All photographs © Grant Black
I did something this summer that I haven’t done for more than 25 years.
I shot some black and white film. And I liked it.
Yes, you can still purchase black and white film. And yes, you can still get it processed. And yes black and white photography is getting more popular with art photographers and photojournalists. I know several photojournalists who shoot black and white film regularly for publication and for their personal work.
For some time I’ve been feeling that digital is too easy and far too perfect. From that came the urge to get back to my photographic roots. In the 10-or-so years I shot back and white daily, my back-of-the-envelope calculations tell me I shot about 12,000 rolls for a total length of film of about 3.6 kms. Yikes.
I shot these pictures in July with a mid-1970s Nikon F2 and with 20mm, 28mm and 50mm lenses. I use a red filter to turn blue skies dark and accent clouds.
The pictures are dramatically different from what I normally shoot. Stark, contrasty, grainy, gritty, even surreal.
The biggest challenge? No little screen on the back of the camera to check the picture. A hard habit to break.
Saskatchewan and Shetland are a long way apart – nearly 6000 kms. as the crow flies – but their landscapes share an undeniable similarity.
The sky and the rolling prairies dominate the flatlands of southern Saskatchewan, a landlocked province in Western Canada. