A Blog?

A colleague told me I needed on online presence to support the art writing I occasionally did. So here it is. From time to time people will comment on the content. I tell them it doesn't really matter. It's just an online presence, a writing sample. In front of a judge I would deny everything.
" I am myself the matter of my book," - Michel de Montaigne


I’m a writer who tried to make photography the occupation by which I could continue writing. And vice versa. My play with words drifted sideways into writing essays about art and writing advertising copy. I became mostly an editorial writer and photographer. I wasn’t big on writing fiction so I was never sure where I wanted to go in the literary sense. The photography was the same. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say as an artist so I found myself becoming more of a commercial photographer. I liked fashion but I wasn’t enough of a social butterfly to make that work. That often made me pretty ambivalent about both things. I got through everything through epiphanies, moments that lifted the inner artist in me and kept me working at it. Those moments kept me going at times when I just wanted to turn around and do something else.

Roads Taken : Art and Identity

I have always felt that art needs to be connected to who you are and where you come from. I talk a lot about this with my friend painter Stephen Scott for whom and about whom I write regularly. This is perhaps because in Canada we have a divided culture; You're French, you're English, you're native. So when you make art you need to work from that place, unless you're English Canadian, which is the dominant culture. I call it the Kerouac-ian paradigm; seeking a personal artistic mythology to escape the limitations of your cultural roots. It's a first world paradigm to be sure but I'll talk more about it as I go on. For a more global perspective, Salman Rushdie's 'Imaginary Homelands' is a good read on the subject But much of this blog is about my own voyage within that paradigm, what I've learned from it, and where it has brought me, what I call my Roads Taken. (January 2022)

Sunday, June 26, 2022

The Critical Form – The Orange Shaped Diner (Montérégie 101)

Having studied art in the seventies at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (now with a “University” designation at the end) conceptualism still being at its apogee at the time, the ideas and art of that period were “incontournable” (impossible to avoid). They shaped me as much as anything else. And even if I did a lot of other things since, conceptual art, it’s precepts, and its ideas, remains my foundation. My analogy is that if one was to study to be a doctor and never practice medicine afterwards, you would always remain, essentially, a doctor. It becomes the point of view from which you see and apprehend the world. 

Having remained in art in some form or another for over 40 years my critical point of view, and my modest body of work as an artist, have continually been shaped by conceptual art. So has my writing. Lately, both have made a seemingly conscious return to the ideas of conceptualism and it has now become impossible for me to pursue either writing or art or photography without embracing its values, without returning to my true self as an artist as it were. This is taking on a variety of shapes but let’s stick to my photography for the time being. 

Marcel Duchamp, in “The Creative Act”, written in 1957, is often quoted, or paraphrased as saying that there needs to be a viewer to complete the circle in which the creative act takes place, for art to be art. In other words art is not art until it is shown. For me that Duchamp-ian process can be broken down further into several distinct stages.

First comes the idea, the raw inspiration. It can come randomly of course, or from a dream, or from the doing, from already being engaged in a larger project. The raw creative idea. That’s number one. The big bang. Then the idea needs to be put down on paper, recorded in some way. 

It then needs to be followed by a judgment that says that value can be placed on the idea as the output of the larger creative process in which the artist is engaged. Evaluated. That’s step two. 

Step three is a key component. It is the point at which some effort or priority is given to the idea in order to give it some physical form. This can be done within a larger body of work or as a single work. But the effort to go beyond simple consideration to actual execution also places value on the process. In some conceptual art this process is sometimes more important than the final product. This is especially so with ephemeral works where the environment can alter or even destroy the work. No value is placed on the artifact. The idea is primary. The recording of its existence suffices. 

Step four is showing the work or the recording of its execution where the relationship between the artist and the audience is established. The work only has value through its apprehension by the viewer either directly or through testimony. This is what Duchamp was talking about. 

Step five is what I call the work’s critical form. It is the value placed on the work in a critical form, when it gets seen by its peers and by its critical judges. It then enters a public sphere that identifies the art as art within a larger historical or critical context. Without this final stage, the work of art simply disappears into insignificance or into the personal collection. It is archival in nature. 

I’m afraid that most of my work, except for a few pieces of writing, has remained in the 4th stage. shown but un-acknowledged, non-existent, incomplete. That I am more accomplished as a writer than as an artist continues to haunt me. I don’t think that an online presence can remedy that either. Comments and likes don’t qualify as critical form. 

Using these “five stages of the creative process” I have refocused my work as an artist and especially as a photographer. In recent works I have identified the object of which I want to make a photograph beforehand. I make a note of the subject within a context. In this case I have created a portfolio called Montérégie 101 where I identify landmarks and sights of which I want to make a photograph ahead of time. I then go through the process of planning my outing in order to make a photograph of the sight. The concentration and discipline required to follow through on the idea is an integral part of my creative process. 

In the case of the orange shaped diner on route 104, it actually required 4 trips to make the photograph I wanted to make. 

May 15 I drive to the Cairn. I notice the orange diner in St- Luc 

May 22 I drive make the first photographs of the Orange. It is sunny. I make photographs with a G16 and an I Phone 

June 16 I find the parking lot full of cars. I cannot make a photograph

June 24 I get there mid-morning on a day with intermittent sun and cloud. It’s not ideal but a dark cloud is moving toward the sun and I stand and wait. When the cloud covers the sun I make my photographs. I’m now thinking of Ed Rusha’s 26 Gas Stations. I’m thinking of Bernd and Hilla Becker.'s water towers. I’m thinking of Garry Winogrand’s street photography. I have context. I know what I am doing. I am making a photograph. I am making art.

Monday, May 23, 2022

On Louis Daguerre

If anything distinguishes me as a photographer it’s that I don’t give a shit about technology and technological perfection. It’s a challenge in both art and advertising but perhaps a little less so in art. I like bad pictures, pin holes, old pictures, Polaroids and any other form that steers away from perfection in any way. It’s probably why I prefer the work Robert Frank did in his mad Mabou years than the stuff he was known for earlier. In his work Frank understood that an emotional response was as much a response to what was inside you as what you saw in front of you. Sometimes a blurry image can be as eloquent as a high tech, high pixel rendition. For me it’s when Frank became an artist, something more than being a photographer. 

