Tuesday, May 26, 2020

05/20 Stephen Scott - Recent Works

Swim, 2018 -2019

I ‘d really like to talk to you about Stephen Scott and his current figure painting, and about his wife as a model, but in the way I might talk about Rembrandt, if I had known Rembrandt, and his wife Saskia. I’d like to talk to you about Stephen Scott’s painting while thinking about the work of the late Lucien Freud and how his models played a role in his work. But first I have to take you to Atlantic Canada for a moment…

Stephen Scott, as an artist, is situated both physically and aesthetically in what we call the Atlantic Canada realist tradition, having studied art at Mont Allison in Sackville, New Brunswick and having evolved in the shadows of Alex Colville et.al. So while my art observations is informed by knowledge of a broader understanding of art, as a writer I often feel pulled back to talking about his work within the bounds of this more localized tradition that somehow seems to narrow the view of the complex issues that arises in his work. We somehow view regional artists differently than internationally known artists. But let’s just say it. This has more to do with the artist’s audience than it has to do with his or her work.

Northern Summer, 2018
Wandering through the recent Alex Colville retrospective at the AGO in Toronto, I overheard someone say ; “I don’t want to look at Alex Colville’s naked wife.” I was not sure if the viewer meant he was repulsed by what he saw or that it made him uncomfortable, knowing this was the artist’s wife and not a professional model, feeling a bit like a voyeur faced with this shared intimacy, one he was not prepared to receive in Alex Colville’s work. It struck me that this gallery visitor, sidetracked by a regional familiarity, was not looking at the art. He was looking at the narrative depicted in it. The discomfort felt at this narrative was driven by a perception of Colville as a regional artist, and a social anxiety similar to that of encountering Colville’s wife at the grocery store kicked in. We seem to need some distance between content, at least when it comes to the nude, and form to appreciate art.

More recently a gossip book on Newfoundland painter Christopher Pratt, spilled all about his relationship with his wife and with his model, and once again we were made uncomfortable with maybe, too much information. We just didn’t care. We didn’t want to intrude. The only thing that mattered to us was the paintings themselves. We want to appreciate the quality of the artistic gaze separately from the information about the private life of the artist. So one of the challenges a regional artist faces is to create sufficient distance between his content and his aesthetic handling as to create a more universal experience.

British painter Lucien Freud, (1922-2011) arguably the best painter of nudes in recent times, also painted nudes, of models, Baroque in scale. We know through extensive documentation of both his life and his methods of working that some of his subjects were people with whom he had close relationships, others less so. He painted nudes of women. He painted nudes of men. And because of Freud’s stature as an artist, we do know in excruciating art historical detail how all these models figured in his life and his work. But in the end, here too, it is only the quality and authenticity of his painting that contains the information we want, that persuades us that we are apprehending, dare I say it … beauty. And yes, we have a similar experience when looking at the nude ‘Danae’ by Rembrandt, even if she is purportedly Saskia, his wife. We see Rembrandt at work, we see his art, not his wife.

The dilemma all these artists face, whether regional or international, all being naturalistic painters, is that regardless of who sat to them as models, it is the work and how they make it that is ultimately intended for public consumption and not the details of their private life. The artistic intention is the only one we must decipher in our appreciation of the work, but being the nosy, paparazzi minds that we are, we want the gossip we are accustomed to and somehow we think that because the artist presents the work publicly that we are somehow also entitled to enter their private lives. This is particularly so when it comes to highly naturalistic figure paintings, whether it is in the form of portraits or nudes. The narrative sometimes supersedes a full appreciation of the formal or aesthetic qualities of the work. This is especially true of naturalistic or realist painting today where artists go no further than their immediate not to say domestic environment for subject matter. Gone are the days of representations of the gods cavorting on Mount Olympus or holy figures in religious ecstasy. In order to appreciate the work of contemporary artists then, we must consciously suspend our analysis of content as symbolic in favor of more gestural signifiers.

Self Portrait Study, 2019 

Well said, I suppose, unless, of course, we are actually privy to their personal lives. Then what? If you are a friend, and a fellow artist sharing experiences on a regular basis, nourishing each other, questioning each other, then everything matters once again. It becomes difficult to remain objective. Looking at art under those circumstances becomes a subjective experience. The packaging comes with that extra disk with behind the scenes interviews. So whenever I am asked to write something about his work, this time about his recent figure work, it quickly became personal, difficult for me to separate the personal from the public. And because I am also an artist, struggling with content and form, even as a photographer, looking at Stephen Scott’s work is often like looking in a mirror. Because of our exchanges, I feel that somehow I am part of it. It is certainly a part of me. So with all this baggage, where do I begin to tell you about my Rembrandt, my Saskia? How do I convince you that there is a painter in Fredericton, New Brunswick whose work is worth looking at in a much broader way than through the filter of Maritime realism? So I let go and thought I would try to forget about objectivity and tell you about his work through my own experience.

