Kate Wilhelm

Parking Meters in Lunenburg

So I went to Nova Scotia for the long weekend for a get-together with some girlfriends. I went all by myself, sans husband and sans child. Having learned from my recent trip to Cuba to keep my expectations for photos low, I figured I’d spend the whole weekend socializing and not take any photos. We did spend an afternoon wandering around Lunenburg, a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s quite a pretty town and I found myself shooting parking meters. At first I resisted, thinking that I really didn’t need any more parking meter shots, but then I decided to give in and use parking meters as a sort of theme to link my Lunenburg images together. You’d think it would feel restrictive deliberately shooting one thing, but instead I felt free! It was so much fun, and I’m very happy with the images.

Before I went away, a discussion over at pixelated image made me decide to try shooting RAW and processing in Adobe Lightroom. And I’m so glad I did! I can’t believe the difference all that extra data makes. And Lightroom really is a LOT faster than Photoshop for adjusting contrast and tone and all that.

I’ve got a few more parking meter shots to process and then I’ll post them as a new gallery here, but in the meantime I offer this teaser:

parking meter-4



Saturday was such a treat! Seeing Mapplethorpe’s work on the wall gave me a much better sense of what fine prints they are than looking in books many years ago. I was a bit disappointed that the collection only contained his pretty images, not the more challenging images. But only a bit, because every single image was breathtaking.

The gallery that showed his work is a converted industrial space with like 30 foot ceilings; when I was there it was quiet as a church. Looking at his photos, I felt something almost religious. As long as I was looking at the photos, I felt good, but as soon as I started to explore the gallery, I felt awkward, like I didn’t belong in that ritzy gallery world. When I went to the bathroom, I discovered that the feeling of having my fly down wasn’t just metaphorical. Oh well.

Next up was a lecture and slide show from David Hurn, a photojournalist who’s been with Magnum since like 1967.

A few highlights from the lecture that really resonated for me:

- insatiable curiosity is a must-have for photographers (Hurrah, now I don’t have to feel guilty for being such a nosy parker)

- the daughter of one of his subjects (from an MG car owners’ ball) wrote him not long ago, several years after her dad died, to tell Hurn how much joy seeing her father’s picture published everywhere brings her.

- Hurn said it was really nice to hear from her because he never asks permission to make photos, despite the constant worry of intruding on people’s space (though he dismissed that notion quickly enough as academic).

- that reminded me of two articles I just read last week, both in the New Yorker, about Jill Freedman. The first article found its way into one of her subject’s hands, and he hadn’t known about the photo (it was shot back in the 70s or 80s) until very recently. The bottom line was he was happy to discover the photo.

- he’s worked on several projects involving poets choosing one of his photos to write about, and writing a poem to accompany it. I may want to try this out sometime. He says it doesn’t work the other way around – making photographs to illustrate poems.

- he mostly only shoots with two lenses: a 28 mm and a 50 mm

- he once spent 32 days working intimately in an Arizona hospital with a great infant mortality rate

- he once worked as a cleaner in a strip club for 10 days to try to find a way to photograph naked ladies. It worked, when one of them mentioned that she needed a passport and he offered, and it grew from there.

- he finds contact sheets more interesting than individual prints, especially from students, because contact sheets show you how a photographer works, how they shoot.

- he ended his slide show with the most important photo ever in his life: his colon cancer. Just to make sure we don’t get too arrogant, the most important picture in his life was taken by a doctor with a camera up his ass.

- in the questions section, he mentioned that he doesn’t pay conscious attention to light, but on the content. He then moves into what he thinks is the best place to see the real content most clearly, and shoots. Of course he does probably notice the light and other elements subconsciously. I kind of shoot this way, and I sometimes feel like I should think more before shooting. But I really prefer to think after.

- he doesn’t much care for digital, not because what’s in the back of the camera really matters, but because people have a tendency to manipulate (like that’s a bad thing! Or like film photographers don’t do that in the darkroom!). He also thinks digital shooters stop shooting too soon – they take a shot, look at the screen, figure they got a decent shot, and stop shooting. But if you keep shooting, and you wait for something more to happen, it usually does and you get an even better shot.

- As soon as I came home, I told my husband about that last point, because if we’re out together, he’s always nagging at me to stop shooting already.

    It was quite a long lecture, though I didn’t notice until I was back on the street and was surprised by how late it was. (Good thing I’d been to Robert Mapplethorpe already because I was pretty done.) There was an exhibition that I’d earmarked within a couple of blocks, though, so I decided to check it out before heading home.