It's why I always go back to two pictures that were made in the 1830’s. One by Nicephore Niépce and the other by Louis Daguerre, two Frenchmen instrumental in the invention of photography. The photographs were long patient exposures made by the light of windows. But Niépce and Daguerre didn’t know they were inventing a thing called photography. They were in that space between when something is and something isn’t. But looking out windows has always had that connection for me it’s been a kind of repeating pattern especially when I was faced with great changes in my life. Feeling in-between. The first time I used the metaphor consciously was in art school, making photographs looking out the library window, using the entire room as my camera. 

In 2013 when Anne was diagnosed with cancer, we lived in Halifax ironically enough but we made the decision to return to Montreal, Anne’s home. It’s where we had met and started our lives together. We had moved to Atlantic Canada when our babies were born, hoping to give them a smaller town up-bringing where we could connect to nature more. I had grown up near the ocean and that experience was something I wanted to give them. But now that they were about to leave home anyway, there was no real reason to be here except for a rough idea Anne and I had carved about getting a small house by the ocean somewhere. Now with a prognosis of a short life ahead off her, going back to Montreal seemed, at the very least, something we could do. 

We made the decision in December of 2013 when Anne seemed in remission. We hoped to move in the early spring of 2014. At about that time, with time a crucial factor I started counting days. It seemed logical to chronicle time passing, and I started making photographs looking out the kitchen window. I was thinking about Anne, about everything but inevitably too, about the lessons I’d learned from Louis Daguerre. The images varied from straight high resolution images to collages that looked like pinhole photographs. In hindsight the latter seem more emotional to me, a lot like Frank’s images in Mabou. It’s a body of work I conserve with a lot of emotion certainly. They also seem in counterpoint with the window reflections I made as art in the same period. 

From Bob's Kitchen, Stephen Scott, oil on canvas

More recently, 6 years after Anne’s passing I’ve been making images looking out my kitchen window again, my kitchen door this time, but with the same sense of impending change. There is nothing specific going on except the ominous cloud-like feeling that my life is due for a change, that there is an emptiness, both personal and creative that needs to be filled. I’m calling on Louis Daguerre again, looking for a way to precipitate a change without knowing what it looks like. I tell people I want to move. When they ask to where? I answer, “no… to what.” If anything my six years here have been 6 years of change that often leaves me feeling like 6 years ago is a time I don’t even recognize. The feeling sometimes manifests itself as the end of something and that it is time to begin something new. To look for some new kitchen window somewhere. To move the work I make somewhere. 

Polaroid, Summer 2021. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

A Reflection on Instagram

Painting is dead... oops wrong piece. I was going to talk about the state of photography. But is there really an issue except that once again the technology has evolved, changed? I find myself making images using my phone with the same excitement I felt with my new top end dslr. Different job different camera. That’s all. 

With my current return to making reflections the facility of making images with my iPhone is reminding me of how the project began in the first place. I still had a lot of questions about digital photography and wasn’t in a position to go back to photography school. Like many others I just jumped in the pool. I started with very simple point and shoot cameras, mirroring the current technical hierarchy between phones and cameras in many ways. But I focused on the image making process itself, tapping into my knowledge of photography and art that had become almost instinctual by then. 

The same is happening now. Making the reflections is less about technical wizardry as it is about having a daily conversation with everything I know about art and photography on a very aesthetic level. And we are talking about art photography. Working commercially has become almost impossible except at a corporate level, what with raw shooting and post processing and making stills from HD video. When art photography tries to go that route it almost always ends up looking like advertising. I work in advertising. I know the difference. It may be why I always try to keep things very simple when I make art. 

If anything distinguishes the reflection images I make, it’s that their motive resides in an aesthetic approach as opposed to a post conceptual or art based photography approach. It’s form over content. I know that. For my more hard core ideas about art I have other bodies of work. I’m no one trick pony. If anything I’m always in that territory, in- between. There's no road map for art. It's all detours.

Reflections 2022

I hadn’t done Reflections since 2016. They seemed like such a large part of my life as an artist when Anne was alive. I put it all aside and explored other avenues, other geographies. Lately I’ve been slowly reconsidering what that body of work means to me and taking baby steps back to a familiar terrain. 

It’s an internal terrain to be sure and some of the new attempts reflect on that initial body or work. I’m looking for new strategies. Self-portraits seem to offer some promise though that was part of the initial portfolios as well. In-between-ness as an idea still seems to be the underlying concept. In practical terms reflections are in between all the time. They exist in an abstract reality where a split second can erase it completely. It contains the elusive ephemeralness sought by so many post conceptual artists. 

The reflections are a metaphor for my own state of in-between, between past and present, being French and being English, between being an artist and a mere mortal, between painting and photography, between film, and digital, between non-aesthetic hard core concept art and notions of beauty, between love and having no love. It’s all of that, and in that state of light and no light, it’s also the natural environment of photography where it plays with light and glass. I am the camera. 

I’m being invited back to it, by forces in my control and out of my control, by what seems like my natural state of being. In between. Again colour and black and white is asking questions. Another state of in-between I need to resolve for myself. 

Montérégie 101

At 2.05 a liter for gas, driving around the Montérégie has become a tightrope walk for me as an artist. Money is tight generally these days so spending 50 bucks on gas and lunch to make a few pictures had better show something for the effort. But the idea of exploring the area south and south east of Montreal seems to have some hold on me. 

It’s where Napoleon Bourassa, the pre-eminent church painter of the last century in Quebec came from. It’s where Ozias Leduc, who transitioned from church painter to secular painter came from. It’s where Paul-Emile Borduas, the man who brought modernism to Quebec and who wrote The Refus Global (The Collective Refusal) lived. It’s where Jesuit missionaries made the first Canadian art near Kahnawake, the Iroquoian reserve south west of Montreal. 

So I started at a crossroads near Laprairie. It’s where I had found a cairn commemorating a battle between the French and the British in 1691. Yes 1691. It grabbed my imagination in terms of the length of history. It felt a bit like the plaque I saw in Chinon France. “Ici mouru Richard, Coeur de Lion.” At this place died Richard the Lionhearted. But no lions here, just the same poor pathetic crusade infantry soldiers who found themselves ambushed in the middle of nowhere North America in 1691. In case it matters, it’s on route 104 between today’s Laprairie on the Saint Lawrence and Saint Jean sur Richelieu on the Richelieu River. 