I’ve known Stephen Scott since about 2005. I met him in Fredericton while working at the New Brunswick Arts Board. My first encounter with his work was at Gallery 78. It was mid- winter, an exhibition touted as an erotic art show for Valentine’s day. I had quickly became bored of the unending string of romantic nudes. Disappointingly, no whips, no chains, no leather, no rubber or latex to be seen. You must understand that I had been in San Francisco during the summer of 1978. I was a nascent artistic photographer, and for me Robert Mapplethorpe had been a revelation, an emerging artistic force to contend with. Aids had yet to take its perverse toll on the population. Even as a heterosexual man I had appreciated the 70’s leather scene. There was an outward honesty about the homo-erotic gaze that seemed to exceed the merits of the so call sexual revolution of the 60’s. More importantly, it seemed to have more to do with aesthetics, with beauty, than the current canon of street photography that placed Robert Frank at its altar. But back to Fredericton. I turned a corner and saw Scott’s life-sized full frontal naked “Self-Portrait in Leather Thong”. It didn’t strike me as homo-erotic or as gay art. It just struck me as honest, the way northern renaissance painters like Van -Eyck, or Albrecht Durer made self-portraits, looking in the mirror, looking at time racing by, looking at one’s…well.. shortcomings. I have always been interested, in both my writing and in my photography, in how we code or decode our own ways of looking at ourselves, directly or indirectly, through the art we make. We are all in one way or another writing our own ‘Autobiography of Alice B Toklas’. Through that process we investigate our own worthiness, our own insecurities, our own arrogance at making art, that we expect should have some value or meaning to the viewer. “Self Portrait in a Leather Thong” seemed to contain all of it. It was a beautiful painting.

I told myself that I needed to get to know this artist. I contacted him a few days later and invited him to sit on a jury I was composing at the time. I then. waited for the jury to be over and invited him for drinks in a bar and we talked about art until closing time. It was the beginning of a conversation about the state of art, about painting, yes, about beauty, about being an artist, that we have continued since. In 2010 this conversation resulted in a first book on his work I called Surface Reflections. It was a survey of his work to that time that identified some of his motives but that also underlined some things about his work that nourished me, both as a writer and as a photographer.

And now as I move forward in my appreciation of Stephen’s more recent work and how it continues to feed me as a writer on art and as photographer, it was time to take a deeper look at some of the machinations that underlay these latest “surface reflections” . When I wrote the book I was still able to step back a little, to look at his work more objectively, in the context of a canon of painting we label Maritime realism. But as we moved forward my conversations with Stephen took on a different kind of importance. The questions became larger, more universal. I found commonalities in our work and in our lives. We started to compare notes. I was beginning to look for myself through the work of another artist.

It begins with where must I place my feet in evaluating this work. How do I write about figure studies by Stephen Scott, nudes as it were, torn between my subjective appreciation of his figure work, and the objective knowledge I possess about other issues in contemporary art. How do I compare his nudes to the work of say, Dayna Danger, an aboriginal, feminist artist from Winnipeg whose art I admire, whose art I get? Can I simply remove Stephen’s work from the comparison by saying well…it’s just a different kind of art? In my manual, there is only one canon of art. And it is not measured by subjective arguments, it is measured by historical consensus. Does authoritative quality in the pursuit of beauty have the power to trump politics? Or in Freud’s case, does the power of money and celebrity just shut everyone up? Well the answer is simpler. I can only measure Stephen Scott’s progress against his earlier work to date.

In an effort to push content to a less symbolic function, Scott’s figures have become more expressionistic lately, more formal, or as one my own models expressed, more abstract. There appears to exist furthermore, and apart from anything else, multiple series or themes in his female figures now, creating a conceptual strength than in turn reduces the content to formal element as opposed to literal narrative.

Shallows, 2019 
The first of these series is the on-going one, the swimmers or bathers now having morphed to “northern” swimmers to indicate it’s inclusion in a preoccupation with “northern” light. Scott has been doing these for years but lately the series has become seemingly more gestural, more expressionistic than ever. Looser if you will. I used to think of this work as a dark repository of Stephen’s inner psychological world. But the more recent figures seem more active and outwardly physical. There seems to be a confidence or a psychological resolution, a lightness of being, that brings this body of work forward and leads him to make, of late, looser oil studies. Something has emerged from the water. Something has emerged in the painted surface. In ‘shallows’ the water has become almost imperceptible as the figure lifts from the water. If I was of a more psychoanalytical nature, or more academic, I would venture that “here we see Sophie lifting Stephen from the darkness.” Nice bloody line if I say so myself.

