Pinhole Photography – Canadian artist Murray Polson is his own technological shutter.

Family-History-web

 Murray Polson makes his own cameras out of ABS plastic sheet and pipe. He lets action determine exposure and takes his pulse as a measuring device. He creates scenes for the pinhole camera to see. Canadian Murray Polson is his own technological shutter.

I had the opportunity to ask the artist why his experiments are like trapping a film in a single frame and what he is going to show in his upcoming exhibition “Pinhole Photography” at the Metropolis Photo Gallery in Victoria, B.C., starting Saturday, 7 April 2018.

Murray Polson, when you think back to your very first camera who taught you how to use it?

Murray: The first camera I remember was a Brownie Hawkeye, made by Kodak.  It was almost cubic in shape, made of black plastic with its viewfinder on the top.  To see what I was going to photograph, I held the camera at about waist level and looked down and through the square viewfinder to see my subject and composition.  The shutter would make a ‘ping’ sound not at all like the click of the today’s cameras.  It was very easy to use.  It took Kodak’s 620 film.  If I really wanted to get fancy I could clip on a flash unit.  I don’t think I ever got that complicated.  I’m sure I learnt how to use it by determined fiddling rather than formal instruction.

 These days, you make your own cameras out of plumbing supplies. What type of cameras do you work with and for what projects?

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Murray: Today I make my own cameras out of ABS plastic sheet and pipe that I find in the plumbing section of the hardware store.  The camera I use the most takes a 35 mm film cassette.  It is round so that the camera sees about 340 degrees.

What kind of film do you use?

 Murray: I use both black and white, and colour film; the kind of film depends on the subject or the idea I want to illustrate.

 Where did you get your idea for the round camera?

Murray: The idea came from a painting project.  I had been going out to a local park to paint.  The park was big enough so that I could walk for about an hour, mostly to get away from people, before I choose a place to paint.  After many walkings out, painting and walking back I realized that the walk out created a history of that journey.   In that series of paintings I was using my sensibilities to choose what colours and shapes the landscape suggests rather than painting in a realistic manner what was in front of me.

The idea of the history of my walk out offered a look backwards.  In keeping with the use of my senses, I choose my sense of light as a medium and photography as a way of recording that sense.

 Hence the round camera…

Murray: Yes, it looks all around as well as backwards.  In order to use my sense of light in an uncluttered way, I took as much of the technology of photographing out of the camera in order to leave only my relationship between light and film.   I took away any lenses and allowed light to find the film through a pinhole drilled through a thin sheet of metal.  I took away the mechanical mechanisms of a shutter and used a piece of tape over the pinhole to keep the light out; then taking the tape away to let the light in.

If you like, I was my own technological shutter.  I didn’t what to use any light meter or technical tool to “get results” as it were.  It took time for me to understand the quality of the light on any given day and how the film would respond to that light.

 What does counting to 50 according to your heartbeat have to do with pinhole cameras?

Murray: I needed some kind of measuring device to keep track of how I was relating to the film.  I took my pulse as a measuring device.  After a while I was able to sense the day and say to myself: this is a 50-pulse-day.  And I would let light into the camera by removing the tape, then find my pulse and count to fifty, and then replace the tape over the pinhole to make the exposure.

 Did it take some time to create some sympathy between you and the tool?

Murray: Indeed, but after a while I was getting the kind of results I imagined.  And along the way I discovered many variations that different exposures can bring.

Babington-Hill

 I am looking at the result of a particular picture of Babington Hill on Vancouver Island where you took your big pinhole camera. At first glance, it looks like a normal scene in nature. But then you realize that there is nowhere for the eye to rest. Can you explain why?

 Murray: Yes, Daniela, ‘Babington Hill’ is an interesting picture.  Because the camera is round, it needs more than one pinhole to expose the film.  The camera I used to take Babington Hill has four pinholes arranged symmetrically around the camera’s edge.  In this instance, I opened all the pinholes at the same time, counted my pulse to the number wanted and then closed the pinholes.

 Let’s think about this a bit – the camera is doing what you do when you stand in one place and turn around so that you see all the sights around you?

Murray: Yes, and when the film is developed and printed, the action of going around in one place is rendered in a single panoramic image.  That’s how the photograph appears as a usual landscape picture.  But, when you look closely at the picture, you can see that the image from one pinhole overlaps the image of the pinhole beside it.

 As you see an image or a location from different points of view, the images begin to overlap. The observer senses a filming quality of some sort, why is that?

Murray: The overlapping produces images that just don’t quite make sense to your eye.  In fact, you are seeing four adjacent landscapes side by side.  The consequence of this is that the viewer has no single place to view the picture from.  There are four places to view the photograph from and consequently your eye moves from one centre to the next, leaving the viewer with no place to rest.

 Let’s talk about ‘dispersion’, one topic of your creative work. When you talked to your sister about the death of your Grandfather, you came across 2 different stories. How did this discrepancy between ideas of a family experience affect your artistic work?

Murray: Taking photographs of scenes that are already there is one way I use my cameras.  Another way I use them is to create scenes for the camera to see.  I remember having a conversation with my sister about the death of our grandfather.  I said that he died a crazy man after a brain operation and she said: no, he died of a liver infection.

IMG_5856 Two members of the same family having two very different versions of our family history; I thought that was worth portraying.  I thought that glass could be the consistent family, and shattered glass the divergent histories.  I bought a bunch of drinking glasses and broke them into smallish pieces.  I glued pictures of the family to many of the shards of glass and then poured all the shards into a transparent doughnut shaped plastic mote.  The camera was in the middle of the doughnut.  I made several exposures and choose the ones that best illustrated the idea.  I found this a very interesting way to look at both art making and understanding family, if that is possible.

