Questioning the Ideal

When I looked back at my photographs from 2014 the urban ones didn't seem as cynical as I thought they might be.  On reflection, I think it's just less overt.    

My Vancouver photographs seem motivated by the contradiction between an idealized version of Vancouver and the reality on the ground (which is perhaps a clever turn of phrase given how that idealized vision incorporates towering condos). 

Looking at the photographs (yet) again, I concluded that even the ones appearing to be a straight-up representations of an idealized Vancouver are still questioning that ideal in some way.  Consider this photograph:

Dwelling, Vancouver, 2014

It’s a view of an attractive townhouse entrance.  But my interest lies in the contrast with the tower sitting above it.  The towers are striking, but their scale is alienating when experienced from the ground.  The homes in the sky are financially out of reach for most people.

The questioning appears in other ways.  Vancouver, like most Canadian cities, is very young.  Yet, there are signs of decay and neglect.  Rather than acquiring character buildings simply wear out.  They are disposable.   

Shrouded, Vancouver, 2013

Claymore Parking, Vancouver, 2013

Steps, Vancouver, 2014

There’s more to be written about the Vancouver photographs in future posts.  But I want to touch on how the Prairie Waters and Prairie Modern photographs also question ideals.  

The prairies are often imagined as a pastoral ideal.  In practice, the it's criss-crossed by a grid of roads.  I can just as easily see it as a vast food manufacturing operation.  I think of the Prairie Modern photographs as both representing and questioning the ideal.

Power Pole, Alberta, 2005

The Prairie Waters photographs question an ideal in a different way.  People might not consider the shallow lakes in central Alberta beautiful.  Certainly they don't attract visitors the way the Rocky Mountain parks do!  But mud can be beautiful if you look at it in the right way.  So, they question the ideal of conventional beauty.

While I may be questioning an ideal, ambiguity arises because there is also genuine affection.  I unabashedly love the open spaces of the prairies.  Vancouver may be flawed, but it’s an easy city to love. Green stains on concrete can be seen as verdant or decrepit.  I'll write more on this ambiguity in a future post.

Constructive Discussion

I appreciate discussions about photography that give me something to build on.  

I’ve never been drawn to still life.  But the exhibition Marvelous Things: The Art of Still Life curated by Aline Smithson (author/publisher of LensScratch) expanded my concept of still life.  I realized still life encompassed a broad range of objects and could be a found scene.  Thanks to Mark Hobson for bringing it to my attention.  Mark has a piece in that exhibition and is an accomplished practitioner of the art of still life. 

I mostly photograph scenes that are bigger than me.  If I walked into the scene my entire body could be included in the frame.  I think of these as landscapes.  Sometimes I photograph scenes that are smaller than me.  I’ve never been sure what to make of these photographs.  I’ve started to think of them as found still lifes.  I’m not sure why it makes a difference to think of them that way, but it does.  It’s provided a context for me to explore more of them.

Having another path to explore, helps get me out the door to make photographs.  Once I’m out the door, I’ll photograph not only still lifes but other things that present themselves to me.      

Consistent with my recent resolution to slow the sharing pace, I’m not going to share any new work to illustrate the point.  We’ll revisit in the future to so if the inspiration yielded fruit.  But here’s an older example of the sort of thing I have in mind. 

(The new ones have a slightly different feel because I've been composing them for the square.)

Urban Still Life, Vancouver, 2014

Concept and Intuition, Part 3: Urban Photographs

In Part 2, I discussed the role of concept when photographing the prairies.  In this post I’ll continue by discussing it in the context of my urban photographs.

I started photographing the city with the loose idea of producing a prairie trilogy: natural, rural and urban.  At the time I was obsessed with creating photographs that were abstract and minimal without resorting to extreme cropping.  There were some successes:  

Backside, Edmonton, 2006

Alley Shadow, Edmonton, 2006

There were also lots of photographs of walls with various things on them.  I found these less satisfying.  It seemed to me I was trying to impose a minimalist ideal on an environment that was frequently chaotic.    

With the Prairie Waters and Prairie Modern photographs I drew inspiration from abstract painting.  I likened the natural photographs to abstract expressionism and the rural ones to color field painting.  I began to think cubism might be an appropriate reference for urban environments.  I made a few tentative efforts to produce cubist photographs, but the results were disappointing.    