    The exhibition I expected wasn’t there (apparently noticing start and end dates is not my forte), but instead there was a small collection of street photography. There were the usual suspects: Cartier-Bresson, Eugene Atget, André Kertesz, but also some Canadian work, including a few shots from Toronto and Montreal in the winter of 1971, the one that everyone was talking this past winter when the snow just wouldn’t quit. 1971 is also the same winter my parents always talk about because my sister was born that winter and the streets were so bad my dad had to walk miles to the hospital for visits. One image in particular, by Michel Lambeth, stopped me utterly. It was titled St. Lawrence Market, Toronto, from 1957, and it showed a women holding an old glass pepsi bottle with a mass of shopping bags near her feet, and an open door just on the edge of the frame. It was so simple an the light coming in the open door was stunning. I was hoping to find a copy online but only this collection with many of the images not available.

    The only way Saturday could have been any better was if I’d somehow found a mentor. Anyone out there interested in the job?

    I’m so stoked!

    Tomorrow I’m going to the Contact Photography Festival. I plan to go to a lecture by Bruce Gilden and David Hurn. Sadly, the street shoot with them was full when I emailed.

    I’ve also scoped out all the feature exhibitions, and have ambitiously chosen five to try to get to as well. My number one choice is an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe in the Junction. To think we almost moved to a neighbourhood that would end up showing Robert Mapplethorpe’s work.

    I’m also very interested in 100 Stories of My Grandmother.  I’m so excited!

    front cover


    Last night at the grocery store, I happened to glance at the newspapers as I was leaving. The headline of the Guelph Mercury read, “Rags to Riches,” and I had a cynical moment of yeah whatever, thinking of the people at the drop-in centre. A familiar name floated in through my cynicism… I looked closer at the paper and stopped dead. Not only a familiar face, but a familiar photo. My photo! On the front page!

    There was no photo credit; it said only “submitted photo.” The reproduction was lousy, and I wondered why, figuring it had been stolen off flickr. I reread the headline, and realized that it had been submitted by the man himself, Rick. It feels right that I didn’t get credit. It feels good that he liked the picture enough to share it with the paper, and it seems right that he doesn’t know my name. It wasn’t exactly how I hoped a photo of mine would get on the cover of a newspaper, but I’m pretty chuffed nonetheless.

    I took his picture about a year ago, along with some others. The day I took that picture, I had this to say (which I later submitted to JPG Magazine and generated a somewhat heated exchange in the comments):

    I have seen this man around town for years, asking for spare change in a gruff, slightly intimidating voice. Sometimes he seems a bit drunk, other times not, but he’s usually sitting on the sidewalk or a concrete planter.

    For years I have avoided eye contact as I pass him, just gently shaking my head no and trying to make less jarring footfalls in the hopes that my loose change doesn’t jingle and give me away. I have never given him any change. Partly it’s because I carry my change in a change purse, so I don’t want to stand next to him while I awkwardly unzip the cranky zipper and finger through the loonies and toonie to fish out what I feel may be an appropriate coin; I didn’t want him to watch my selection.

    (Not long ago, I read a mind-altering blog post about why you should give money to panhandlers, even if it could be supporting someone’s addiction. We all have damaging addictions, it’s just that some are more socially acceptable than others. Consider our addiction to gasoline and coffee and Walmart and goods manufactured by workers in appalling conditions… next to those addictions, is it really worth getting bent out of shape over fifty cents or a buck?

    Now I am converted. As the author of that post said: “I give because someone in trouble is asking. I can’t be that attached to what they do with it once I do, because see, it’s a gift. I am offering a gift, perhaps under persuasion, but I am still offering it nonetheless.”)

    Anyways, on this day he was sitting on the sidewalk outside a bar. I saw him sitting on this same corner the week before, the blue awnings and red railings echoing outwards from him like a wave, and I wanted to make a picture. But I was too afraid, so I just kept walking.

    When I saw him there again, this time on the other side of the building’s corner, I couldn’t resist. I shot from across the street, and I think I saw him looking at me through the lens but figured I was just shooting the building or something.

    As I went from shop to shop, shooting here and there, he stuck in my mind. I wanted more photos. I decided that I would ask for a picture if he was still there on my way home. Sometimes I get fatalistic in my photography, working my courage up to match the shot in my mind’s eye. I give myself time and figure if they’re still there, it was meant to be.

    As I approached him, I couldn’t resist shooting a bit more, just in case he said no (ethics anyone?). As I shot, two pedestrians passed him by with barely a glance, one just outside the frame but indicated by the gesture of his hand holding the smoke. The passing bus changed the composition in a way I like.

    Finally, I got up the courage to approach, loonie in my outstretched hand. He took it and said thanks. Then he immediately struck up a friendly conversation with my then 14-month-old son in the stroller, noting how healthy he looked, and I mentioned my son’s recent illness, and we talked for a bit. We had as nice a conversation as I’ve ever had with a random stranger, perhaps nicer because there was no unsolicited parenting advice.