 “Dinner” is the title of one of your photographs in which the social aspect determines exposure, not the actual technology.

Murray: I opened the aperture of the camera when we started dinner and closed it at the end of dinner.

 What was your intention behind this?

Murray: I wanted to take the technology out the process because I liked the idea of action determining the exposure time.  In a normal photographic situation the technology of the camera determines the exposure time.  It is nice reversal.

I decided to make an exposure during a dinner party. I placed the camera in the centre of the table and when we all sat down to eat I opened the shutter or more accurately took the tape off the pinholes.  When we finished dinner and got up from the table I replaced the tape over the pinholes.

Dinner

This photograph is very interesting as all the things that did not move during dinner are in sharp and clear focus, but all the moving things, like the people and the wine glasses are blurs. 

Murray: Yes, but the best part of all is having the action – the dinner party – control the exposure, or the subject of the image, determine the length of the exposure.  I had let the action determine the exposure, not the mechanical technology of usual cameras.

It struck me that this was a wonderful reversal of the intention of the camera.  Most cameras have mechanisms that allow the photographer to adjust the camera to capture a moment in an action.  My pinhole camera let the whole action appear in the exposure.  It is like trapping a film in a single frame.  I like to experiment like this.

 Murray, thank you very much for the interview and all the best for your show at the Metropolis Photo Gallery starting 7 April 2018.

More information:

“Pinhole photography” opens Saturday, 7 April 2018.
It closes on Thursday  26, April 2018.
The Metropolis Photo Gallery, #102 – 864 Pembroke St. Victoria, BC.

https://www.facebook.com/Metropolis-Photo-Gallery-508409019501958/

 

Photographs by Murray Polson and Daniela Herold / Copyright 2018

 

 

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Turning photographs into new memories

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Exhibition “My Mother’s House” by Clare Thomas

When artists give free rein to experimentation, photography often helps expanding boundaries. Ever since the 1980s we have seen a rising tide of photo-based art, when artists started using photography as a medium.

Two exhibitions by B.C. artists showing the noticeable influence of photography on other forms of art – particularly some genres of painting – recently caught my attention: “My Mother’s house” by Clare Thomas and “The Vegas Project” by Mary Babineau.

“My Mother’s House”

Houses and identities are often intertwined. A house is refuge from the world while it reflects the soundness of our self. But what if the house is in disarray and nothing makes sense anymore? In response to her mothers’ memory loss, British contemporary artist Clare Thomas uses figurative drawings and paintings to create the imaginary house that holds her mother’s memories. A house in which, in the apparent disarray and confusion, new connections and stories are made.

 

20180301_194909“My Mother’s House” is the title of Clare Thomas’ exhibition, “because my Mother has Alzheimer’s.”

The intensely autobiographical work tells the story of imperfectly remembered events: memories “stored” in family photographs yet still subject to disorganisation and even disintegration, explains Clare Thomas who lives and works in Victoria, B.C. She was inspired to begin this series when, shortly after her Mother’s diagnosis, she found a box of old family photographs.

“These photos held memories in them exactly as my mother was losing hers”, Clare says. Using photocopied family photographs as her source, all the drawings and paintings contain figures from the original photographs. “I basically started turning them into new memories”.

20180303_174052In therapy or analysis a house represents our psyche. “I wanted to create a house for my mother’s psyche and fill it with memories. All these images represent memories that I transformed from the original photographs.”

“Normally, when you make a piece of art, you spend a lot of time on your own”, said Clare Thomas at her opening night, “but the work is not really finished until other people see it. So by coming out tonight you finished my work.”

For those who missed the show, you may finish Clare’s work by watching her video about “My Mother’s house”.

 
“The Vegas Project”

Mary Babineau‘s “The Vegas Project” draws from personal photographs and sense memory in these oil paintings about visceral response and the flux between pleasure and dystopia in the public spaces of Las Vegas. Glitzy kitsch, monumental architecture, and dazzling interiors contrast with the glare of economic disparity and desperation in this major tourist destination, a large American city in the desert.

“I work from sense memory and personal photos to explore experience of urban environments in drawing and painting”, says the B.C. artist. The gestural re-imaginings of public spaces create landscapes of uncertainty through which Babineau reflects her experience of place and space.

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“Biz” and “Gone Cold” by Mary Babineau

The art of musical story-telling: Canadian songwriter Dean Baltesson is “Covering Ground”

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“Maybe you wonder why nobody seems to try. And they never give anything, but they want everything”. All morning I have been singing this line from Dean Baltesson’s new song “Lonely Ghost”.  The Canadian musician uses his music and lyrics to tell a story, I use my paintings. 

For thousands of years, people have told stories to share their experiences and we do – in many different ways – to this day.  In the old days stories were passed on by word of mouth, often in the form of verse ballads, or songs.  And wherever pilgrims, merchants and wandering people travelled, they took their stories with them.

Songs are our fears, hopes, dreams, losses, celebrations, memories and experiences. And they are each a story. Good musical story-telling is an art, as proven by the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana, who composed the symphonic poem “The Moldau” to musically represent the course of the great river Vitava as it flows through his homeland past a forest hunt, a peasant wedding or the city of Prague. Dean Baltesson’s CD “Covering Ground” is the story of his journey from the Canadian Prairies to the West Coast, and I had the chance to talk to the songwriter in detail about the art of musical story-telling shortly after the release of his new album “Covering Ground’.

Dean Baltesson, your musical journey began on the Canadian Central Plains, a land of gently rolling hills, burning summers and hard winters. ‘Covering Ground’ is the title of your new cd. What ground have you covered before you began writing the lyrics, composing the music, playing all the instruments and singing your songs three years ago?

