Journey was the theme of recent meeting of the photography group I am a member of. It was quite a reflective and often quite personal meeting with people sharing photos and personal stories around journey.
What draws me to photography? There are a number of things, and I am sure that it has changed over the years.
When I first started taking photos, I wanted to photograph the show jumping shows I went to. At university, I still took photos of show jumping, I shifted focus a little to street and photojournalistic photography. I also started to develop my own black and white film. I continued my street and photojournalistic photography when I came to London. Within a few years, I shifted to architecture photography as I became tired of either being told off or people playing to the camera.
Over the last year or so, I have been trying to figure out where my photography is going. While I am on the journey, what I am really tapping into my photography is the narrative. So, what do I mean by this?
The exhibition I was in during November 2013, much of the feedback that I received was people seeing their own stories and narratives within the photos I was exhibiting. I found it fascinating what people saw in the images – often things I hadn’t seen myself, or personal stories they had.
The images I showed were architectural, and so it wasn’t perhaps the most obvious subject matter to have narratives. What I found was that it invoked either people knowing the areas I took the images in and it provoked some memories or feelings of the area or it reminded people of other places they knew. The narratives were place based.
Seeing the narrative, and allowing the viewer to read their own narrative, has become more important in my photography.
I sometimes come across stories of areas, graffiti, etc after the fact. One good example is the graffiti image I took in Islington. It was a man standing by a utility box on the street. A number of months later, while reading the metro at Waverley train station in Edinburgh, I found out that the image was of the cleaner who removed some graffiti (Graffiti artist paints image of cleaner removing artwork). I appreciated the story behind the image, but for me, my narrative of the image was an office worker pausing while heading back to the office during his lunch hour.
Whilst buying photographic supplies, I was asked by the man serving me – “So, where do you come from?” He continued: “I’ve been asking people as I have been serving today as I’m curious to find out where people come from.”
As a Canadian living in London, it’s not an uncommon question – indeed, London is a very cosmopolitan city with many people being drawn to the city from elsewhere, either from different parts of the UK or abroad. The man serving me was born in Whitechapel in East London – a proper Cockney, he said – then lived in Twickenham, south London. However, he even acknowledged his accent wasn’t particularly cockney or posh Twickenham.
Where we come from can be a very multi-layered question. On one level, it is asking where we physically come from. On another, it can be about our identity and culture, which is often bound to where we physically come from as well as a shared experience. Yet another level is our emotional and spiritual arena.
I often find the question hard to answer as I come from Canada and have a shared experience and culture with other Canadians. However, I also have a shared experience and culture in London. Where I come from can also be from where I left in the morning to where I end up or the destination of my journey – like arriving at the photography to buy some supplies.
As a photographer, this is also a very interesting question as I am taking photos of life passing me by and the moments I see. Being a photographer is, in a way, capturing where I am which then quickly turns into where I was coming from. So, the question of where I come from is also a question of where I have been.
While photography can be seen as capturing the moment and perhaps focused and reflecting on what has been by the images we capture, there is also an element of where I am going. The past does influence where I am going and what I am seeing, but without having a sense or an eye on at least the present, it is very easy to get stuck and not see the nuances and changes in life.
As an artist, my photography has changed and progressed over the years. I would worry if it didn’t. With reflection and contemplation on what I have taken and listening to where I am going, my art changes and possibly matures. So the question of where I come from transforms into where I am going to – and I take photos along the way. Both questions are inseparable, really.
Woodbrooke, Selly Oak, UK
There is something magical about snow. Growing up in Canada, winter wouldn’t be winter without months of snow. There were mounds of it, for months. The first snowfall often made children (both young and old) excited. Parks filled up with sledges and toboggans.
Living for a number of years in London, winter mainly brought rain and dampness, along with copious amounts of tea to keep warm. The last few years, however, winter has brought snow – even for a few days.
For nearly a week now, much of the UK has had significant amounts of snow. While it’s not as much as there would be in Canada, it has certainly brought memories of Canadian winters. There has certainly been some travel chaos, closed schools and quite a few children sledging.
I managed to get to Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Selly Oaks, near Birmingham last weekend for a course. Getting there and back was a journey in itself, but well worth it. The grounds at the Centre certainly offer an oasis, and with all of the snow a wintery one.
I have been to Woodbrooke a couple of times before – in spring and autumn. The grounds (as well as the Centre) provide a tranquil space, but in the snow, there was a different kind of peacefulness. The grounds provided a certain stillness in the snow. Nature was in a deep slumber.