I made my photographs of the cairn, thinking a bit about Walker Evans monuments to Civil War soldiers. I asked myself who else made photographs of cairns ? I also asked myself how else this fit into my motives and narratives and it appeared that I have an interest in developing a Montérégie 101 portfolio, a new ‘street’ or "Roads Taken" portfolio. 

The area is also where I spent a good part of my formative years both at work and at play from the time I was 16 to the time I left Montreal to attend the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. So I have a lot of personal memories there and all these roads are familiar. It’s where all my ‘crossroads’ were. You can find pieces of my heart all over this geography. It also extends into the Eastern Townships about an hour south east. That’s a more Appalachian mountainous region that looks more like Vermont and New Hampshire. The Montérégie, the mountain region, is a vast flat plain between Montreal (Mont Royal) and the Appalachian range interspersed with glacial Mountains about 20 miles apart from each other, Mont St-Bruno, Mont St-Hilaire, Rougemont, St-Césaire, St-Paul, Bromont, Shefford, and finally the Appalachian Range itself. 

Yesterday I took my first solo flight into that geography with the intention of making some pictures. The cairn was a good start but it didn’t take long for my “filters” to kick in from my memories to my training as an art photographer. I found myself standing in front of the strip club near highway 10. It just seemed like a familiar landmark like any other. I wondered what Ed Rusha would have made of this, but his work came to mind. But I’m not in California and my landscape is a different geography. 

One last thing. As I make more "streets" I'm working out whether I want to do these in colour or black and and white. It depends on the image a lot. Depends on my mood. It seems to be the only criteria at this point. Printing will become an issue. Can I have a stream that talks to the past in black and white, to the present in colour?  Black and white seems to be a film photography issue, a darkroom form. In the Roads Taken project I shot with colour print film. It was more of a conceptual art project. Maybe this is what this is. It may be what my "streets" are about." More like a conceptual art piece. But I don't see why I can't do both. More to come.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Daybook : Photographs with Robert. (Bob’s Auto Body)

I went for another ride with Robert Vezina (Note on a Fence Post – March 9). Robert just likes to drive me around and watch me make pictures, do my thing. Robert is going through chemotherapy right now and there’s a side of me that’s going; “but you promised yourself you wouldn’t go through this again.” But you can’t abandon your loved ones when they get sick. Robert’s a friend and going through this I’m remembering other friends in the early eighties, never mind losing my wife to it. So there’s a side of my photography that makes it a death defying act, that makes the pictures I make with Robert or anyone else for that matter, punctuated with a note on just living. I don’t take my photography lightly. On some level, Robert’s invitations are/is an epiphany of sorts, a reminder of why I make photographs in the first place. It’s not just what I do. It’s how I chose to live my life. It’s how I get through my life. 

Right now I’m going through a period where I’m trying to sort out what is part of my public life, what I want to show other people as an artist, and what I want to keep to myself. But if I even talk about the stuff I’d rather keep to myself, write about it, even in social media channels, it put puts pressure on that work to show it. It’s especially true with the pictures I’ve made of Anne for 35 years. I want to. I don’t want to. But I also know it has to be my decision whether anyone else has thoughts about it. My artist friends say yes. My family says no. I’m stuck in-between. Like a window reflection. 

What I’m learning then is that if you want to keep stuff private then you also have to shut up about it. Even talking about it makes it public and creates an expectation. The public owns you. Social media has destroyed the line between private and public. So if you want something to stay private then be private. I’m working hard to become more conscious of this. 

Anne used to admonish me to put my feelings in my work. “Put it in the picture.” she used to say. Riding with Robert, I’m reminded to put my feelings in the picture. It takes me to a place in my street photography that has everything in common with the window reflections I made for so long. It’s just a different aesthetic. It’s a conversation with myself. Today is no different. I’m riding around with Robert and I don’t have to think or worry about anything. In some ways Robert is giving me shelter, a place to hide. And he’s teaching me another lesson. There needs to be a jump, a leap somewhere that takes the private to the universal. So whether you like it or not, you need to open up sometimes. 

At some point I’m talking to Robert about hockey. He remembers everything I tell him. “You know when you said that going from junior hockey to the NHL requires the capacity to shift into another gear, was Guy Lafleur in another gear above that?” I tell him about an interview with Wayne Gretsky. He was asked about some of his spectacular performances. Gretsky explained that you could not control it at that level, that it came from doing, that things just happened. It’s as close as I can come to an argument for talent. Michelangelo talent. 

So making “Streets” is like that for me. It’s an instinctive thing, that comes from just doing it, like the Reflections were/are. The more baggage you have, the more you do it, the more instinctive it becomes. I’m in the back lot of the restaurant where we had lunch. It’s sandwiched between automotive shops and I rifle off a few new pictures. Regardless of all the other things I do, making ‘streets’ is part of me, just letting my eye wander. Robert is watching me, watching me do my thing. “I didn’t notice that.” he says. Everything I do is just a reflection of my inner state. Robert needs a new body. My car needs new brakes. I’m making pictures of car repair shops.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Paris Epiphanies

I was never very good at tourist pictures, travel memories. I’m not a very good tourist when it comes to photography. I’m not a very good photographer when it comes to being a tourist. I’m not sure how to explain it but I think it started in Paris. 

It was August 1982. I had seen Bertolucci’s Last Tango but somehow I still expected to see Paris in New Wave black and white. We had travelled to France by train to the English Channel, crossed it by Hovercraft and arrived at the Gare du Nord by train again in late afternoon. 

I had just finished art school and I was looking forward to losing myself in the Louvre and the Jeux de paume, where the Manets and much of the Impressionist works were still being housed. But the minute I hit the ground in Paris, things started to change rather rapidly. Perhaps it was the same experience that those young Spaniards, Picasso, Dali and Miro experienced. Paris changes you forever. Something in the water I guess. We made our way to Square Clignancourt, in the heart of Montmartre. 

A few days later, I finally visited the Louvre; made my pilgrimage. I started with the obvious but found the smaller Virgin on the Rocks, beside the Giaconda, to be a much more interesting picture and I had it to myself. I searched out the Chardins. I looked for Gericault, Delacroix, Goya and Valasquez. None of them disappointed, but it was the Medici Room that took my breath away. Here was Reubens at the peak of his performance as a painter. The flesh dripped from the canvas. I was not seeing or looking at painting. I was witnessing painting. Good painting takes you to the moment it was made. Only Rembrandt could do more. The Dutch. Madmen. 