Dean: My music is a reflection of the country that shaped my life as I made my way slowly west – from the Prairies to the Rockies and eventually to the Pacific Coast. This geography has an influence on us all in some manner, and that is something I find worth writing about.

5 - Empty Road - FraserIs “Covering Ground” the musical story of your life?

Dean: I suppose that my journey “Covering Ground” is in a way an autobiography, but not in the sense that it is a story of my life and what I accomplished, which – if I may add – I don’t consider remarkable.

Growing up, I was a solitary person and retreated into music, specifically the singer-songwriter album oriented music of the seventies. The other things that impressed me were landscape, weather, and the beauty of the land. I loved all kinds of landscapes, even unnatural ones. I remember one frozen winter morning when I arrived at work in downtown Edmonton, seeing the sun rise over the refineries to the east of the city. Ironically, I was even drawn to this kind of industrial beauty.

It seems like music and nature have been the 2 staples in your life that particularly speak to you?

Dean: Absolutely. They have made life appealing for me, and I guess the obvious result of such a combination is a collection of songs about the land. That is really why “Covering Ground” exists.

Pocket Beach

When you think back to those lonely highways and endless distances during long winter nights, what music comes to your mind?

Dean: There were so many different kinds of music I listened to growing up that it’s difficult to identify a particular song or artist that characterizes my original home. In 1979, however, I started listening to the music of Pat Metheny. I love the album “New Chautauqua”, which is sparse, brooding and beautiful. Its songs, and also Pat Metheny´s “Cross The Heartland” still take me back to the prairie.

To this day those songs awaken your feelings and memories. Dean Baltesson, you mentioned that just as powerful as music were the photographs of Canadian photographer Courtney Milne to you. Why is that?

Dean: Courtney Milne published a book in 1985 called “Prairie Light”. I was infatuated with his images because I felt they captured my emotions and sensations about the land I lived on.

As is happens, “Homeless hills” is one of my favourite songs on your album “Covering Ground”. Were you inspired by a certain image or memory?

Dean: One of the photos by Courtney Milne entitled “Almost Home” is in fact the inspiration for the song “Homeless Hills”. It is a picture of a single light shining on a dark blue winter night. The mood conveyed by that photo is something I know very well. I would have loved to meet Courtney, but unfortunately he passed away in 2010. The book was filled with many similar images that were very compelling to me. I tried to acquire the use of some of these photos for my CD, but it was not possible.

Dean, you sing about hills that were peaceful and safe. Have you ever wondered if you once believed in truth because of your innocence?

Dean: I believe that truth exists, even though some people may argue that the truth is relative or arbitrary. I do admit though that defining the truth can be complicated, particularly when it gets entangled with our beliefs and desires.

On “Covering Ground”, I am suggesting that truth seems less complicated during childhood, the setting for “Homeless Hills”. For example, if you are lucky enough to have loving parents, you can trust them and therefore believe what they tell you. As a child, you believe in truth. But after you grow up and move out on your own, it starts to become more complicated.

Where did you find peace when you were young?

Dean: I often experienced a strong feeling of contentment, but it didn’t always have to be peaceful – it could be passionate and emotional, and always came from nature, music and books. I was a dreamer. I wandered in the fields and the forests surrounding my home, where my imagination would really run away with itself. I loved the idea of living outdoors primitively, really being a part of the earth, the rivers and the sky. I liked the urgency of dramatic weather and wind blowing in the trees. Those things soothed my mind and energized me.

Did music consume you in the same way?

Dean: I could become lost in an album looking at pictures and following along with the lyrics. I imagined playing each instrument as I listened to songs. Of course reading books also activated the imagination, so I would say that dreaming and creative imagination were the activities that occupied my youth and gave me peace of mind.

Dean Baltesson, as a boy, which instrument did you choose to play first and how did you learn it?

Dean: I was always drawn to the drums because I liked the precision and the texture of the sounds. My favourite drummers showed me that it wasn’t just about keeping time. Drumming is musical and creative. I was fascinated with their ability to play time, but also to fill a space at just the right moment.

Did you find rock the easiest music to learn to play drums to?

Dean: Yes, because you can get up and running pretty quickly. Learn a few things and you can find yourself playing along with almost anything on the popular radio stations. I taught myself by listening to Elton John and mimicking the drums on those big hits of the seventies. I treated it like learning a musical score and memorized the drums of entire albums. It was an obsession. Before I owned my first set of drums, I would look at pictures of drum sets and play songs on them in my head.

Would you say that musicians choose different instruments to express different emotions? Like a painter may choose between bright and dark colours?

Dean: That is an interesting question. I love trying to play any musical instrument. When you are teenage boy, it can be very difficult and risky to express emotions, but if you play a musical instrument, it’s like an accepted, even a cool way, to be emotional. Playing the drums could do that for you, but it is probably the guitar that best illustrates what I am talking about. It offers great freedom. You can cry out with a guitar. No wonder so many kids play them.

3 - Lonely Ghost - TorontoYour song ‘Lonely Ghost’ is about people trying to cry out in their own misunderstood way, unable to identify the true source of their pain. How, do you think, is this kind of suffering a result of our modern world?

Dean: I think that the modern world amplifies suffering, which is a problem as old as time itself, or perhaps we should think of it as a mystery rather than a problem. The mystery is that we just don’t know where we are, why we are here, and where we are going. As progress occurs, life becomes apparently too easy, and I say apparently because there really is no easy way to be alive …

… although we never seem to stop looking for one!