Walking mindfully around the grounds, I enjoyed the stillness and quiet. It was a quiet meditation in the snow – allowing the freshness of the cold air to fill my lungs and to walk on the powdery blanket of snow.
With summer slowly fading into autumn, I am trying to hold onto the last remnants of the season. While I tend to prefer textured shots in black and white which play with light, the subject matter dictates whether I shoot in black and white or in colour. This is certainly true in summer as colours are often more prominent.
This summer, I visited Canada after a few years away. Visiting the same areas and cities can pose a challenge – how do I keep my images fresh and new? How do I keep from taking the same photos over and over again?
While photographing the same things can show incremental changes over time, I am given the opportunity to see familiar places in a different light. I had this opportunity this past July in Canada. As I was finishing off a roll of colour film in a garden, I stumbled upon some lovely orange and yellow flowers in a neighbours garden.
The colours were fabulous, and demanded to be photographed in colour. I was very happy with the results. The orange, yellow, green and blue played with each other and supplemented each other. I couldn’t have had asked for anything more beautiful and delicate.
I couldn’t have asked for anything else – the flowers were stunning and didn’t need any setting up. The colours blended and highlighted each other nicely.
Niagara Falls, Canada
There is something rather spectacular about Niagara Falls. The sheer volume and power of the water going over the three falls draws thousands each year to see it.
The three waterfalls are the Horseshoe Falls, the American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls. The larger Horseshoe Falls lie in Canadian while the other 2 falls reside in the US. While all three falls are dramatic, my favourite are the Horseshoe falls - although, I may be a bit biased!
While I had visited Niagara Falls many, many years ago, I had the chance to visit the Falls again this month. I did wonder whether they wouldn’t be as impressive as I had remembered them as a child. I shouldn’t have worried. They were just as impressive as I had remembered, and I had really enjoyed seeing them again.
It was amazing, and hear, the water falling over the edge of the Falls. The midst rising up from the fallen water was refreshing, and greatly appreciated, on a swelteringly hot day. As I walked away from the falls, I got some really good shots, particularly of the boats driving as close as they could to the falls.
I took photos on Kodak colour film of the falls, and used a polariser filter to draw out the colours a bit. I could have easily taken the photos in film, but I think the mood and atmosphere of the falls.
Niagara Falls remind us of the force in nature, particularly the force of water.
Living in a couple of capital cities, I have become accustomed to living in close proximity to political power and the buildings they inhabit. I have always found it interesting how nations express their political power and outlook through its buildings they live in.
I have lived much of my life in Ottawa, and had many visits to Parliament Hill. The Gothic buildings show the influence from Europe, but the statues and carvings show a distinctive Canadian flavour.
I have photographed the Hill many times over the years, and know the area very well. Most of my photos are in colour. However, the last time I was in Ottawa, I wanted to photograph it differently. While photographing the Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec, I was given the opportunity to see the Parliament Buildings, and Ottawa, in a different light.
The weather was cloudy and overcast, and I was taking photos of the Museum with b&w with a high ISO (aka fast film), and it dawned on me to start photographing Ottawa in much the same way. Previously, my photos were taken on slower film - either colour slide film (Fuji Velvia) or b&w film (Ilford). The reason was Ottawa is a very beautiful city and I wanted to capture it’s details.
However, with the weather the way it was, it made me look at Ottawa in a much more rugged, textural and tactile way. Looking across the Ottawa River, the Parliament Buildings dominated the skyline with the clouds making the view moody.
I could have taken the photos with my digital camera, but the pixelated photos wouldn’t give the textured feel grainy film would. The images I wanted to take were ones where the viewer could feel them, and digital pixels don’t feel in the same way as film grain does.
The resulting photos give the Parliament Buildings, Ottawa river and riverbank a less pristine and more punchy feel and look. They pushed my view of how to photograph the Parliament Buildings, and Ottawa for that matter.
This marked the beginning of a shift in my photography. The shift was rediscovering b&w film photography, and moving to the more textural and tactile. I hadn’t realised it at the time, nor noticed the beginnings of this in my previous work, but my current work has consciously explored this much more.
Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto
A friend of mine, who used to work for the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), had encouraged me to visit the Museum to see The Crystal, the new front they were building. She knew I am interested in photographing architecture, and knew that I would like taking pictures of it. .
Founded in 1912, the ROM is the largest museum in Canada for world culture and natural history. It has maintained close relations with the university throughout its history and became an independent institution in 1968.
The architecture style of the original building and eastern wing is Italianate Neo-Romanesque. Opened in 1933, the eastern wing facing Queen's Park included the Museum's elaborate art deco, Byzantine-inspired rotunda and a new main entrance.
First opened in 2007, the Crystal, the deconstructivist crystalline-form front, was designed by Daniel Libeskind and was controversial. Public opinion was divided on its merits.
I had my reservations about seeing the Crystal, the ROM’s newest extension. Not all architects are sensitive when altering or adding to buildings. When visiting Toronto after The Crystal’s opening in 2007, I was intrigued, and really liked what the Libeskind had done. Not all new architecture sits well with older styles, but this combination worked for me.
I was presented, as a photographer, with a very linear and geometric architecture that also reflected the world back to you, but allowed you to see into the Museum at the same time.
What I found interesting was the overall aim of the Crystal - to provide openness and accessibility. It seems to seek to blur the lines between the threshold between the public area of the street and the more private area of the building.
Because of the sun’s shadows and the grey and glass of the building, I felt the building lent itself to being photographed in B&W film. Initially, I was annoyed that you could see the reflections of the bustling Toronto street behind me in the windows. I was seeking something a look more calm – and wanted to see more of what was going on in the building.
However, the reflections grew on me. I showed the photos to some of my friends, who really liked reflections. They could see everyday life surrounding the building and it gave the Museum context.
It made me realise that the line between public and private wasn’t as demarcated as I had assumed, or sometimes liked. It’s often very difficult to know where the line is.
The geometric lines of The Crystal are often deceiving as it gives a sense of structure and order – where underneath it, the boundaries between private and public are much more fluid and fudged. It allowed visitors to get beneath the skin of the Museum and explore the exhibitions held within it as well as appreciating the world outside it.
High Park, Toronto, Canada
Often as a photographer, I try to find different angles for familiar things or places.
But, sometimes, life’s oddities catch my attention. It could be something that seems out of place, however slightly; something eccentric; or even something unexpected.
So, what catches my eye?
A few years ago, I was visiting some family in Toronto, and we happened to visit High Park. It was close to where they lived, and it was a gorgeous day in autumn where the trees were beginning to change. We wanted to see the autumn colours and the zoo held within the park.
As we meandered along the park’s paths, a particular tree caught my eye. This tree had an old man’s face carved into one side. The carved face wasn’t expected, but it didn’t seem entirely out of place either. It reminded me of Jack Frost getting ready to blow in the winter winds.
It was a touch of subtle character that could have been easily missed, particularly if you were in a rush. But it also had its own presence, which made you want to look at it.
I was taking colour photos because of the autumn colours, and feel that the texture of the carving is brought out by the two colours of the tree trunk.
I find myself, not only making the ordinary eye-catching, but also increasingly on the look out for this subtle character elsewhere – pushing the boundaries of what we expect to see around us. Often, it can be missed, but sometimes isn’t.
This character challenges the need for order – and I hope to capture more of it.
I was glad to meet this carved face - possibly of Jack Frost, but possibly of a soul still wanting to say something – and hope to meet some more carved faces on my photographic journey.
Museum of Civilization, Hull, Quebec
The Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec has always captured my artistic eye and imagination as a photographer.
Sitting on the northern side of the Ottawa River opposite Parliament Hill, the distinctive building heavily draws from the natural landscape that surrounds it.
The Museum is a very fluid building, and it has a feel of rock being worn away by years of flowing water. It reflects more how the natural world exists rather than humanity trying to dominate it.
So, why would I want to photograph it?
Douglas Cardinal, the Museum’s architect, was greatly influenced by his Native American heritage when he designed the Museum. He felt that a building in harmony with the land would be in keeping with the cultures of Canada's native peoples.
"Aboriginal cultures evolved into a way of being in touch with the earth, and experiencing reality as being part of the earth. Our culture also lives in the dream state of vision. When I designed the Museum of Civilization, I went to the ceremonial lodge and I was given the vision of taking technology and creating something positive with it." - Douglas Cardinal
As a photographer, I appreciated the simple lines and forms of the building, and enjoyed the possibilities it presented to me. The Museum is the architectural equivalent of photographing nature itself.
I was drawn to capturing its curves, fluidity and texture. The building itself has captured mother nature in her femininity.
Photographing the building in black & white may not be the most obvious choice, but I was also drawn to the texture of the building. The texture is as important as the earthy feel of it. While it had a fluid and water feel to it, the building also had a rougher exterior – where the water hadn’t yet polished it smooth.
Heather Martin is a London based photographer who specialises in architectural, event and B&W film photography.