After my trip to the Louvre, I walked over to the Centre Pompidou to meet Anne. We had arranged to meet near Brancusi’s studio. I couldn’t find her so I went inside. There was a now historically well-documented exhibition of David Hockney’s photographic explorations, his “joiners”. This was photography as I had never seen it, except perhaps for Robert Frank’s Mabou collages. But Hockney had invested his pop art sensibility to it. I was already a fan of his paper swimming pools so this was another trick from the British cum Los Angeles pop artist. It turned my head and as much as the Reubens and the Velasquez. Sacrilege I know. I soon found myself on top of the Pompidou Center making photographs of Paris in “joiners”. The message I got was that you need to look at things from your own perspective. You need to break from all preconception to arrive at fresh thought. The next day, on the plaza next to the Eiffel Tower, I could not bring myself to take a tourist picture of the needle. I compromised. I made a photograph of its midriff. 

On that same trip we received an invitation to have dinner with a group of Paris artists at the center of which was Spanish actor and filmmaker Ramon. He was a friend of Anne’s aunt, a London-based writer. Ramon and I drank a lot of wine and argued back and forth about Picasso. It seemed like arguing with Spanish artists was a natural thing to do even now in Paris. It struck me that way. Ramon said that Spaniards saw it as their duty to keep art a Spanish thing. We laughed a lot too. Ramon had just finished a film, hid the reel, and was now hiding from everyone to whom he owed money to in order to produce it. About a year later, in Montreal, I saw him playing the character of a Spanish artist in another French film. The man was a missionary. I have no photographs of Ramon. Just the memory. 

In London a week later, I’m still reeling from my first Paris experience and its lessons on me. I make my way to the Tate. It’s where they hid the Rothko’s from Rockefeller. I showed Anne the Rothko’s. She had grown up with classically trained European painters. She still had a nineteenth century view of art. The Rothko’s started our conversation about the possibility there might be more to the world than classicism, Orientalism. It was my turn to be a missionary, a missionary for modernism. We turned the corner to find the Monet’s, the height of Europe’s ‘Japonisme’ period. Rothko was like an antidote serum to the sappy romanticism of Monet. But I couldn’t help thinking they were both very ‘Japoniste’ all the same. I knew I needed to spend time at the National Gallery too. It’s where the Turners were. It’s where the Constables were. Turner was not a Romantic. He was a hard-core modernist, the Cy Twombly of his time. I know. Art hell waits for me. Let it wait. 

Yet with all that; one would think you’d be drunk on so much art in a short time, I insisted we visit the National Portrait Gallery around the corner. The latter was showing a retrospective of British photographer Bill Brandt. Portraits mostly of course, but landscapes, nudes and still-life as well. Brandt had done it all, and in a darkroom version of Hockney, it was revealed to me that many of his works were just that, collages, prints made from multiple negatives under an enlarger. Nothing is as it seems. On my return trip to Montreal I was filled with art lessons but it was Hockney and Brandt I was mostly thinking about. I had come to Europe thinking of myself as a painter, but upon boarding my flight home I knew I was a photographer. 



Friday, April 22, 2022

Three Sixties ?

I can’t give all the credit to my parents for my penchant for photography. My father’s younger sister Freda (Alfreda – we knew her as Pitoune) had a huge impact. She had joined the Canadian Armed forces, had trained as a nurse, and had been stationed just about everywhere Canada had bases. Throughout that time, she made thousands of Kodachrome slides. 

Whenever she visited us in Dalhousie and no doubt when she visited our cousins in Texas, she arrived with hundreds a new slides to show. It was our first exposure to Germany, to Scandinavia, to Egypt. But she also made photographs of her visits and we got to stay in touch with our cousins and they invariably stayed in touch that way with us. We had boxes of her slides for years, but except for a few images that caught my imagination, most have disappeared. 

One of those images is a picture of my three aunts, Aunt Cecile is on the left. She was my godmother. Aunt Louise, the matriarch of the Texas branch of the family is in the middle , and my aunt Marie-Jeanne, looking rather like the Queen of England, is on the right. The picture was made on one of Louise’s visits to Dalhousie sometime in the early 60’s. That’s a ’59 Chevrolet in the driveway across the street. 

I’m not sure why this image intrigued me. I actually made a painting of it in art school. I was looking at the techniques of the American photo realists and this photograph seemed to fulfill a lot of the requirements. It also has the iconic, “American Gothic” feel about it. 

There’s something else too. Whenever I make photographs without a tripod I always notice a usual 1 degree tilt clockwise. It’s about putting a camera up to your right eye. Do left handed people put it to their left eye and get a counterclockwise tilt? I still have that slide. That must testify to Pitoune’s influence on me. 

On all other counts, we never really got along, especially when in the late sixties, I started thinking for myself. We had a big fallout over South Africa. I can’t remember any photographs she may have made while she was there. I’ll just stick to her “American Gothic”.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Quality Streets

If you google my name, you might come across this little gem. When I showed it along with the two other pictures I included in a group show in 2010, it struck a chord. It even got me on a morning television talk show. One of the other pictures made it to the local culture tabloid. For 24 hours I was a rock star. Must have pissed off the other photographers in the show. These were part of a series of photographs I was making of doors that led to nowhere. They were also part of that theme of being in-between that I worked with in the Reflections. The one that got me on TV was the door on the foundation. It was part of a new design for a circus tent approach to a skating rink. You make a foundation, put in a cooling system and cover it with an inflatable dome. The door picture was a hook, line and sinker. I was almost shameless in my self-promotion. I was thinking about Dr. Who. The Tardis. A portal. 

The second picture, the one that was re-printed in the paper had more to do with my sense of Atlantic Realism being a dominant force in the visual arts in Atlantic Canada. I was thinking of Alex Colville and Christopher Pratt in particular. I worked hard on this one. I didn’t have the distance on the house to get the lines as straight as I would liked to. 