Dean (chuckling): One of the things that I’ve noticed about my own life is that it has usually been possible to coast. There have been – and still are – issues and challenges I could better serve myself by dealing with immediately, but it’s so easy to push them aside and distract myself with an easy form of gratification.

When problems are too much to deal with, I sometimes wonder, “Can I just stop pedalling and coast without any real detriment to my lifestyle?” I’m not going to fall off the bike. It is just luck that I can do this – luck and the fact that many, many people have taken the trouble and sacrifice to create a society that makes this possible.

The modern world strives to make our lives one long downhill coast, but one wonders whether this doesn’t lead to stagnancy and disaffection in many ways.

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One of your songs is about a wide, deep river that is calm on the surface, holding a strong current in its heart. You say of yourself that you have become used to searching constantly. Is this your quest, like the river’s current could not be halted?

Dean: The river in “Treading Water” is a reference to a little story at the beginning of Richard Bach’s book “Illusions”. In the story, there are creatures that live by clinging to rocks and twigs, and the big challenge for them is to let go and let the river take them. The song tries to convey the difficulty of letting oneself go in the current, and also the idea that it will lead to the sea, which is where my album is headed as it travels from the Prairie across a widely varied geography to the ocean.

The ocean is also symbolic of life in the song as we are treading water in a directionless place and have to keep moving until we are drawn back into it.

I heard you recall calm moments in the mornings, carefully making a fire,
waiting quietly for sun to break above the high peaks, touching the flames. You were just a teenager when you learned to appreciate mountain weather. Did the patience you discovered then become a valuable skill while letting go of all expectations as you got older?

Dean: Unfortunately, most of the time I discover patience in hindsight, which as you know has 20/20 vision. But when I look back, I remember quite well the moments when I just stopped struggling and trying to force things.

I remember my first time in Vancouver. I was hell bent on walking everywhere and seeing everything, but as it was raining continuously, I finally had to stop. So I sat down outside at a little cafe out of the rain and relaxed. I find that these “what’s the rush”-moments feel incredibly satisfying. It is only when you are in that state that you can observe things and are open to experience.

A particularly enjoyable moment for me is the one you mention – a cold morning in a campsite when you get the fire going to keep you warm until the sun gets over those high peaks. And then it’s a great feeling. You’re suddenly ok again and the sun is going to keep you alive. I’m happy to say that as I get older, I am able to be patient more often. Patience is always available to us.

Dean, it seems like you are very driven to find answers. Will you keep covering ground with new music?

Dean: It took me three years to write and record “Covering Ground”, and I’ve really been looking forward to stopping the obsessive momentum now that it’s finished. I thought I would just sit back and enjoy the destination and do nothing, but this attitude, I think, is really no different than resisting change and trying to stay in the same happy place all the time.

I have plenty of notes and ideas for new music. “Covering Ground” has been a great journey me for literally and artistically. It has helped me shed some of my seriousness, at least for the time being. I’d like to write some happy songs for a change. Life and love have to move onward in whatever way possible.

Dean Baltesson, thank you for this interview and all the very best for “Covering Ground” and your future musical journey.

More information:

Dean Baltesson: deanbaltesson.com

Courtney Milne: coolscapes.sk.ca/index.php

Photo credits: Mark Petrick, Derek Ford, Daniela Herold and Dean Baltesson

 

 

 

 

Greg Klassen: The sum of all the images of his past

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Photographic exploration of personal identity formation

Greg Klassen has focussed his artistic attention and intention on the exploration of personal identity formation. This series of portraits in landscape form – “Who?” – is constructed from perceived fragments of identity through extensive dialogue with mostly fellow artists from Canada. The project interrogates not just how subjects see themselves, but how and if that sense of self-perception can be conveyed to an audience in the form of a non-linear narrative through photography. The complex constructions of a person’s self are built up from anywhere between 30 and 300 separate photographs.

Greg, you are a Marine Biogeographer and artist, who has been dealing with Asperger’s syndrome your whole life. Even though this diagnosis poses a daily challenge for you when it comes to social interaction – and we will talk about this later on – you are always looking for ‘new victims’ for your lifetime project, called ‘Who’. What direction do you take when trying to get to know them?

Greg: There are 2 important questions that meet at the centre of the project: ‘how is it done?’ and ‘why is it done?’ I always ask ‘why?’ when I approach any project. For me that question drives everything else, including the ‘how’.

So why ‘Who’?

Greg: My lifetime project centres on our very poor understanding of intentionality, of why the very notion of defining and projecting an identity separates self from other, and how we go about making that happen.

Your series focuses on interrogating identity. As identity has a personal and a social component, do you approach this topic from a philosophical as well as a psychological angle?

Greg: Absolutely. And I should point out that I have – simultaneously – both a very dispassionate philosophical and deeply personal interest in pursuing this interrogation. And both centre on what may be our time’s most pressing philosophical debate: the question of the relationship between mind and body and how various contemporary ‘answers’ affect how we relate to self and others, our “theory of mind.”

According to Descartes’ philosophy, mind and body are distinct. Descartes’ thesis – now called “mind-body dualism” – basically claims that mind and body are separate. His thesis is based on the notion that the mind consists of the spiritual essence whereas the body consists of the physical one. As a scientist, do you buy into the idea that both entities are completely separate?