Northern Swimmer, 2019
In 2018, I took three days to make a the trip from Montreal to Halifax stopping at a favorite haunt in Rivière du Loup. The second day I drove from RDL to Fredericton and visited Stephen. He had now finished the new studio and was working in it. He was hard at work on some figure studies. With this new studio that included an entire roof section in corrugated plastic that diffused natural light it was an opportunity to look at painting being made directly from the model under natural lighting. It was like watching a painter working in a turn of the century Paris studio. The studio was creating a transitory space, an observatory, and I could sense a transition. Stephen was making a series of sketches of Sophie, “model in a swing”, using generic titles as a means to, once again, distance the private from the public I saw in this series of transitory sketches as a second theme onto themselves. Stephen was developing a heightened gestural confidence, working more from the elbow than from the wrist. It reminded me of Freud now, throwing excess paint at a nearby wall.

I was taken by these quick oil sketches. One element in both painting and photography that is not often talked about is the sense of urgency of execution when working with a model. When you hire a model, there is an urgency to get as much done as possible in your allotted time. It's no different in making art as it is when making commercial fashion shoots. You are on a bell. Working with a loved one is also sometimes tricky because you are dealing with someone's generosity of time as opposed to a professional transaction. Both situations have an impact on your work. I wondered whether the expressive quick lines Stephen was making in the studio was in part because of that. As a photographer I have to plan my shoots. I often make sketches to show models what is expected. "What, you make drawings for your shoots?" is often the reaction I get. Once an art director always an art director. In advertising you most often give your sketches to the photographer and he looks like a genius in front of the model while the truth is elsewhere. Sitting in the studio with Stephen that day was an oasis for me. I had been widowed only two years. The lightness of his sketches reminded me that art has the power to separate you from the day to day of living. Stephen lifted Bob from the darkness.

Nude Study, 2018
This new confidence in brushstroke has allowed Scott to turn to more intimate subject matter such as the figures he now makes with Sophie, his partner, forming a distinct and seemingly third theme, underscoring Scott’s evolution as a painter as he makes a concentrated and more focused return to the figure as a central theme of his work, through his personal life. His handling of brushstroke, color, control of light and surface removes us at first from what is signified by the content and takes us in his painterly voyage of expression, and having lifted us through an aesthetic experience now drops us gingerly back into a kind of appreciation of how his personal life can be a source of strength in his work. No longer are we distracted by the politics of making nudes but simply through his quality of execution back to an aesthetic experience and ultimately to a shared experience of beauty.

Woman Asleep, 2019
As painters and photographers our primary medium is light. Light is the language of emotions in making pictures. In that sense all of Scott’s work is preoccupied with light and how light as an emotional palette is as important as the paint on the surface to reflect the emotional response of the artist to his subject. In that sense Scott now seeks more in common with painters of the Northern Renaissance in Europe than he does with painters from the Atlantic, or any other, realist tradition. This has been supported by his numerous trips to Germany and Scandinavia, or closer to home, Newfoundland, where he has worked consciously to distill “Northern” light into his method of painting. Put together with the language of portraiture and what you end up with is a self-portrait of Scott with Sophie that owes as much to Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait as Grant Wood’s American Gothic, as obvious as this last compositional rapprochement may be. In Northern Gothic Scott sets up a code in paint and in light using darker tones than usual making a clear statement that he is moving from a naturalism based on drawing toward an expressionism that uses light as its fundamental formal strategy. The symbolic content is rendered more theatrical as a clue that the content is a composed drawing or arrangement rather than a witnessed event. It works like a still life where the subject may be naturalistic but we understand that the subject is a formal structure based on objective references from art, reducing the artist’s personal life to secondary importance. Back to Rembrandt:

In 'Rembrandt’s Eyes', Simon Schama says, "Rembrandt cannot and does not seek to share the kingdom of high art with the base nature of physical life…, …However, Rembrandt was able not only to continuously cross the line between art and everyday life, but also to make a delightfully rich storyline from this 'wandering'."

Northern Gothic, 2019
Whenever I have coached other artists about how to write about their work I always pointed out that being a professional artist is a bit like being a politician; you are engaging in a public life. You have to separate the concerns of your private life from the concerns you have as an artist. Many occupations demand this sacrifice, but with art it is often confused since the private life becomes, especially in naturalistic work, the subject of your art making. It is in this sense that I mean that visual art can be rendered literary if not literal. You begin to create a mythology about your own life and one needs to be careful about how much intrusion you are willing to allow before it gets in the way of the work.

Head Study, 2019
Stephen Scott’s nudes may not be politically up to date to sophisticated art audiences, but they contain a language of painting that transcends the myopic view of art that restricts you to looking at it only in the context of current contemporary criticism. It does not ignore the current issues. It embraces them and comes back again and again with an argument, that we may be losing more than we gain by restricting our gaze to neutral, safe, territory. It is an assumption that men make nudes from a point of objectification at all times. It is now often made with perilous consciousness, intense self-introspection and study. It is made, perhaps more importantly in defense of a concept that makes us uncomfortable…beauty.

The artists I know and largely write about are artists who function within was is perceived as a more antiquated view of art, a non-political environment in which aesthetics and beauty still dominate over political issues. But I found myself, in writing about Stephen Scott, to be in that pre post-modernist mindset in order to write an appreciation of his work. Here again I find myself in an in-between situation, between what I perceive as beautiful and what I know to be the current thinking in art. The two have seemingly no point of reconciliation. In writing about Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky (Manufactured Landscapes) I found myself screaming from the rooftops that one could not template values of aesthetics and beauty on top of contemporary environmental issues, that you cannot have it both ways. For me Burtynsky’s work screams of male paternalistic values louder than someone making nudes of women. But somehow this doesn’t seem to resonate so I despair at the hypocrisy of contemporary art more than that of male romantic perceptions of beauty. Convenient argument rules.

I have always had a special interest in the relationship of painting to photography and vice versa. I initially studied art, learned to draw and paint, but through a series of opportunities found myself working with photography. This is a common scenario in post-modernist visual art as opportunities for painting have been restricted comparatively to the 19th century. In short, except for a few collectors, nobody cares. I still paint and draw from time to time and both these activities have consistently sent me running back to my camera with solutions to photographic problems. After some time and a series of epiphanies, I finally conceded, surrendered, as difficult as it is to think of myself as a mere photographer as opposed to an artist. But art and painting in particular still has that elusive power of being the medium that defines you as an artist. Ask filmmakers Peter Greenaway, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch. In every interview, as successful as they are, they make a point of exclaiming that they started out as painters. So painting remains a reference for me in my photography as well. I have often argued that photography and painting actually live in a symbiotic relationship to each other in contemporary art. They don’t exist as polar opposites. They feed off each other. And in Stephen Scott’s recent figure work I have found somewhat of a mirror reflection.

I now own numerous of those oil sketches by Stephen and they serve me well in maintaining a safe distance between the literal and enlightenment. If you can find that in art, I would risk saying that you are looking at good art, regardless of its subject matter.

To learn more about Stephen Scott, you can go to stephenscott.ca

Thursday, May 21, 2020

05/20 Fuji Instax - Just about a year ago today.

Simon, May 2019
One of the things that this Covid 19 did was cut off my supply of square format Instax film. I had been using it quite a bit as a kind of analog antidote to shooting digital all the time, shooting a box of the stuff every time I made pictures. I did find, however, that if I tried to shoot multiple boxes, I would often find a defective pack or the camera would overcharge and discharge a static shock. The technology doesn't really stand up to sustained professional use. Where's Andy Warhol when I need him or maybe David Hockney. I'd like to compare notes. I've put aside the camera for now but I'd like to go back to it.

05/20 Making Photographs (part three -artistic photography)

The third type of photographer, the artistic photographer, functions outside the strict bounds of commercial photography or art. It is a wide playing field where rules are sometimes very subjective. But it is subjective work where the photographer is not constrained by an expected result but instead relies on a canon or history of the genre of photography he or she is making. The most familiar genre might be “street” photography with a history that begins the moment photographers began to leave their studios in the 19th century much as painters did. But this type of photography is not limited to street photography. It can include any genre where the expected outcome is to produce photographs of high technical or formal quality while addressing issues both aesthetic and technical related to the canon of photography. The portraits I make of sitters where I have asked them to sit to me so that I may explore photographic portraiture is an example of this. I am not, in this case, trying to make art, or making a commercial product. I am referring to the history of photography. My references can include art references, fashion references or references outside art and photography altogether. I am a an artistic photographer, not a commercial photographer, not an art photographer. Many of these photographers often work commercially, or teach,  as well as pursuing a career making subjective personal work.

Phylactère as the Countess of Castiglioni

05/20 Making Photographs (part two - art photography or photography as art)

Contemporary art photography or art-based photography functions within the context of art with a big A. It functions in a discussion based on the history of both photography as art and art itself, especially ideas in art. If it’s not likely to make or even engage either of those histories, it is likely not art. An example of art photography might be the recent output of Chuck Close that I riffed on most recently. The early “joiners” by David Hockey, or more recently the frescoes of Canadian artist Jeff Wall to name three very different types of Art Photography. The intention of the artist in making the photograph is to make art. My favorite piece of art photography is a photograph made my French artist Yves Klein as he leaped out a window. It was based on the conceptual premise that if a man kept jumping from a window he would eventually learn to fly.
In hindsight, I don’t do very much of this kind of photography, but as I said before I know when I’m making art and I know when I’m not. With my recent Chuck Close piece, as random as it was, it certainly wasn’t commercial photography nor was I trying to make “a good photograph.” The gesture was instinctual, referential. I was making art. It wasn’t my first “self portrait as” piece. It might be something I should keep working on. But given how little of this kind of photography I do, I seem to fit more into a third category, the one that Cartier-Bresson fits in. The one that Robert Frank fits in. the category of the subjective "artistic photographers." That makes me a writer and a photographer, not much of an artist. Art is where I get my ideas.