Eventually, I gave up my preconceptions and just started photographing what appealed to me.  I photographed sporadically.  Looking at photographs from that period, there are many inspired by a minimalist aesthetic.  But there were others embracing more complexity.  I seemed to be developing a new grammar for photographing the city.

Mall Entrance, Edmonton, 2007

Eventually, I gained confidence in this new grammar and began photographing more frequently.  There was only concept in a broad sense.  I was trying to make honest photographs of Edmonton while staying true to the way I see.   

When I moved to Vancouver, I carried on in much the same way.  I was invigorated by having a new city to explore.  From the beginning the Vancouver photographs seem more complex and sophisticated.  

Convention Centre, Vancouver, 2012

Growth, Vancouver, 2013

Without doing so consciously, I was now making photographs that realized the cubist ideal I imagined many years before!

My approach to the urban photographs has been pretty consistent.  I pick a direction (if I’m walking out the door) or a neighbourhood (if I’m driving) and see what I find.  I try to vary the locations.  Sometimes I re-visit and other times I seek out something new.  I avoid back-to-back visits to the same place.

I have no specific agenda, but themes emerge.

For example, in Edmonton there are what I think of the ‘blank spaces’.  These are certainly informed by the minimalist aesthetic, but they are also seem true to the character of the city.   

Industrial Facade, Edmonton, 2012

There are also photographs of things protruding from the landscape. 

Protruding, Edmonton, 2008

There are photographs of malls.

Southgate Mall, Edmonton, 2007

None of these themes make an appearance in the Vancouver photographs.  Surfaces in Vancouver are covered in growth.  There are malls in Vancouver, but they are not as integral to the character of the city.  In downtown Vancouver, nothing breaks the horizon because you rarely see the horizon - it’s obscured by towers or mountains.  

The Vancouver photographs have their own themes emerging.  The city is trying to transform itself into an idealized and often exclusionary version of itself.  There is a strong demarcation between the west side and east side of Vancouver.  There are contrasts and contradictions to explore.

Chaotic, Vancouver, 2013

Behind, Vancouver, 2014

Between 4852 and 4864, Vancouver, 2013

I’m trying to nurture these themes while leaving room for others to emerge.  I’ve become more attentive to the politics of development.  I’ve read a little history on different neighbourhoods.  I’m doing research and formulating concepts to feed back into intuition.      

This series of posts on concept and intuition was motivated by the Vancouver photographs.  I'm looking back to learn from those experiences.  I hope to better understand what’s emerging and explore how I can re-enforce it conceptually without clobbering the flow.  

Other posts in this series:
Part 1: Prairie Waters
Part 2: Prairie Modern


Sometimes my photographs capture an idealized version of Vancouver imagined by developers and urban planners.  Initially, these photographs seemed more accidental than most because my inclination is to seek out grittier environments.  But seeing how they provide context and contrast made me more ‘open-minded’.  

Groomed, Vancouver, 2013

Dwelling, Vancouver, 2014

They complement the photographs of abandoned areas surrounded by condo curtains.

Between, Vancouver, 2012

Abstracts Revisited

Looking through the current City of Glass portfolio I was struck by the absence of alley photographs given the amount of time I've spent wandering them.  The cramped spaces and towering facades present a challenge to my compositional strategies.  In a similar vein, I was pondering how to tackle the cluttered ground level view of condominiums.  These thoughts had the possibly counter-intuitive effect of motivating me to make some abstract photographs.

Backside of the Mark, the Tallest Condo in Yaletown, Vancouver, 2014

Abandoned Frame, Vancouver, 2014

Azure II, Side View, Vancouver, 2014

Creeping Mold, Vancouver, 2014

Column Detail, Vancouver, 2014

This abstract, minimal look is achieved by excluding most context.  I enjoy making such abstracts.  But, I've been avoiding them because I worry they are little more than clever exercises in composition. 

As part of a project they may be more meaningful, because a new context is provided by the project.  So I'm revisiting them in the context of City of Glass

With such minimal photographs there is always the question of how little is too little.    

"Grill Detail" (below) removes so much context it's nearly impossible to tell what you're looking at without being told.  For the purposes of the City of Glass project I prefer photographs with a little more context.

"Column Detail" (above, from an apartment in the West End) may fall into the same category.  But I like how it contrasts with "Backside of the Mark" (at the top, from a condo in Yaletown) to illustrate differences between the West End and Yaletown.

Grill Detail, The Mark, Vancouver, 2014