Greg: Yes, Cartesian dualism – also know as substance dualism – has, for several centuries now, been at the heart of this debate surrounding the relationship between mind and body. But since Descartes most philosophies have rejected dualism in favour of Idealism (simplistically: all mind) or materialism (simplistically: all body). The notion of self, as I am exploring it, is caught squarely between these poles. You ask me where I stand on this debate “as a scientist”. But I am both scientist and artist – and many other things. I do believe that, both as scientist and artist, it is my responsibility to question. I believe that art, my art at any rate, needs to contribute to the debate in such a way as to challenge anything that may smack of entrenched perceptions. So, no, as a matter of philosophy, I do not ‘buy into’ Cartesian dualism, but neither do I accept, uncritically, its so called alternatives: I find myself in a philosophical in-between space.

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There has been a trend to reinterpret ‘identity’ to be synonymous with ‘cultural identity’. Why have you focused your artistic intention on the exploration of personal identity?

Greg: This claim – of identity being culturally derived – is at present most closely associated with post modernist ideologies but has roots that tie it strongly with the Idealist camp in the mind-body debate. Given what I said before, I am inherently sceptical of this proposition as a blanket statement. But I have also found myself at odds with the claims that identity is entirely, or even primarily, socially/culturally constructed for very personal reasons. Given that scepticism, it seemed a natural step for me to start my explorations of identity at first principles: with the individual.

You say that you are good talking to people, but not good talking with people – non-verbal cues go right over your head. Why is it difficult for you to read body language?

Greg: Well, that ties in with my personal reasons for wanting to research identity issues as an artist. I’ve known all my life that I was somehow different from the people around me. I was always missing things socially, misunderstanding people, having difficulty connecting with others. I had what one of my closest friends referred to as a serious case of “foot-in-mouth-disease”. It turns out – much to my relief – that I’m not simply some insensitive jerk who refuses to conform to social norms. Fairly late in life, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, also known as High Functioning Autism.

So what would be the main issue arising from this diagnosis that is relevant to our discussion?

Greg: We are dealing with a neurological condition that adversely affects the normal brain functioning that allows for the automatic, non-conscious recognition and response to typical nonverbal social cues.

Meaning that dealing with Asperger’s syndrome poses a daily challenge for you when it comes to social interaction. Tell us a bit more about the issues you are facing as an artist with Asperger’s.

Greg: Generally speaking, the most important issues relates directly to the notion of empathy, which for the purpose of this discussion is simply an expression of the ability to connect, non-consciously, through non-verbal communication with other individuals. People, like myself, with neurological conditions on the autism spectrum tend to have varying degrees of impairment when it comes to empathy. The main means of accessing this ability for someone like myself is consciously, much like learning a foreign language. And that is the first aspect of what I do when exploring the perceptions of my subjects regarding their personal identities through the “Who?” project: learn their individual language(s) of ‘self-construction’ through intensive dialogue.

Postmodernism often explores or celebrates a sense of cultural dislocation. What do you mean when you say that having a neurological makeup like Asperger’s means that there is no native culture, any social condition is – a priori -, one of dislocation?

Greg: I think the best way to answer that is through the ‘foreign language’ analogy I mentioned earlier. Most people grow up with one – native – language, one culture, and each new one added to our experience is measured against that first one – and is usually found lacking. In a sense, cultural dislocation derives from the failure of the new language/culture to integrate into our – already fully developed – sense of identity.

A new language, especially if learned late in life, almost never develops to the same level of fluency as that first language.

Greg: That is correct. In that sense each new culture is just like a new language to the average person. Part of that dislocation experience thus comes from the fact that empathy – the specific form non-verbal communication takes as we mature – is honed, and fixed, in that first cultural experience. Because of my distinctive neurological makeup that honing process apparently never fully took. In a very important sense, those such as myself don’t appear to develop a fixed, native language/culture against which to measure new cultural experiences, thus dislocation is perpetual.

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Has this lifetime project become a way for you to understand people better?

Greg: Yes and no. This is one of those situations that has led me to realize just how problematic the postmodernist perspective on identity is for the neurodistinct. The chief effect of the postmodern cultural construction of identity is that postmodernists have largely seen the ‘self’ as something completely pliable and thus moulded through society. In the postmodern view, identity, if it can be said to exist at all, becomes a matter of conscious choice. But we now understand much more clearly, thanks mainly to the recent efforts of neuroscientists, that for the neurologically distinct, there is no such choice. But postmodernist thinking cannot accommodate the genetically based innateness of neurological distinctness. Neurological conditions, such as Asperger’s not only severely restrict such freedom, they are philosophically – and empirically – incompatible with constructivist thinking.

What does that mean for your artistic research?

Greg: When I explore how my identity formation is constrained – by my neurological condition for example – I also provide a case study for the need to reinterpret the perspectival bias that postmodern ideology has imposed on our thinking for far too long. In that last sense my answer to your question can be a guarded and provisional yes: a new form of understanding others emerges from this project.

“In the postmodern view, identity, if it can be said to exist at all,  is a matter of choice…
For the neurologically distinct, there is not such choice.”

For you, the camera is secondary. You said that you never pick up the camera during the first phase as you photograph with your brain. And you pay particular attention to repetition during the interview. Why is that?

Greg: That’s actually two – though ultimately related – questions: my relationship to the camera and my relationship to the subject: Although procedurally the camera is definitely ‘secondary’ – I see the camera as a way to realize my vision not as a medium that constrains my process – photography, as concept, is a very active participant in my research. Photography, often seen as incapable of conveying narrative content, provides a direct analogue to the social ‘disability’ of a ‘neurodistinct’ person such as myself. The camera is not simply my tool of choice, it is an extension of my sensory system.

The question of repetition is strongly informed by the fact that I tend not to ‘think-in-words’. When people repeat certain specifics about themselves that tends to be a clear indication – usually non-conscious – that they consider that, whatever ‘that’ happens to be, to be of particular importance to their self-perception. To fully assimilate what people tell me, I must ‘translate’ from words, from language, to my personal symbology. Here repetition, especially with slight contextual modifications – served to refine the signal to noise ratio, to clarify my understanding of what is being communicated.