05/20 Making Photographs (part one - commercial photography)

In the same spirit that I created this blog in order to establish a chronology of where I’ve been in the last few years I’m writing this piece with a view to getting a clearer picture of what exactly I’ve been doing in the last few years as I make photographs.

So let’s break it down. All photography is not art. We know that. Just as all writing is not literature. Like writing, photography is a language. It can be an objective communication tool as well as a creative medium. So just because you make a photograph, it doesn’t make you are a de-facto artist. There are differences in intention as well as in application.

I wear many hats as a photographer. Sometimes I’m a commercial photographer, sometimes I make photographs as an artist, therefore as an art photographer, then I make photographs in a third category, and this is often the most problematic one; I make photographs as an “artistic” photographer. For the sake of clarification I will use portraiture to illustrate what I mean. Let’s begin with:

Headshots, Suzy Arioli, 1985, Montreal 

 Commercial Photography

A common characteristic of commercial photography might be that there is a client or a communication objective at the end of the equation. I include journalistic and editorial photography within commercial photography since they too have a precise audience and a precise function. When you get paid for commercial photography, you get paid for the value of its application, not for its value as a cultural artifact or for its value as art as interesting as it may be. The portraits I make of other artists for their use belongs in this category. I make the product for the benefit of the sitter. Record jacket covers are also what I mean by commercial or editorial photography. They can be exciting products but their value is commercial. The cover of the Beatles Abbey Road is an example of commercial portrait photography. The work that Annie Leibowitz does is commercial photography, even if in America it might earn her an exhibition ins some of the finest museums.

Note: I'd like to include journalism here but where does documentary end and street begin. Is the dividing line between working for an agency or independently? The object is to publish a reportage?
I don't do either of this but it opens up a discussion between content and form .

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

05/20 Found Photos / à bout de souffle

Simon Davies / Found Photo
Simon Davies is a sculptor who works with found objects. It’s logical that that he would send me found photos. This month he mailed out 35 found photos to artists and friends. Yesterday he shared with me that he was a bit disappointed at the lack of response to his mail art piece. I offered that what excites us as artists doesn’t necessarily excite the rest of the population. I was already in the process of writing a blog entry on found photos. And, to a certain degree, on un-found photos.

We all know the story of the nanny of Chicago, Vivian Maier, and the incredible portfolio of her street work found in a garage sale, as well as its attendant lesson in copyright law. But never mind. My story to Simon was about helping someone empty a house where a couple had lived for 50 years and NOT finding any photos to illustrate that they had lived there. Never mind whether they had shared any intimacy. I was looking for any images he might have made of her. Or vice versa. Nothing. It left me empty, like it had been a life un-lived. For me finding photos is an anthropological experience, like finding cave art. I want to know everything about these people. Photography has a voyeur power on a larger humankind scale.

I loved the picture he sent me. I couldn't decide if the girl on the right reminded me of Amelia Earhart or a Kennedy. The house, of course, is straight out of an Edward Hopper fantasy.

Simon sent me another picture as well. This one had taken him aback a bit. An old girlfriend from high school looked him up and sent him a picture taken of them as a couple over 50 years ago. I loved the picture. It had the feeling of the time. It could have been a still from a film by Godard. It left me à bout de souffle indeed.

Simon Davies, Found Photo

Monday, May 18, 2020

05/20 Isolation self-portrait as a Chuck Close Painting

Self-portraits. Even with an IPhone, it's as close as I can come to thinking I'm actually making art. In making self portraits I can include all my thinking, all my references, and all my skills to create pieces that also force me to bare myself and my thoughts to the world. It stakes a territory in what matters to me as art. It extends to other portraits I make, and there again, I seem to be evolving my portraits from being objective products of what the sitter wants to my just not caring about that and doing what I want. "Pour le reste", I seem to be making what I call literary photo essays, making pictures just to have something to write about. The reflections appear to me as simply the way an artist makes street photography. Lost in your thoughts you look for the abstract rather than the literal, and sketch instinctually.

03/20 Corona Reflection

I undertook this blog project mostly as an aid to remind me of what happened when. A kind of resumé. I could have made a notebook. I could just print out this entire blog. But it allows me to hand out a business card with a link to something. It has become an expectation, so this functions as a kind of art resume. For the people in the art community, it gives them an idea of who I am and what I can do, since some of the work I seek is writing for other artists. That work is a piece of a much larger pie that makes up my income, what I call my pie chart strategy, from advertising gigs, to writing art pieces, to making headshots.

IPhone photo, March 2020, Montreal. 
But I've come to a kind of pause in my photographic work. I'm mostly writing these days. I haven't done a window reflection since last spring, almost a year now. The use of Iphone is a large part of that. With social media platforms, there doesn't seem to be any discernment about what we put out there. And with Instagram it feels like I'm just being social as opposed to making art. It's fun to be sure but I'm not certain how it fits into a serious artistic practice. So I'm in kind of an impasse with social media. How do you distinguish yourself from the millions of other non-professionals who use this platform. Art is not a democracy as John Updike once said. But I don't want to be cranky either.

