, he was quite higher up and was shooting downward. “Please climb, back onto the bed, and we’ll try again”, he suggested.  Back onto the bed I crawled, meanwhile trying to be covered as much as possible. He, however, didn’t like what he saw through the lens and requested me to kneel up in bed for the shot. To me, by this time getting tired of the proceedings, this had unfortunate elements of a Playboy photo shoot, and I was beginning to get quite grumpy. The photographer still wasn’t satisfied.  He had fired off a couple of kneeling shots of my exposed abdomen and breasts. His next request pushed my grumpiness up a notch toward irateness – he asked me to stand up on the mattress, and keep balanced while he would shoot off several frames (carefully bracketed, one assumes).  I pointed over his shoulder and suggested he look at the calendar drawn up on the white-board behind him.  There in plain black and white were my daily counts of hemoglobin, white blood and platelets, with that day’s counts having plummeted to an all time low.  I said that I was dizzy, due to the low hemoglobin count and standing up in bed would cause me to be quite unsure of my footing and very insecure. Furthermore, with my platelet counts so low, if If I fell off the bed I would have a major bleed, so I demurred.  He was quite chastened, dismantled his camera and reassembled his case, mumbled a quick thanks and practically ran from my room.

Left there in deshabille, I was struggling to put on my hospital gown and then straighten my messed up bed, mulling over the possibility that next year’s medical students on rotation through Hemotology would see in their textbooks a brilliantly coloured, disembodied, headless, armless torso sporting a “classic ARA-C rash”, of unknown female subject, 41 years old.

As I struggled to regain composure I moved the IV pole to it’s correct position by the bed head, and settled onto the covers to watch the Pirates of Penzance video my Mother had brought in for me. My primary nurse, a fresh-faced new nursing graduate stuck her head in the door and asked,

“What on earth did you do to the medical photographer? He practically ran from the ward and didn’t linger to chat us up!”

Yes, medical photographers must have their tough days – with ugly and unwilling subjects.

Photography, photographers… new and old learning…

February 8, 2007

Last weekend, our friend “The Prissy German Tourist” came to stay overnight, so he could attend the downtown passport office and line up all day for his turn to present his documents and passport application for processing.  Knowing full well that any attempt at artspeak with me over dinner and while lounging around would be met by strict admonitions from “Rumpole” to cease and desist, PGT cleverly brought a book to casually place at the end of the table.

“Photgraphy REBORN – image making in the digital era”, by Jonathan Lipkin, 2005, Abrams Studio,

is this book which enticed “Rumpole” into a lengthy discussion among us of how photography has changed over the past 20 years with the advent of digital technologies.  We spent a stimulating evening looking at the images in this book.  “PGT” has pretty much abandoned his painting practice and has been working with his digital camera and computer programs to experiment in extending his visual vocabulary and resulting expression. “Rumpole” has always loved making photos, developing film and printing pictures in a home dark-room, and together we did this together and separately until 1989 when we moved to suburbia, and into a more complex life which precluded photography.  So, here is left behind this marvellous book to pore over, and for the time we have it here to share with other friends.

It so happens that M (Martha) my clever, delightful friend who teaches photography and video production and is also quite savvy with computer technology, is a keen photographer much interested in the history and the developments in this medium.  She is a very fine maker of black and white photographic images.  While browsing in an art book store, I found a treasure which called out, “I am meant for Martha!  Buy me, right now!” Such a find!

“Tete a Tete –  the portraits of Henri Cartier-Bresson

“Rumpole” and I presented it to Martha at dinner on Tuesday night, as her “un-birthday” present. We passed around the book, held up  to each other the book as we pored over it page by page. We didn’t get any arrabiata sauce on any pages at all, and dinner became a protracted affair, very pleasurable.

We made a date for the three of us to go to the big public gallery downtown later this month to see the retrospective exhibition of a Canadian photographer, whose day job was  medical photographic illustration, but whose real all-consuming passion was to record the changing nature of our large city.

So this seems to be immersion in photography month, and many pleasant surprises await us all, I think.