When looking at your work, the observer sees a whole of fragmentary images – the make up one human being after months, sometimes years, of getting to know them. As a scientist, you are gifted with a special pattern recognition for small details and the ability to put them together compositionally. Is this how you create order out of chaos in your science as well as in your art?

Greg: Yes, pattern recognition – especially spatial pattern recognition – seems to be a great strength of mine. According to all psychological tests I’ve been subjected to, I score off the charts on spatial tests. Apparently that is one of the silver linings in my Asperger’s cloud. But how that translates to me ‘as’ scientist or artist is less obvious. First, I would say that I don’t ‘create’ order out of chaos. If anything, I just see the patterns underlying some form(s) of order more clearly than others apparently do. But to me ‘as artist’ – I hate having to make these qualifications all the time – what is most intriguing is that – if we assume that the so-called fragments of an identity represent chaos – I seem to be able to sift out the pattern from that apparent chaos, but the ‘order’ – the empathic reaction to a perceived ‘whole’ that is the goal of the “Who?” series usually evades me and is brought to the table by my audience. In this way, my work becomes a social experiment.

Your pictures do not represent photography as we know it. Every picture is the result of sometimes excruciating collaboration between you and the person you portray, showing an amazing depth of subsequent layers to the surface characteristic. As not every person will open up to you in the same way, you must allow for a difference in depth of the story-telling of your photograph?

Greg: I could go on for hours about this issue of what photography is and is not, so for brevities sake let me just throw this back at you: why do you think that my work is not photography? There are clearly enough people out there who think that to make this question more than hypothetical. Perhaps when we see something that we can’t neatly put into preconceived boxes we should question the adequacy of the box not that which doesn’t seem to fit…

The layering – both literal and conceptual – in producing images for the “Who?” series is, in my mind, a direct reflection of how we see others in every day life. When we first meet someone we immediately form an initial, surface impression. Some aspect of that first impression is always present in the “Who?” series. As we get to know others better, additional layers are revealed. That again is reflected in the series with the addition of increasingly complex layers of relations between versions of the individual, their interactions with one another and the objects brought into the images.

How far, do you think, can we go toward a ‘true’ understanding of any other person?

Greg: I think that depends both on the efforts we are willing to put into the act – taking into account innate differences in, for instance, empathic abilities – and the willingness of that other to reveal themselves to us. The different depths of story-telling in different “Who?” images, as you put it, are simply a reflection of the reality that we do not get to know all people to the same degree or depth.

Some of your photographs contain up to 300 images. They usually range around 30 images. Storytelling is crucial to your art: as one cannot have a narrative without a movement from a to b, would you insist on 3 images as a minimum for your picture?

Greg: Ah, when you say 3 images you are referring to the number of versions/representations of the individual subjects. It seems that historically, regardless of individual photographic styles, portraits tended toward single images of a person. I wondered how one could access that person’s sense of identity from just one singular view of them – a question that has lead postmodernists to reject, wholesale, the notion of personal identity. I wanted to explore whether multiple views, multiple versions, of a person could collectively speak more coherently to this idea that we are never just one single, unitary thing and yet somehow form a coherent sense of self.

Unlike the postmodernists, have you been searching for a sense of collective whole?

Greg: Yes. This idea is at least partially influenced by what astro-physicists refer to as the “three body problem”. When you have two bodies – in their case, planetary bodies – you can easily calculate, and predict their relation to one another. The moment you add a third the problem becomes intractable. But at some point such systems become self-organizing – in a way that scientists understand but cannot predict to any certainty. That is order out of chaos, the idea of emergent organization. I believe that the mind, the self, and therefore our ‘sense’ of identity is such a self-organizing system. So, I tend to insist that at least three versions of a subject be used in the imagery as a way of exploring the idea that identities are emergent properties.

There is only so much you can bring to the image as a viewer. In your artist talks, however, the audience learns a lot about the photographs’ background story. How important is it that the photograph stands on its own?

Greg: At one level these photographs – any work of art for that matter – must be able to stand on their own, if only in the sense that they, hopefully, survive their creator. At another level no work ever does. Art can only exist, I would argue, because we are social animals. No work of art is a blank slate to which a viewer brings his/her unique perspective. When a visitor looks at one of these images, how does the narrative that I and my subject put into the image communicate and interact with the narrative that the audience constructs? In this way the series becomes a microcosm, a laboratory experiment, in the power of an image-as-mediator between personal and social narratives of identity. Telling the back-story to any specific image only takes on importance as a way to evaluate the level of connection between those two forms of narrative.

In the academic arts, there is no specific truth. You once said: ‘if there is no external truth, why bother with it?’ Is there an objective truth?

Greg: The idea of there being no truth, which as you said is closely tied with academic arts today, is most recently influenced by postmodernist ideology, which in turn can trace its beliefs to the Idealism of Continental Philosophy, and ultimately back to the Sophists of ancient Greece. But it is Descartes who introduced us to a crucial supporting argument that has been particularly damaging. He argued that since our senses can be fooled they cannot be trusted. Although no one would disagree with the premise of his argument his conclusion is at best faulty. Yes, our senses can be fooled but for the most part they are remarkably good at connecting us directly with a very real world. In fact, it is that sense of truth – that we all intuitively experience – that photography is so very good at revealing to us. And this relationship between our innate expectation of objective truth – of perceiving this external reality as it really is – and the unique ability of photography to undermine that expectation when it is seen to ‘fool’ us is at the heart of how the “Who?” images speak: on the one hand they feed into our expectations of objective reality, at the same time they represent a more subjective interpretation of that same reality. We are left with a paradox. Our solution can be to either simply damn the images as fakes, or to start going down a new path: that truth is neither simple nor solely external: understanding/unravelling truth(s) involves both the subjective and objective, is both external and internal simultaneously.

