in my neighbourhood

It’s been a long time since I went for a walk and just watched and listened. Yesterday I had the pleasure of two short walks of watching and listening – and one was with my camera. I learned why they call it fall:

Bits of black walnut shell fell like tear drops from a great height – a squirrel eating on a telephone wire.

A gust became a blizzard of maple keys.

A single leaf spiralled straight down.

I like noticing things like that. Also the woman in a white sweater with big pink roses who walked beneath a big tree whose leaves were half green and half pumpkin. I would never wear a sweater like that myself, but it clashed so gloriously with its surroundings.

I photographed none of that. Here is some of what I did photograph.

Supposedly the city’s going to cut down this dead tree

after the raccoons


I never get tired of RVs

Now that I’m at home so much more, I’m thinking a lot about picking up my neighbours project again. I stopped when the derby girls picked up for a couple of reasons. Time is an obvious one. But also, I was unsure of what I was trying to do, why I was making the pictures, how it would come together. I think I’m a lot clearer on that front, and I have new ideas for how to move forward on it.

The other day Pete Brook posted an interview with Michal Chelbin. I loved it not only because her portraits are stunning (you really must click through from the interview to the sneak preview) but because she’s so clear in what she’s trying to do, what works in her photography, why she photographs in Russia and the Ukraine, and why she’s drawn to photograph the people she does. I really believe it’s not enough to make beautiful pictures. You have to know why you photograph who, what and how you do. Alec Soth said that when he’s advising thesis students, it’s almost like getting the student on a therapist’s couch, seeking to understand their own work.

Anyways… my neighbourhood. I tried to leave last summer, but the deal fell through and nobody wanted our house anyways (I think that also contributed to stopping the neighbours project — how to continue when I don’t want to be here?). I don’t feel comfortable with the houses so far apart for some reason, and there are too many streets without sidewalks. Too many garages and central air conditioners and lawn maintenance companies. It’s hard to see the people here. But my son goes to a good school and it’s not a bad place. So I guess we’ll stay for a while. And while I’m here I will try to work on the neighbours project — I think it’s a little more amenable to life with a baby than the derby project where the subjects are a little further away…

something I forgot

I forgot to mention in my last post some good news I’ve recently received. The first was that some of my images were included in the group exhibition of F-Stop Magazine Issue 48 Relations.

The second is that I was named a finalist in Photolucida’s Critical Mass. This is a really interesting program that I think is great. You first pay an entry fee to go to the prescreening jury. This year, there were 20+ people on the prescreening jury. The jury chooses the top 20o finalists, whose work is then sent to an international jury of more than 200 jurors: photo editors, curators, publishers, gallery owners and other people involved in the industry. You pay an additional fee of $200 if you’re a finalist, but your work gets seen by a lot of people. This jury chooses the top 50, who I guess are the winners. A travelling exhibition is created from their work, and at least one of them wins a book award. So it’s less a competition and more a vehicle to get your work seen by the industry. What I like about the program is that you get something for your entry fee: everybody who enters gets a CD of all the entries and they also receive the final book(s) from the book award winner(s).

I entered in 2009. I didn’t become a finalist, and when I saw the CD, I saw why. So much of the submitted work was really great. It was inspiring to get to see it, and I learned a lot from that CD. I also felt quite vindicated when several of my favourites from the CD became part of the Top 50. (Dorothy Deiss, Jessica Todd Harper, Sarah Malakoff, and Rania Matar, I’m looking at you. And while I’m on the subject, if you’re at all interested in motherhood and/or the domestic in photography you really must check out Jessica Todd Harper’s work – it is absolutely stunning.) As well, I received the two books that were produced that year: Alejandro Cartagena’s Suburbia Mexicana and Birthe Piontek’s The Idea of North, which I’m particularly fond of.

Anyways, I’m so stoked to be a finalist.

time flies

Wow. It’s amazing how fast time flies when you’ve just had a baby. I blinked and almost more than three months have passed (I’ve now been trying to write this post for more than two four weeks). Time has a different character with a new baby – it passes both quickly and slowly. Several hours can disappear when you meant to go out somewhere but somehow it just hasn’t happened between the feedings and sleeps and diaper changes. You can glance at your baby’s sleeping face and suddenly half an hour’s gone and you realize you completely lost track of whatever anyone in the room said or what happened on the tv. The days take on a sameness, so you can’t really remember whether a particular detail took place today or yesterday or last week. But that’s not what I wanted to blog about.

In the last couple of several weeks I’ve watched two three great documentaries on TVOntario, completely by accident. The first was about Lucian Freud. I wasn’t familiar with his work before, but I loved what I saw in the film. So much emotion in his portraits. The film was almost entirely interviews with his subjects, mostly ex-lovers and family, with some famous people thrown in. And they pretty much all talked about how long and physically grueling sitting for him was. One woman said she sat for three to four hours at a time, four to six nights a week for three months. That’s a lot of time to share quiet space with someone. His daughters talked about how it was pretty much their only chance to spend time with their father, which was why they kept doing it. I don’t know much about painting, but I bet that’s how he gets so much emotion in his paintings — because with so many hours of watching the sitter, it’s all there, and then some. Although you can’t put that amount of time into a single photograph, his process made me think of the process for long-term photography projects. When you make some images (or brush strokes) then check in with your subject and see whether the pictures fit then adjust with more pictures and so on until eventually you have a body of work that fits your subject.

I think it’s that checking in process that’s been missing from my projects until my derby girls project. Granted, the project isn’t really about derby at all, but I’ve been at it long enough now to see that the work I’ve produced so far still has holes. If you look at the work I’ve made so far, there are women or types or women missing from the project that are part of derby. But I’ve gone off on a tangent now.

The next was a documentary about Disfarmer. I have to confess I’ve never had much fascination with old studio portraits. No idea why, but it’s definitely a failing I should try to address. What I liked about the documentary was the differing views on his work. One collector said Disfarmer’s portraits “are like psychological bullets” that cut right through to the real person. Or something like that. Another man, who lives in the town Disfarmer lived and worked in, said he doesn’t see that at all, all he sees are people who are trying to follow what would surely have been Disfarmer’s instructions (due to the slow shutter speed) to hold very still and not to blink. Another commenter talked about how every single child in his photographs looks scared. I find myself leaning towards the latter reading, and I like photographs of people who look uncomfortable being photographed. I also don’t understand how someone can say a portrait pierces to the essence of a person, unless they know the essence of that person quite intimately. I’ve heard versions of that idea about other photographers, and I never quite understand it.

Disfarmer 1165



My favourite part of the documentary, though, was the speculation around the black lines that appear in his portraits made with a white background (most have a black background). Was it deliberate or accidentally? Was it just because there wasn’t enough light to use the black background and the white background needed tape to hold it together? Had he seen some of Mondrian’s work and liked it? Nobody knows. I like to think there was some practical reason for the lines being there, and he chose to work around them.

Yesterday I watched My kid could paint that. It’s about a four-year-old who took the art world by storm with her abstract expressionist paintings around 2005 and the controversy of whether she actually painted the paintings. As the parent of a five-year-old, I have a hard time believing that her father didn’t help at all – we often suggest different techniques for handling the paint or paper or whatever. Sometimes I give him ideas and he decides whether he wants to do it. And someone had to suggest she roll a background colour on and let it dry before applying more colours. A child might come up with that idea him/herself but I doubt they’d apply it so thoroughly. That said, I found myself less interested in whether she actually painted them herself and more disturbed by the way her father and his friend, a gallerist, pushed her paintings with very little thought as to the impact on her then and in the future. Especially the gallerist, who said outright that he hadn’t been able to be part of that art world until he started promoting Marla’s paintings. I also enjoyed the film’s meta-ness, with a number of people questioning the filmmaker directly as to his intentions and footage of him questioning himself.

I guess all this is to say that if you live in Ontario, you should keep your eye on TVO, especially on Thursday nights around 9 or 10. If you don’t live in Ontario, TVO does also have a lot of its documentaries online the Disfarmer one is there, although I can’t find the others).