The third is my favorite. It’s a fishing shack at Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia. A door had been moved and the ghost of the former entry was still there. That’s a sensibility I got from John Greer, the sculpture. I had him as a teacher at NSCAD back in the 70’s. It’s something I used to talk with him about. I had an old leather navy jacket and had removed the patches. I got on the elevator one night and John traced his finger on the stitch perforations on my shoulder. It was the kind of thing that caught his eye and his imagination.

When I did this in 2009, I was shooting mostly in colour because of the Reflections. It's a different way of thinking. And making photographs. It's all part of the stuff I did in Nova Scotia between 2007 and 2014. Lots to think about. From the Vault. Anne used to say; "Put it in the picture." My creative director at the agency, Tony Blom, had an expression for the good ideas we couldn't use immediately: "Put it in the vault." I'm opening the vault. Some quality "streets" in there. 

Friday, April 15, 2022

Cape Cod Streets ( The Cape Cod Piece)

In the summer of 2016 my Montreal friend Rachel Green took me to Cape Cod. Like an angel she lifted me from where I was and gave me the gift of displacement to a place I had never been and where I could begin the process of finding myself, alone, again. I brought my G16 again, with no intention again, and again my instincts kicked in. 

This time I was back to street photography but loaded with baggage and emotion and it created a different kind of portfolio than I was used to making. They were individual images, not part of a series. I seemed to be tapping into all the stuff I thought I had rejected in art school, the streets of William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, and Gary Winogrand. It all kicked in; it’s the stuff my current Instagram are infused with. Instinct and emotion. 

For a week I wandered the towns and roads of Cape Cod. from Hyannis to Provincetown. The picture on my FB profile of me walking away as an adult is taken by Rachel. I’m walking toward the Kennedy Compound at Hyannis. I kind of like the way it bookends where I come from and how far I’ve come.

It seems like I’ve reached an understanding of how knowledge, instinct and emotion come together when you make art. For me it seems like that particular epiphany started at Cape Cod, 2016 . Thanks Rachel.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Jack Kerouac: On the Road to Rivière-du-Loup

Left "Self Portrait as a Beat Writer." Right Jack Kerouac by Allen Ginsberg

March 12, 2022 was the 100th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s birth. He was born on March 12, 1922. For most of you that’s just a sound-bite, as in “on this day in 1922”. And so it should. But for me Jack Kerouac has become an inevitable part of my symbolic consciousness on many levels. It’s why I have that picture of me on a fire escape on my blog for instance, my Self Portrait as a Beat Writer. The photo is a riff on who I am, not only as a writer, but as a francophone being absorbed into a larger culture, and as an Acadian of the diaspora (no direction home)

On one level I see Kerouac, the author of On the Road, like everyone else, as the progenitor of the beat movement that spun out as a the major American literary movement of the 1950’s. The American writers of that movement changed everything. They were the rock and roll of literature. But as French Canadians making our way in a mostly English world there’s another dimension of Jack Kerouac’s life that speaks to our hearts and our minds, that speaks to our identity issues, as artists especially. And in 2022, on the 100th year since his birth, that other side of him is the subject of a fresh examination. 

 "Everything I know comes from my French -Canadian origins."
  Jack Kerouac 

This year Kerouac’s life is being underlined by Francophones des amériques, an organization devoted to the preservation of French culture in the Americas. https://francophoniedesameriques.com . Among other events, their website has recently hosted an online panel discussion by prominent franco-American literary figures from both sides of the border. From Canada, New Brunswick ‘s Herménégilde Chiasson, writer, playwright, artist and filmmaker and the author of Le Grand Jack, (a twist on Ti-Jean Kerouac), a 1987 NFB film on Kerouac’s early days. Chiasson is also participating in various events devoted to Kerouac’s life in French speaking communities on both sides of the border. In Chiasson’s film you can also get to see Kerouac being interviewed in French by Radio Canada in 1967 and talking about how the term “beat” came to exist. Here is the film in its original French version with English subtitles  

The celebration of Kerouac’s birth by French Canada can seem like the appropriation of a successful American mythology into its own legacy because of a spurious connection to French Canada but there’s more to it than that. Kerouac’s story stands as a legitimate symbol of the survival, or loss, of both the language and the culture of French Canada within the melting pot of North America. More importantly, his life stands as a kind of morality play or reminder on how easily it is to be assimilated into English culture if you are a French Canadian. Kerouac’s life shows that once assimilation has taken root, there is no way back to the fold, no direction home, as Dylan would express it. You see it in his interview where it is clear that he has lost most of his French and his colloquial speech is not up to the task of regaining a stake in the culture he came from. 

A quick primer. Jack Kerouac, the author of On the Road, as well as the progenitor of what is known as the beat movement in the late fifties, was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, to French Canadian parents, Léo-Alcide Kéroack and Gabrielle-Ange Lévesque. Jack Kerouac the writer (or Kérouac – the spelling varies depending where you stand) was raised in a French-speaking home and never learned English until age six and spoke with a French accent into his late teens. The Kerouacs had moved to Lowell, Mass. from the Rivière du Loup area of Quebec on the border of New Brunswick and Maine. They were part of a mass migration from Quebec between 1880 and 1930. Driven mostly by a lack of availability of agricultural land, almost a million Quebecers migrated from mostly Eastern Quebec to towns in New England and other parts of the US to find work. The migration only stopped when the US closed its borders during the great depression of 1929. Kerouac grew up in one of many “Petit Canadas”, French Canadian communities in American towns that were eventually absorbed into the larger Anglo-American reality.

Kerouac, who often deplored the loss of his French Canadian heritage, stands as a kind of symbol of assimilation for writers of French Canadian extraction, especially those of us who now write mostly in English as we expanded our spheres of influence and knowledge. The desire to preserve our French Canadian roots is an ever-present concern and Kerouac is a kind of reminder of what that can look like. Once you’ve gone over to the dark side there is often no possibility of returning to your culture. Some of Kerouac's poetry was actually written in French, and in letters to Allen Ginsberg towards the end of his life, he expressed a desire to speak his parents' native tongue again. In 2016, a whole volume of previously unpublished works originally written in French by Kerouac was published as La vie est d'hommage. (A Duchampian pun on life – Life is a pity – Life is a tribute – not my translation ) 

Then in August 1967 Jack Kerouac and his drinking buddy Joe Chaput hit the road again from Lowell and drove a Plymouth Fury up through Maine to Rivière-du-Loup, Quebec seeking his roots and ostensibly to find meaning in his connection to French Canadian culture. It was mostly a drunken bar hopping affair that had them run off the road at least once. The trip culminated with a visit to Montreal to see Expo 67 and an interview with Radio Canada. It was not his most impressive television performance, nor was the trip itself. Kerouac, who had also traveled to Rivière du Loup as a child with his parents sought out family friends who were less than impressed by the “strange man, in the strange clothing”. Nonetheless, Rivière du Loup is planning to place a plaque in front of the house where Leo Kerouac, Jack's father was born.

But if Le Grand Jack shows anything, especially in the interview he gave to Radio Canada it’s that Kerouac despite his enthusiasm for seeking his French Canadian roots had gone too far on the other side and had become an American first. His contribution to that culture was also so large, bigger than him, that the return to an identity based on French Canadian roots had become impossible. It had by then become anecdotal like an immigrant roots on his homeland. Kerouac’s identity was now dissolved into America’s melting pot. It is also a illustrative of another force, how art itself can be a redeemer. Stripped from your identity as a connection to your culture, art becomes a surrogate country, a place where you can create a whole new identity. America worked that way for immigrants. Art worked that way for Kerouac. It shows that you can function as an artist from your identity or outside it. 

Perhaps this where the scope of his contribution to popular culture comes in. We may see Kerouac as tragic through his loss of heritage but at the same time we are envious of his voyage. A bigger question may be how much of our culture must we give up in order to achieve a more global recognition? So in writing about Kerouac it becomes a double sided tape if you will. There’s the Kerouac story that takes us from Lowell to California and offers a Road trip that allows you to find a melting pot, a definition of yourself through the work you produce as something beyond the limitations of your culture as the beat movement provided for Kerouac through his writings. 

Then there is that other side where despite all of it you still feel like you have lost something in the process. It’s a Faustian paradigm on some level. It’s difficult to communicate. But you sense the Faustian in Kerouac from that point of view and perhaps that is what we feel from a French Canadian perspective I looking at Kerouac as an artistic life lived. It is part of who we all are. It is part of our collective consciousness. Kerouac is part of us in a deep way. It is a tragic story on one level and a heroic story on another. Within French Canada it is felt as a universal lesson. We get all the beat stuff like everyone else, but we also feel that a price was paid on some other level. It isn’t so much an On the Road as a Crossroads. 

For me I am a part of the Acadian diaspora. It means that I have been away from what is known as the Acadian world for quite some time. I have mostly lived in Montreal .. I’m still on the bridge. in a space in-between.This feeling is always present if you are French Canadian and work in English. You never really feel like you belong in some way. Only the quality of your work can save you. So it’s difficult to explain how Kerouac stands as an especially important reminder of how success can be ambivalent when you are not completely true to who you are culturally. 

In my case I don’t have a complex about it. At around the age of fifteen I made a conscious choice to switch to life in English. The catholic school I attended had a French stream and an English stream and in my 9th year I made the jump from the French class to the English class. It was the best of both worlds really, and without getting too much into the education politics of New Brunswick, it allowed me to move more easily from one side to the other. The language on the street was predominantly English but I could still attend the Molière plays presented by touring Quebec theatre companies and I could still watch the films of the French New Wave on Radio Canada. In some ways I did not make a switch. I just wanted to have both worlds at their full value. I wanted my cake and eat it too. For that I have always felt, as a writer at least, like a two-headed pig, or a Siamese twin as John Ralston Saul renamed Canada’s Two Solitudes.

An interesting irony for me is that Rivière du loup has always stood as a physical crossroads. Being on the border of Quebec and the Atlantic provinces, the two mythologies intersect there for me. It’s a good place to think about issues of identity. But like Kerouac I’ve gone too far now. I can still speak French and write fairly well in the language but no longer well enough to have a literary voice. I’ve lost something. It’s a huge pretense since I’m no Jack Kerouac. Few of us are, but his devils haunt us nonetheless. 

In a recent Facebook comment exchange with Chiasson recently, he had these words for me; (paraphrased – my translation) “There is so much about (in our) collective consciousness that cannot be explained or resolved except through our individual paths (roads) to find our proper place on the American continent.”

Kerouac accompanies us, wherever we go.

Friday, March 25, 2022

On Stephen Scott's Northern Gothic

This is the essay I wrote for a catalogue published to accompany an exhibition of work by New Brunswick painter Stephen Scott. I was one of four writers who wrote essays for the catalogue along with Jennifer Pazenzia who wrote an introduction and Virgil Hammock and Tom Smart. I was honoured to be part of that company. The catalogue was called The (Un)certainty of Seeing. (Tom Smart's essay title.) Here's my contribution.

On Northern Gothic

There’s always a tendency to speak of Stephen Scott‘s work as a painter within a linear legacy of Atlantic realism. While there is no question that his early work is rooted in that tradition, his career as an artist has propelled him far beyond that. His work has gone through vast transformation through continual examination of what painting means to him. And Scott has always found that meaning on the surface he paints. 

In recent paintings he presents mid-pandemic, his work reminds us that painting can feel like a dark art, a lost art, an art of the nineteenth and twentieth century. You feel pushed to the outer fringes of art, and holding on to your painterly vision places you in a feeling of isolation. The paintings Scott makes within his isolation and from the intimacy of his studio, where his wife and model Sophie has collaborated with him for the past fifteen years or so, have evolved into an authoritative body of figurative work that questions the aspects of his private world as an artist. Scott seeks resolution within the act of painting itself and where he situates his work within formal or aesthetic frames of reference such as realism or expressionism as well as where he situates himself within a larger view of painting’s history. 

One of the ideas Scott currently explores is the notion, of ‘northern’ painting, painting that emanates from the sparse light of the northern hemisphere, dominated by earth tones and gray, gray and more gray. This is the dominant palette of Dutch painting, or German painting. Scott's numerous trips to Germany now seem all the more important with regard to his effort to connect his recent work to northern painting rather than to Atlantic realism for instance. 

Three recent pictures in particular seem to have emerged from that exploration. The first is Northern Summer, a sketch of Sophie sitting at a table on the rear deck of the Scott house. The moment is photographic, moody as a Dutch baroque painting or perhaps a German romantic painting. It is ominously dark, filled with a contemporary anxiety more common to realism. But the aspect of the work that connects it best to its northern legacy is the handling of the line and the paint. One feels the precision of Dürer, and the light touch of Edgar Degas still swimming between classicism and modernism. It is the razor blade edge between what has come before and what comes after. 

Scott then produces Northern Gothic, a portrait of himself and Sophie that stands as a kind of symbolist work. The portrait is executed in what is arguably a departure from Scott’s usual palette by including a virtual color scale of deep purple. One feels the hint of the darkness of suburban life depicted in the stories of American writers such as John Cheever or Raymond Carver, sometimes called writers of “dirty realism”. The portrait works as a synthesis of Scott’s exploration of painting references as well as an expression of where he finds himself as an artist at this particular point in his life. He is finding a balance between how he sees himself as an artist struggling with issues in painting and how he sees himself in a bigger picture, isolated from the outside world and attempting to communicate with the outside using only paint as a medium. 

The third painting in what we could loosely call a family of northern pictures is the large fresque titled, ironically enough, Tableau, where Scott positions himself almost as a voyeur on his own life and makes a picture from the outside looking in, as though he was painting from an out of body experience. It too is narrative in content, like a short story. It is a metaphor of introspection, as he depicts a scene in the life of the artist from as objective a point of view as he can find in a world that has become as minutely detailed in its day to day reality as the clock driven slow moving world of Dutch painting or North American suburban life. 

But Scott always reminds us that the conversation is about painting itself. The possibility of an authentic expressive gesture is questioned in every brush stroke of Scott’s work and painting as a form is seeking its own redemption or validation. Scott shows us that the expressive figure in painting is still very much alive. The additional risk he arguably takes in pursuing the nude female figure adds tension to the conversation but it brings us back to where art, when it is authentic in its search, uplifts us rather than drags us down. Veiled Nude, painted in the same ‘northern’ tones is an obliquely erotic work with references that run the gamut from Orientalism to BDSM. To Scott, it is all that, while at the same time, just another contemporary idea that requires investigation as he navigates his way from romanticism through expressionism to what we might label, for the sake of argument, Scott’s own dirty realism. 

Finally, we are presented with a full frontal nude of Scott working at his easel. It isn’t there to make the superficial and defensive claim that he also paints male figures. It is there to underline once again that the artist works on a closed set where the world is often an uninvited intruder. You are made to feel almost uncomfortable at the artist’s nakedness, at his willingness to show or express his vulnerability in the process of showing his output. The painting is meant to make you feel that way. Whether the idea of northern painting can contain a metaphor for the anxieties we feel living in isolation and in darkness half the year remains to be seen but for Scott it is an effective functional strategy for uniting the various ideas he explores in his paintings under one theme. But in painting these openly intimate pictures, Scott also gives us a picture of ourselves too, here, where we live, in our intimacy, in our isolation. It makes the point that sometimes art is the only thing that can help us decipher the pieces, decode them, and put order in the chaos.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Portrait Session : Emilie

As much as I'd like to do more portraits, it still feels like just an arrow in my quiver, a sharp arrow that hits the target more often than not, but just one of the many tools I have nonetheless. I hesitate to go out and make it or call it a trade. It's just too damn difficult to please people. I rarely get carte blanche to do what I want unless I say I'm making art but that doesn't pay. So I don't bother to make it an occupation anymore. But every once in awhile I get someone who trusts that I will produce images they can use and maybe make some art too. My latest subject in that vein was Emilie, a friend with whom I share the wonderful career of translator from English to French. Emilie, like me, has many arrows in her own quiver and our conversations run the gamut from LGBT tropes to the latest drag styles to David Byrne and the Talking Heads. She is a multi-dimensional being for whom I have a lot of admiration so making some "headshots" for her was an opportunity to bring all kinds of things together in a creative session.   

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Note on a Fence Post : On Robert Frank and other Roberts

I suppose this is a story about the impact or non-impact of Robert Frank's work on my thinking about photography. I go on about the fact or the idea that my photography influences came from more aesthetically driven photographers and that I resisted the influence of Frank's documentary style while I attended NSCAD and studied painting as an antidote to being drawn into thinking of Frank as a kind of God of photography. You can't deny the existence of stuff of course. 

It's a bit like saying I'm a songwriter but Bob Dylan had no impact on me. You can't escape what has come before you nor its influence. It drove me crazy when over the top feminist theorists denied the impact of all art made by men in the art they made. I understand the point of view but if you paint like Picasso, you paint like Picasso. There is only one way to fly a plane, no matter what your politics are. So as much as I think I was not influenced by Frank's work, I can't deny his existence. He has always been present in my thinking whether I like it or not.  

And just so you know. I met Frank, briefly, and his second wife June Leaf, in 1979. He was at the rare showing of his film about touring with the Rolling stones, Cocksucker Blues. It was being shown at the opening of an exhibition at the Dalhousie University Art Gallery of the work he had more recently made while living in Mabou, Nova Scotia. I spoke with Frank about one of his collages of pictures. I suppose it was the first time I was shown you could go outside the limits of the frame. (and not by Hockney's "joiners" which were first exhibited in Paris 3 years later.) It may also have been the first time I was shown that photography could be made as art, as an expression of your emotions. Frank had a lot to be emotional about too. Anyway, that was my first important encounter with Frank's work. But let's fast forward to 2021. 

My Friend Robert Vézina, who is NOT an artist, but appreciates me as an an artist, is always interested in how I think about things and in how I see things. Robert kept inviting me on a day trip, in the area between Montréal and the US border, the Montérégie. Robert was a biker and often took drives on the back roads in that area. He said; "I'll drive and you can just make pictures. We can stop anywhere you want."So finally we found a day that worked and we headed out across the Mercier bridge heading south from Montreal.

At Covey hill, a road that runs parallel to the border and feels more Adirondack than Quebec, we stopped to take in the panoramic view. But rather than point my camera at the horizon, I crossed a roadside ditch and made a picture of an old farm fence post. It was the second time Robert had seen me make a photograph of a fence post. He had said nothing the first time; hadn't questioned my motives. He didn't say much this time either but when I bumped into him at one of our favourite coffee spots, he asked; "Ok, so what's with the fence posts?" I told him the following.