I make a lot of images with my phone. It's an instinctual thing. I've always argued that the camera is the modern equivalent of the stick the cavewoman used to make those beautiful animals on the walls of her house. The phone is the natural evolution of that process. It's as anthropological as it is about art. Maybe art is democratic after all. This virus is certainly taking a good whack at the issue.
In the meantime I continue to write about art. I have some good projects on my table. In some ways this pause is allowing me time for inventory, time for new strategies. I've been busier than I have ever been. See you soon. -RB

Saturday, May 16, 2020

08/19 Dean Brousseau / Street

Halifax-based photographer Dean Brousseau is planning a show and asked me to draft a short essay. It seems harder when it's someone you know. There's so much you want to say, about their passion, about the stuff they went through to get to where they are. But then I can usually tap into my inner Hunter Thompson and get to the nut of it.

Story: I got to know Dean when I moved to Halifax in 2006. He had attended NSCAD at the same time I had and we knew a lot of people in common. When I say people I mean women mostly. But like Linda Rutenberg here in Montreal, we knew of each other through mutual acquaintances but only met later in life. In Dean's case, I was showing him a contact sheet and he said. "Hey, I've seen these. I processed this film." A girlfriend had said to me way back then; "Hey I have a friend who processes film. Give them to me. I'll get him to do. it."

On Street: Dean Brousseau STREET

Street, or street photography, is to photography what Impressionism is to painting. It is the moment at which the artist abandons the confines of a studio, where compositions are pre-established academic structures or paid assignments to a state where the artist can observe, objectively and subjectively, the world around and produces images. It is when instinctual gesture and emotional response come together, in what Henri Cartier-Bresson might have called the decisive moment. It is where knowledge, instinct, and feeling come together. It is where the photographer abandons the work of necessity and becomes an artist, where he defines his own time and place.

NSCAD (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design)

Photographer Jean-Loup Sieff once said that when he joined Magnum agency, that he was doing no less than “taking the holy orders of photography”. In some ways studying art or photography at NSCAD in the seventies was not much different. There were multiple canons or schools of photography, an entire history by this time, but it was clear who the current Gods were when it came to street photography, from Eugene Atget and Cartier-Bresson, to Robert Frank and Gary Winogrand. But art history was moving at a rapid pace by then, propelled by the art magazines of the time. New and exciting bodies of work were being presented to students all the time. Visiting artists at NSCAD exposed students to a global art environment, even before Internet. It was more like rock&roll than art. You learned the licks of all the artists you heard around you and did your best to play them your own way. The seventies also presented aspiring photographers with an additional set of rules. Conceptual art had almost usurped photography as art for its own purposes with artists who did not necessarily see themselves as photographers but as visual artists in their own right. NSCAD was a school that attempted to bridge the gap by making students of photography aware of both canons of thought. This broad view of the history of photography is always present in Brousseau’s work, more than say, the work of a photojournalist. Making art is at the core of these images from the outset.


The images in this small exhibition underline Brousseau’s intention as an artist in two ways, firstly by making subtle reference to the Cartier-Bresson-like “purity’ of un-cropped street photography and secondly by placing value in the traditional craft and process of photography by producing high quality prints in a chemical darkroom rather than by scanning his images and producing digital prints. These photos, it seems important to underline, were made using film-based technology. It made sense for Brousseau to frame this body of work using the practices that accompanied it. In some images Brousseau allows the black frame around the negative to appear, a reference to Cartier- Bresson’s teachings and other American photographers such as Gary Winogrand (1928-1984) who used the technique to show that there was no cropping or manipulation of the image, that it remained honest to the artist’s vision. There was something almost religious about this particular canon that has remained a repeating motif in many street photographers since. It is also a strong formal element that helps one consider the image in formal terms rather than for its content alone. Brousseau also pays attention to the quality of the print as an important component in bringing the image to its final form, and here Brousseau’s own words takes us to his darkroom; in the correspondence leading to this essay, Brousseau wrote:

 “ I printed on Adox variable contrast fiber glossy double weight (Adox - MCC110 8X10/100-FB-VC-GLOSSY) and I made the prints using multiple contrast filters, first using a #5 (high contrast filter) then a #0 (low contrast filter). A test strip has to be made for each contrast filter exposure then of course a combined print has to be made using both filters. It's a fairly fussy procedure so I won't bore you with any more details… this was a departure from the technique I had used in former years. If I had only known about it I would or may have been more adept and it may not have taken me nearly a year to produce the prints.”