The different images in every single one of your photographs connect because ‘they underline what connects people’. Why do you – as an artist – try to find those connections?

Greg: This ‘why?’ is simultaneously the simplest and most complex and fundamental issue underlying all of my artistic research. The simple answer is this: I truly believe that these ‘connections’ are the root of what makes human beings human. The complexity comes in when one tries to unravel how that is so, how the artist in me can reveal/communicate that and, most importantly, what that has to do with personal and social identity formation and expression. During my time as an art student I became very much aware that current academic thinking on identity in the arts actively denies underlying universals, reviles the very notion of anything smacking of innateness.

Would you say that you now better understand the physiological and evolutionary basis of your neurological condition?

Greg: Indeed, I do. And I also better understand the profound paradox that my very existence creates for postmodernist thinking on identity. I am exploring these connections because I see them as a way out of the postmodernist paradox I, and those like me represent! I am searching for them as an artist because those influenced by postmodern thinking inherently mistrust scientific evidence. If I can make them real to my audience as an artist, I can perhaps provide a more palatable vehicle for renewed reflection on identity issues.

“There ought to be important overlaps of narrative that viewers make up for themselves with what the artist wants to say, regardless of cultural background.”

You do repeats over months. You assemble everything at the scene. You position your camera for hours in the same spot. Can you give us a quick summary regarding the technical set-up for a shoot?

Greg: I assume you are referring to the entire process not just the shoot. Making a “Who?” image is a three-step process, it involves: talking, shooting, and composing. The talking consists of a series of conversations with my subjects. In the process I start assembling a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle in my mind made up of pieces without fixed shapes. This is where the notion of repetition becomes important. As my collaborators talk about themselves, the picture in my mind starts to coalesce, in a way analogous to the ‘order-out-of-chaos’ notion. At some point we come to the collective realization that we have a ‘picture’ that is a good representation of that person’s self-image – or at least as much as (s)he is willing to share.

Is this is the point when you prepare to shoot the picture that is fully formed in your head?

Greg: Correct. You might say this act of photographing becomes a way of embodying – and thus blending – a sense of subjective phenomenal experience with its objective counterpart. The actual process of photographing is usually the least of the three steps – one reason why we earlier discussed my sense that the camera is secondary. Shooting takes an average of 2-4 hours. I then proceed to the third step where I take all the photographic fragments and compose them on my computer in photoshop. In some ways this is my favourite part of the process. The final act of this step is to present this image back to my subject. The reaction at this stage is crucial to the survival of the image: if it works for my subject it gets added to the series, if it doesn’t work then we either move on or try again.

I was amazed to hear that you are colour-blind. For this particular series, you spend thousands of hours working with Photoshop. Tell us a bit more about how the mathematical representation of colours has helped you to work as an artist dealing with colour-blindness.

Greg: This could be a whole interview topic all its own. Being colour-blind, or chromatically challenged as I like to say, is similar to having Asperger’s in the sense that it is a genetically determined and thus innate aspect of who I am. My Asperger’s, and to a lesser extent my colour-blindness, have taught me that I cannot just ignore the very real limitations these condition place on me – both personally and socially – but they have also shown that “limitations” are not absolutes. I now believe that it is the very fact of Asperger’s that lets me see my social surroundings in a unique and revealing way. Similarly, I have found that although my colour sense makes it very difficult to ‘create’ colour and colour combinations from scratch, I can work with colour.

Ever since you were 14 years old, you used to work in a darkroom. In 2006, you went back to school after deciding to become a full-time artist. Participating in a workshop with the Canadian nature photographer Freeman Patterson has changed your creative direction forever. Why?

Greg: Freeman provided me with something I had been missing. Like most artists, I can cite numerous artists in my field who have influenced my work. For instance, in my teens Ansel Adams woke me up to the need for technical expertise both behind the camera and in the darkroom. Jerry Uelsmann showed me that photography was also capable of revealing the inner, phenomenal world, making it as ‘real’ as the strict representationalism of, say, an Adams. What Freeman brought to photography, to my conception of what photography can do, is a sense of humanity.

Daniela Herold:  Greg Klassen, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with my readers.

Greg: No, thank you, Daniela. This has been very stimulating for me not least because it has encouraged me to reevaluate many thoughts and ideas that have been influencing my work, in some cases nagging me at the edge of consciousness.

About Greg Klassen

abstracting greg

Artist website www.two-ravens-studio.ca

Photographer Barry Herring – Telling his truth with a slant

Canadian artist wants his viewers to be ‘arrested’

Photography is the language of light – a fine art that goes way beyond technical details. My artist colleague and long-term Xchanges Member Barry Herring uses his camera as a source material to start. The photographer from Victoria B.C. invites his viewers to wander in his images and find their own meaning. Herring has been working in a traditional black and white darkroom as well as in colour with digital techniques.

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 Barry, you are a true lens-based visual artist – however your art is not an exact replication of what you see.

 Barry Herring: I don’t think we don’t need more replicas. The camera is a tool for me to find source material and a starting point to explore and have some fun.

 Are you not interested in just capturing a moment forever?

 Barry Herring: I want the viewer to initially be arrested and then invited or drawn into the image to start a personal and hopefully deeper exploration of the work, arriving at their own conclusions or telling their own stories of what they experience.