I was living in Halifax in the mid nineties and had taken a job with a travel agency to make ends meet. They had sent me to New Glasgow on business one time and I stopped in at a local antiques store. On the floor I saw two framed black and white photographs. The first was of the store owner posing with Robert Frank. They were obviously friends, a relationship perhaps developed through bartering Frank pictures for rare Georgian side tables. The second photograph was a picture of a fence post, by Frank obviously, but an exquisite hand made black and white print that seemed in direct opposition to the rough collages and snapshots Frank was currently known for. I thought; you bastard, you had us thinking you'd lost your photographic mind but here is evidence that Robert Frank master photographer was still making beautiful black and white prints. Never mind that it was just a fence post. The subject didn't matter. Here was a case of form over content. (Even if one could make the case that fences and fenceposts are a recurring theme in Frank photography.)  There was a lesson there. Not exactly an epiphany but a reminder that art allows you to change, to morph, to be who you are and who you want to be in the moment regardless of the expectations of others.  

I told my friend Robert that the story seemed like a lesson at the time and that whenever I saw a fence post, I made a photograph to remind myself that no matter where life took me, that I was still the same person, the same artist. 

Robert Vézina

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Nova Scotia College of Art and Design 1977- 1980

I attended the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design from 1977 and 1980. After completing a foundation year I started working to become a painter. Or so I thought. It seemed like the reason one might go to art school, to learn to draw and paint. And painting was very much alive then, no matter what they tell you. There were other options, that’s all. 

I thought I was becoming a painter too, but in hindsight if you asked me to produce a portfolio of my art school years, it would be composed mostly of photographs. It seems that photography had already taken some hold on me and, while at NSCAD, I may have been painting while in class but outside I was mostly just making photographs. 

And it isn’t a case of : “Oh but I started out as a painter.” in some defense of my craft as the product of an artist. I just wasn’t a particularly good painter. But painting still remains a large part of my process even today. I think about it a lot. I write about it a lot. I cannot imagine making photographs without the knowledge of art history and painting I acquired during those years. Painting remains something I turn to when I get in a jam photographically. Drawing and painting still has a way of finding answers for me. I’ll give you an example. 

When you draw, when you paint, you start from one point. You decide where your point of view will be and you work from that point. With photography you can change your mind a million times, especially now with digital photography. When you go back to drawing it reminds you of that first decision. You find yourself running for a tripod. 

Between 1977 and 1980 then, I made photographs in and around Nova Scotia and Halifax and the ideas I got from art history and from the conceptual art ideas that dominated the discussion at NSCAD, I formulated, perhaps unconsciously, a photographic vision. But except for a course on the history of photography, I took no actual photography courses. Something in me refused to submit my approach to scrutiny. It was the beginning of my attitude toward photography that it was a personal act, almost private. I never had any impetus to show the work until recently. So it made it hard to think of my work as art, as something you put out there as your art. 

But my eyes and ears were certainly opened wider at NSCAD and the school’s library contained an incredible range of books on photography. If anything, it formed my photographic education There I found books on every photographer from Louis Daguerre to Robert Frank and by artists who didn’t necessarily think of themselves as photographers but used the medium as their output as artists. Artists like Ed Rusha had as much impact on photography in the 70’s as the on-going output from “street” photographers like Garry Winogrand. 

At NSCAD I made a lot of photographs, playing with concept such as using the library window as a stationary camera lens and clicking my shutter as the subject appeared before me. I made a lot of portraits of my colleagues, especially the women, but I desist from showing those without their permission. I made photographs on the ferry that ran between the Halifax waterfront where the NSCAD studios were located and Dartmouth where my apartment was. But those years in art school allowed me to explore my own ideas and thoughts about photography. 

If any photographer had an impact of my thinking though, it was the work of Robert Mapplethorpe. I had seen the portrait of Patti Smith on the cover of Horses and looked up who had done it. It seemed like a natural progression from the black and white of the French New Wave. It also had a “punk” feel. In the summer of 1978 I travelled across the country and across the US. I came across Mapplethorpe’s “other” work and it turned my head. It was still being dismissed as “gay porn” especially in light of the current aids epidemic, but I had found the work stronger than anything else that I was seeing. That I did not find consensus, even at NSCAD, reminded me of the “outside-ness” I had felt seeing the French New Wave films by myself as a teenager. As soon as I finished my program at NSCAD, I hightailed it back to Montreal.

Dartmouth Ferry, 2006

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Everything I know about photography applied to a portrait of Simon and Carmen 11/20

I’ve done a lot of different things as a photographer but if I was going to name one thing that runs through my entire evolution, it’s been portraiture. People. The problem with portraiture is that unless your shooting celebrities, no one really cares. Still, I’ve met some pretty interesting people along the way. But if you are around me for any length of time, you’ll end up sitting to me. You’ll end up in my art. 

It’s been the case for Simon Davies, and Carmen, his partner, my neighbours, my friends. I knew Simon years ago when we worked at Dawson College and when, 30 years later, I moved into my flat on Oxford Street in Montreal, it turned out they lived across the street so we reconnected. Life moves in circles. So if Simon ever becomes a celebrity, someone could knock on my door and obtain some photos of him at different stages of his own aging process. 

With Simon it started in my own process of finding a guinea pig to try out a lighting setup, a new camera or something like that. I’d call Simon, ask him if he had a few minutes and he would walk over to the flat and I’d shoot some pictures. Sometimes I would just catch him in light on the street. He’s a good photographic subject. 

Simon is also a sculptor and visiting his studio is always interesting whether it’s his “cabinet of curiosities” in his basement or his workspace in St-Henry. I’ve made photographs of some of his assemblages there. Sometimes I say I don’t need to paint because there are people in my life who do it better than me and I can have painting in my life through their efforts. With Simon I have sculpture in my life because of his passion for it. I’m sticking to photography and hoping I bring my medium to his life. I’ve also had a chance to help Simon “hang” a show a couple of winters ago. So I guess Simon has become somewhat of an artist-collaborator. Some of his sculptures speak to the ideas I’m working on in photography. Some I just like. 

Carmen Jensen, his wife, is a graphic designer who also designs books. I was hoping to work with her on one my unfinished book projects but that hasn’t moved forward yet, completely by my fault. In 2020 I discovered that Simon and Carmen had a “book of years”, an album where they placed a portrait of themselves once a year. So when they asked me to do their portrait in 2020, it felt a little more like I was making portrait art again.