The images are from a relatively wide period in today’s terms. They cover from 1974 to 1984, a lifetime in rock and roll terms. But they cover a period of time that frame quite nicely Brousseau’s evolution as a photographer, from the time he lived and studied in Nova Scotia through his evolution as a photographer in Toronto to his return to Nova Scotia where he continued to work both as a photographer and as a director of photography on numerous film and video productions. His subjects are varied and take us from his early years growing up in a military family and takes us to base Cornwallis where ‘sea cadets’ were trained every year, a memory for those of us who grew up in post WW11 Atlantic Canada. He then takes us to Toronto, Canada’s metropolis, where he makes images of the changing faces of Canada in the seventies. Faces appear often in fact, and often eliciting a return gaze from his subjects. Brousseau is not a spy. He does not need to hide from his subject matter. It is an exchange, an embrace of his subject and this situates Brousseau as an artist for us. These images contain empathy for his subjects. So when we are presented with more “removed” images, those where the subject is not aware of the photographer’s presence, we nevertheless feel that the camera cares in some way, that it is watching over rather than just watching or stalking its prey or its subject matter. Brousseau tells us that he empathizes with his subject matter and that he is not merely composing for himself. It gives reason or artistic intention for him to be on the street making photographs in the first place. Dean Brousseau is an important voice from a school of photography that is more than just the walls of NSCAD. It is an eloquent local extension of a global movement in art and photography that shaped photography into the seventies, and continues to shape photography now.

08/19 The View out the Window

It's the view out my window and it reminds me of those early photographs by Louis Daguerre and Henry Fox Talbot. When one is experimenting with a new process, a new camera, or just seeing if the damn thing works, you go to the nearest window and press click. In my case it's the view out my kitchen door onto the neighbouring buildings and the view keeps cropping up in all my folders. It even showed up when a painter friend came to sat with me during the summer of 2018. But that poetic image of looking out the window is a reminder of experimentation itself; that one has to keep experimenting, trying new things, failing, in order to move forward.

06/19 NDG Profiles

Amanda at Rudston-Brown
It might have been just an excuse to take pictures of the interesting business women in the neighbourhood who greet me everyday with genuine kindness. I was playing with the phone camera again and exploring triptychs and collages.

Jocelyn at Épicerie Moderne
For me that all started with David Hockney's joiners. I had seen his first show of them in '82 in Paris when all the photographers were screaming it wasn't photography like people screaming at Bob Dylan he had sold out. The thing about art is that you can do what you want. But it still has to have a connection to something. Dylan never did anything that didn't come from somewhere else first. Nothing good ever does. It has to speak some language.

Corrine at Presque9

03/19 New Portraits

I'm liking the direction my portraiture is going. It seems to have a lot more confidence in terms of telling my sitter to trust me, that I know what I'm doing. "Trust me" I found myself telling Rachel when she wanted a headshot. I'm still not completely crazy about portraiture. I'm not about to hang a shingle as they say but I still do them from time to time. They exist as kind of a grounding that allows me to be more adventurous in everything else I do. They have that "hey he's a serious photographer feel". It seems that year after year I still do a few I'm happy about.\

01/19 Simon Davies

Montreal Artist Simon Davies lives across the street from me. Anne and I knew him as a teacher at Dawson College years ago but lost touch. When we moved back to Montreal in 2014 we bumped into him at Café Zéphyr where I had my show of Reflections. When we moved in to our flat on Oxford Street we discovered he lived right across the street. Simon has since become a close friend and we spend a lot of time together. This past December I helped him hang a show of his own photography and sculpture up on the Plateau. His Mark Twain / Albert Einstein appearance is always a subject of stories but I also can't think of two better people to compare him to. He's a little bit Einstein, a little bit Mark Twain, a little Frank Zappa maybe, perfect for a Neo-Dada artist.

I love to go to his studio. It's always full of found objects either hanging from the ceiling or in boxes spread around the space. To the un-initiated the space can be intimidating but there is an order to Simon's mind that I appreciate and enjoy. For some reason I always find myself laughing whenever I'm in his work spaces whether it's his studio or his basement. Maybe it's the recognition of the little uncontrollable madness we have in our minds as artists, and with Simon I find a perfect outward expression of this. It's about bringing order to chaos and working with found objects can often be like that. Having someone like Simon around reassures me that I am not alone facing chaos. At times his seems just a little worst than mine. But it's the physical nature of sculpture that contains that so well and being a two-dimensional artist I appreciate the physical space required to be a sculptor.

The interesting thing, of course, is that as much as we live in chaos in our day to day lives, an exhibition is the opportunity to put some control in that chaos and it always amazes me that exhibitions gives you that sense of relief that on some level, it all makes sense. So when Simon mounted his exhibition at a retail eyewear store which in comparison to the chaotic world he works in, it was a very ordered environment.  In addition to his "ready mades".  Simon also exhibited large banners of photographs of manhole covers he has been doing for some time. His banners, in the context of his sculptural approach redefine his images as not so much photographs a record of found objects. I find, that like my reflections, it begins with a conceptual idea and allows itself to move into the area of aesthetics and dare I say it, beauty.