 Or as Emily Dickinson puts it: “Tell the truth, but tell it with a slant”?

 Barry Herring: Indeed. I try to find a balance in presenting enough ambiguity in the image to allow the viewer to wander in and find their own meaning, but not so much that the image becomes overly complicated and is ignored because it is not concrete enough.

 You have been taking photos for long time. How has the nature of photos changed in your opinion?

 Barry Herring: Taking pictures about 30 years ago used to be a big deal. Rolls of film used to be expensive, so we put a lot of thought into what we wanted to capture. Today, buying paper and film material for your camera has practically become an art form again.

CarCard Do you prefer digital or film photography?

 Barry Herring: Film photography has something magical about it – particularly when the image emerges from the chemicals on the tray. There’s nothing like it. I have no real preference as it varies with the project I am working on.

 

You say that your approach starts from patient observation with a personal vision in mind.

 Barry Herring: A lot has to do with anticipation. In my art I am looking for something different, but it is all about knowing where to look.

 Where did you look when you went on an expedition to the Arctic for example?

 Barry Herring: Up North, where there are not trees, just landform, I was exploring ‘The Line’…. the line between weather and earth. I remember feeling totally immersed in nature, incredibly small and insignificant standing on a large piece of ice.

 Barry, would you share some details with my readers on how to do your amazing sponge technique?

  Barry Herring: I have been playing with developing prints using sponges or other tools to achieve unanticipated results. This is instead of putting them through a tray of developer fluid. The resulting images are really lens-based monoprints as each one is unique and can’t be exactly reproduced. When combined with toning or hand colouring you get interesting results.

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 Do you ever attend workshops on photography?

I recently attended a week-long workshop put on by John Sexton who was an assistant to Ansel Adams and is recognized as one of the best traditional film photographers alive. He is a true master craftsman and it was inspiring to see how he worked with his cameras and in his darkroom. I realized that the type of photography that interested him was not at all similar to my focus. However the care in his approach to the craft and the desire to produce an image that inspires viewers is the same for both of us.

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Barry, which photographers have inspired you?

  • Henri Cartier-Bresson for composition
  • Robert Frank for street photography
  • Richard Avedon for portraits
  • Sebastiao Salgado for his vast landscapes
  • Michael Kenna for his quiet landscapes
  • Gerhard Richter for hand coloured photos
  • Jeff Wall for the introduction of narrative
  • Robert & Shana ParkeHarrison for arresting imaging

 Barry Herring, thank you for sharing your thoughts with my readers.

Barry

Canadian Artists Barry Herring and Ritchard Motchman. Photographic Collage by B. Herring

About:

Barry Herring, a retired architect with a lifelong interest in photography, works out of Xchanges Gallery’ Crossgrain Photographic Studio, a traditional wet darkroom, in Victoria, B.C. More information about the Canadian artist: gobc.ca/BarryHerringPhotography

Seen and liked: ‘Identity under construction’ by Willie Seo

Willie Seo’s solo exhibition at Xchanges Gallery in Victoria, BC, dealt with issues of identity and its transformation through various media such as photography, sculpture, video installation. His work depicts the daily experiences of living in Canada; his mixed cultural experiences attempt to have a dialogue with the viewers.

W. Seo

 

About Willie Seo:

Seo was born in Seoul, South Korea where he studied photography and worked as a photojournalist. Currently, he is a Canadian citizen who works and resides in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. He received his BFA from the University of Victoria where he adopted other media such as sculpture, installation, printmaking, video, and ceramics beside photography.

Seo has had several solo and two-person’s exhibitions in Victoria. He was awarded 2011 and 2012’s Spring Residency at Camosun College; his art works have been displayed at both Lansdowne and Interurban Campuses. In 2013, he was the winner of emerging artists’ exhibition at Leo Koo Gallery in Vancouver.

Photo credit: Daniela Herold 2014

Seen and liked: Bailey’s Stardust in London

Exhibition of thought-provoking portraits at National Portrait Gallery until 1 June

Baileys

A few days ago, I went to see Stardust in London. What a treat!  “I try to simplify things by just having a white background and no distractions”, David Bailey once said. “I don’t care about ‘composition’ or anything like that. I just want the emotion of the person in the picture to come across.”

As well as new work, this landmark exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery features over 250 images – personally  selected and printed – by David Bailey.

Bailey, whose career has spanned more than half a century, has made an outstanding contribution to photography and the visual arts, creating consistently imaginative and thought-provoking portraits.

“In photography everything is so ordinary; it takes a lot of looking before you learn to see the extraordinary.” David Bailey

Bailey’s Stardust illustrates the extraordinary range of subjects that Bailey has captured: actors, musicians, filmmakers, writers, designers, models, artists and people encountered on his travels. Rooms are devoted to icons from the worlds of fashion and the arts, striking portraits of the Rolling Stones and Catherine Bailey and people of the East End of London, as well as Bailey’s time in East Africa, Papua New Guinea, Australia, Delhi and the Naga Hills.

More information

National Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery
The Gallery was founded in 1856 to collect portraits of famous British men and women. Visitors can explore over 195,000 portraits from the 16th Century to the present day. There is also the photographs collection which consists of more than 250,000 original photographic images of which at least 130,000 are original negatives. They date from the 1840s to the present day. For more information, click here.


David Bailey
(born in London, 1938), who had taught himself photography, became a photographic assistant at the John French studio before being contracted as a fashion photographer for Vogue magazine. Along with Terence Donovan, he captured the Swinging London of the 1960s: a culture of high fashion and celebrity chic. Together, they were the first real celebrity photographers, socializing with musicians, actors and royalty. Read more on Wikipedia.