My First Ten Years In Photography
Lots of energy, some ideas and no cash … and then I fell in love. My story about coming of age with a camera in my hand isn’t unique, but it is mine.
This is the first installation of my photo-life in 5 parts.
I’m a young 21 years old, a high school dropout from Ottawa, in the thrall of photography and of Robert Frank. I somehow scrape together the money to go to London, England, I’m going to shoot my first real project there.
The IRA is in the middle of a bombing campaign, everywhere scrawled on walls of the city are the words: THE IRA RULE LONDON OKAY. There’s a sinister, broke, feel to the city. I’m lonesome and lost, standing on the outside, trying to be there.
Three months of this and I was ready to throw in the towel. Enough’s enough, I thought. I can’t stand this any more. It felt like defeat because I had been thinking, when I left Ottawa for London, that I might live there. But I was too young and naïve, too unformed, really, to work it out.
I arrived back in Ottawa, Christmas-time 1975. Got a job, got some money together. Took the London work through, did an edit, made prints, felt a dissatisfaction. My next projects became more process-driven, more about the shape of light and the passage of time. Important things to discover if you want to be a photographer.
I made sketch books.
Then I saw a girl on the street, thought to myself, “Must have”. I set about to woo her and we became friends. Cindy. 1977, September, she moved to Toronto to go to art school. We wrote letters to each other, I’d go visit. We got to know each other better. Things happened.
End of summer, 1978 I moved there, in with her. A couple. This is the photo I gave my mother just before I left. It’s called, “Me, almost disappearing”.
EARLY TORONTO 1978–80
So I’m shacked up in Toronto. No diploma or certificate to my name, bit of jail time behind me, young beyond my years (24), still unformed. What can a poor boy do?
I got a job working for Gendron Industries, on an assembly line in a Quonset hut in an industrial part of town. Some days I made baby carriages, other days ping pong tables. There, there’s food on the table and a roof over my head.
And then there was the home life.
I had traveled to England to find myself in a foreign country, but I didn’t find myself. I came home and somehow lucked into finding Cindy. (Or did we find each other?) She was the foreign country I’d been looking for, the one that would help me find myself.
I learned so much from her. I don’t think she actually set about to teach or change me, but her way of living and her frames of reference were exactly what I needed. Over time, past the ups and the downs, I morphed and grew. Never in a straight line, sometimes forward, other times backward and, I’m sure, lot’s of sideways.
MIDDLE TORONTO 1980
Thought I might settle down some, so I turned into a formalist. I began shooting large-format, dead landscapes at the end of the subway lines. Removing life from the equation, except as a remnant. Withdrawing in a way. It seemed somehow fitting. Or so I thought.
I did, though, have a little Olympus XA camera, which I used to make notes about my life. One day, in 1981 after I had made a few big, exquisite prints of the dead subject matter I’d been concentrating on, I slid a negative from the XA into my enlarger’s carrier. I made a small print of a stupid shot I’d taken of Cindy and Meredith in Mere’s kitchen. Done, I looked from my serious work to that funny, wrong snapshot and was struck. The serious work sucked, just wasn’t me, then.
That snapshot showed me a way. I didn’t come from any school, I came up from the streets, that was what I knew, that was what felt right and comfortable, felt like life. And I knew then and there that if I wanted authenticity in my work, that was where I’d find it . . . from my life.
I destroyed all the prints and negatives I had been working on for two years and sold my large format landscape gear. I bought a Leica and began to shoot everything in my life. Shortly after that I found my footing and my politics began to emerge in the images I was making.
LATE TORONTO 1981–84
I wanted to shoot my life. That included my home life and the small circle of friends Cin and I had gathered. But I also wanted to shoot a larger life: sex and the body, violence and life in the city.
I finally figured out, too, that if you shoot with an open mind, let the camera do the work while your brain is somewhere in the background, you end up with what I call “piles of data”. That data can later be mined; you will find rich seams that run through it and, by carefully editing and sequencing, by arranging images into arcs of non-verbal narrative, you can define something.
I felt I had gone from emulating Robert Frank, from shooting the expected point of view (expected, if you have studied the history of photography), and was moving towards using photography to define my own intelligence, my own point of view, my own politics.
7 YEAR ITCH / TORONTO 1984
In love, like life, you go through phases. Passions fade and shift, what was once new turns into the dull routine of existence. One way to combat this is to try to live and learn in the subtle shifts and textures of a long-term thing. That is what Cin and I decided to do. Without much discussion, it just seemed like us. Determined.
We had a small circle of friends in Toronto, we’d go out, do stuff. Cin was working in kitchens, being a receptionist, making art. I was working on production lines, taking photos. We were both still interested and figuring things out. Things like what did we have to say and how can we express it, how can we get along, what do we want to do? You know, the standard stuff.
Cin and I never really had 2 nickels to rub together. End of the month we’d be rolling quarters to make the rent. One time we were so broke I had to sell the gold ring my grandfather had left me. We were approaching 30 and getting tired of what we were doing, where we were going, in Toronto. So we decided, without much discussion, to move to England. Before we met Cin had lived there for a year, I had spent 4 months in London. Let’s go back, we thought.
Problem is, as we were soon to discover, you can’t go back . . .
UK, FALL 1984
I’m not sure what we were thinking, beyond some romantic notion that by going back to a place we’d both briefly been before, a place where we’d had some intense experiences, we’d somehow be born anew. Or something. But in the fall of ’84 we sold everything we owned, scraped together some money and went to the UK.
I thought we were going to look for jobs. Cin thought it would be a good idea to take a train waaay up north, and go on a walking tour. Even though I’m no Nature Boy, even though I’m no fan of staying in hostels (the British versions of which are straight out of Dickens, or something George Orwell could have written about: harsh, regimented, run by tyrants), even though we had hardly any money, I said, “Yes”, and off we went.
We’d walk through country for days, stay in small towns. I was stuck in a place where there was really nothing I wanted to photograph, so what I did was I shot our passage through the land, 2 people on their way to, really, nowhere, through the desolation of the UK at that time. (This was the year of the miner’s strike, a last-ditch attempt by working people to stave off the heavy hand of Margaret Thatcher. It was super violent, the verge of Civil War and that juju permeated the whole Island.)
Done, we went to London to look for jobs. We were tired and beat from our walking excursion and the social and economic climate there was just brutal. After a week or two we knew this was not the place we wanted to be. So we thought, “Where do we go from here?”.
TRANS EUROPE EXPRESS
Sick and tired in England, we bought one-way train tickets to Thessaloniki, Greece. Our friends Avi and Meredith were living there and we thought we would visit them. Feeling the failure of our UK plans, kind of depressed, nearly broke, we dragged our sorry asses across Europe to get to a place where we could rest, assess.
We passed through Paris, Dole, Vallorbe-Simpion, Venice, Ljubljana, Belgrade and Skopje. We would exit the train and spend a few hours or a day or two in each place. I felt unconnected and sort of uninterested; the only point seemed to be to reach a destination. The images I shot reflect this, passing scenes, mysterious to me, and the train taking us somewhere.
Once we got to Avi and Mere’s place in Thessaloniki, we relaxed and faced the inevitable: We had hardly any money and zero prospects. Time to go home. We went to Athens and booked the cheapest flight we could find. It wasn’t leaving for 4 days; we holed up in a fleabag hotel and waited it out.
Then we were back in Canada, back where we started. No money, no prospects. But we still had each other.