01/19 Publication

Finally got my copy of From Feeling to Observation, a book on painter Stephen Scott's drawing for which I wrote the preface. Virgil Hammock wrote the essay. If you want to know more about Stephen Scott's work click here

Reflection 01/19

I'm still not sure if I'm a photographer who likes to write or a writer who likes to make photographs. But everything I do originates in my thinking about art. - Robert

12/18 2018 Reflections

09/18 Interview with Brian Dooley

I have known Canadian actor and director Brian Dooley and his brother Michael since high school. We have been life long friends, more like family. Recently he moved back to Montreal from Edmonton where he had been living since the mid 90's. We caught up in an old Montreal café where it gave me a chance to try the Iphone as an interview tool. The funny thing that happened is that we were discussing Picasso and Cubism when the I phone burped and made a cubist portrait of Brian.

Friday, May 15, 2020

09/18 Halifax Film (video) Shoot

The agency was shooting a 30 second message for November 11 Remembrance Day for Veterans Affairs Canada. Tony Blom, the agency president had his hands full and just needed "another pair of eyes" which meant that I didn't have a specific production title but was mostly there to support Tony through a shoot that involved a lot of talent. We had worked together overseeing some audio in Ottawa the week before and I was on my way to Halifax for the actual on location production. Over the years Tony came to trust my judgment as art director on photography and we had developed a good rapport on productions like these. I often joked that working with Tony was like playing baseball where he was the General Manager and you were the first base coach. We just had to look at each other and nod. Or shake you head from side to side. I loved watching him come out of the monitor booth and walk up to the camera. It was just like watching a GM walk up to the pitcher's mound. Yup. People were sent back to the bench. Overall it was a very smooth production and a great chance to work with Tony again.

Compass Communications President Tony Blom on the right, talking to the director on the shoot. 

09/18 At Stephen Scott's

I took three days to make the trip to Halifax. The second day I drove from Rivière du Loup to Fredericton to visit my friend, painter Stephen Scott. He had finished his new studio and was now working in it. He was also hard at work on some figure studies. As I was currently taking life drawing classes, it was perfect way to start the conversation. Here I was, at opposites in my life in terms of having been married for 35 years and working exclusively with my wife in terms of any figure studies and was now working with studio models. Stephen had been working with various models for a long time and was now working exclusively with his wife. It's no big deal really but it allowed us to have some interesting and frank conversations about making female nudes as older white male artists. In the end the politics became a dead end issue and we quickly turned to aesthetics, talking more about pictorial forms in both art and photography. Stephen and I understand the issues but in the end agree that you need to get on with the work at some point. If you stop to think of all the politics you don't produce anything.

Since painting and drawing are already a part of my process as a photographer it's  interesting to have a  relationship with a painter who does only that. It was an opportunity to investigate how his approaches could be absorbed into my process as a photographer. Looking at Stephen's work is incredibly helpful to me especially with regard to light as it is always an integral part of his work, no less so with his figure studies. Now with this new studio that included an entire roof section in corrugated plastic that diffused natural light it was an opportunity to look at painting being made directly from the model under natural lighting. It was that Paris studio I talked about in earlier posts. Paris painter's studios converted to photography.

I was especially taken by some quick oil sketches Stephen had made in the studio. One element in both painting and photography that we don't talk about is the sense of urgency of execution when working with a model.  There is an urgency to get as much done as possible in your allotted time. You are on a bell. Working with a loved one is also sometimes tricky because you are dealing with someone's generosity of time as opposed to a professional transaction. Both situations have an impact on your work. I wondered whether the expressive quick lines Stephen was making in the studio was in part because of that.

With Stephen these sketches are often preliminary to larger works. These sketches are his negative in a way. So having so many different ways of working between the two us, the resulting information feeds both of us and I have come to see Stephen's work as an important source for my own work. I don't spend all my time painting but I want painting to be a living part of my work when I make photographs. So Stephen keep the painting process alive for me, always there, in both our too infrequent visits, and in our telephone conversations.

09/18 On the Lam at Motel Fleuve d'Argent

Oasis means freedom. A place where you feel that you don’t have to be anywhere or respond to anyone’s bidding. It’s that feeling of extrication from that job you hate, from those people who are of no use to you. At Rivière du Loup at the Motel Fleuve d”argent, I always detach myself from everything and touch a little of freedom. Maybe it’s that feeling of in-between again. Not being east, not being west. The cuckoo’s nest? I am hiding and you get that feeling of being totally alone with yourself like a game of hide and seek when you were a child and you found yourself alone under the stairs facing the dark. Somehow nothing is scary unless you are found and you have to come out and play the game. I get that feeling whenever I stay at the Fleuve d’Argent, the silver river motel. I joke with my daughters that this is my hole in the wall, where I’m likely to found if I ever go on the lam. The agency called me to Halifax to shoot a video there and I decided to just rent a car and drive rather than fly. Whenever I have to go to Halifax, unless it's winter. I drive. And stay at my Oasis, just one night, on the way down.