    I asked for his photo and he obliged happily. (It surprises me that almost no one asks why I want their photo… I wonder what they think of me and my camera?)

    He said, “I’ll even give you a smile,” and he seemed downright joyful to me. Maybe it was just the contrast between my initial impression of him that’s been cemented in me for years and this friendly reality, but he seemed awfully pleased.

    I left feeling like I had made a friend. The next day, on our way to the farmer’s market, we passed him, sitting a ways down the street from where he was before, but still directly on the concrete and with his crutches beside him. I made to smile at him, but he didn’t look at me; guess I was just another invisible passerby.


    I saw him again a week later, and shot him outside the bank, but didn’t see him for many months. If you read his story, it turns out that he disappeared because shortly after I tok that picture, a police officer became friends with him and helped get him in touch with local services, like the Drop In Centre and housing.

    This past January I started volunteering at the Drop In Centre on Sunday mornings. I kept hoping I would see the man so I could give him some prints, but it wasn’t until I had to switch to a Saturday morning that I saw him. I reminded him of the photos, and he said he’d like some copies. When I gave them to him a few weeks later, I was really nervous that he wouldn’t like them. But he did. His face broke into a huge smile and he passed them around his table.

    This story really shows that one person CAN make a difference. I love Sister Christine’s quote at the end of the story, “When one person helps that person, others will come and help that person,” she explained. “You have to have a main person…”


    Well, I’ve been back from Cuba for just over a week now. I expected to edit my photos and post them very soon after my return, but apparently not. I’m feeling a bit dissatisfied with my photos, and I think I need more time and space to see them more clearly. Since Christmas, I have been fuelled by the momentum of embarking on a new project, of expanding my passion for photography. Now that the gallery is up (and finally working in IE – yay!), and I’ve exhausted my initial market for print sales, I’m losing momentum. Add to that a trip that didn’t meet my photographic hopes (not for lack of subject matter but for lack of time thanks to a busy two-year-old) and realizing that it’s not really possible to combine a photographic expedition with a family vacation, and here I am: discouraged.

    I remember once reading in A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse World, about how the author learned to take advantage of her natural mood swings. Her manic phases are for writing and her depressions are for revising and editing. This way, her depressions don’t spiral in because she’s not writing, and she benefits from the more critical eye of depression. I do not have bipolar disorder or any other mental illness (yet), but we all have natural mood swings, and I think it’s principle worth applying to all creative endeavours. If you’re not feeling inspired and confident, edit. Maybe this is the time to make submissions from past work.

    A few weeks before we left for Cuba, I read this fascinating article about judging the World Press Photo Awards. The author begins with a catalogue of all the clichés they see:

    “Flicking through the 81,000 images originally submitted a sense of deja vu is inevitable. Again and again similar images are repeated, with only the actors and settings changing. Grieving mothers, charred human remains, sun sets, women giving birth, children playing with toy guns, cock fights, bull fights, Havana street scenes, reflections in puddles, reflections in windows, football posts in unlikely locations, swaddled babies, portraits taken through mosquito nets, needles in junkies’ arms, derelict toilets, Palestinian boys throwing stones, contorted Chinese gymnasts, Karl Lagerfeld, models preparing for fashion shows backstage, painted faces, bodies covered in mud, monks smoking cigarettes, pigeons silhouetted against the sky, Indian Sardus, children leaping into rivers, pigs being slaughtered.”

    It was humbling and (I admit) a little discouraging to see Havana street scenes included in the list, but I tried to remain cavalier, taking a page from the blogger who pointed me there with a great attitude, saying simply: “So far I’ve only shot 10 subjects on that list, still so much to do…”

    The author of the article ends by pointing out that all the winners are basically clichés too. I find it interesting all the emphasis on subject matter. Granted, these are awards for photojournalism, a genre necessarily focused on subject matter. But to me, and as I mentioned in relation to an earlier post, I don’t think photographic clichés are so much about subject matter as treatment. I think it’s safe to assume that all the possible photographic subject matter has already been photographed. To me, photography is all about the photographer’s unique way of seeing the world, a vision that emerges over time. So I find it surprising that so many people in the photography world (or at least the photography world I’m discovering online) put so much emphasis on what a photograph is OF. That seems secondary to me.

    Nevertheless, the things I am reading are affecting me. Right now it feels like paralysis, but I suspect it’s more like a cocoon, from which new work will (eventually) emerge. I hope.

    Rest assured, as soon as I am ready, I will post some photos from Cuba here.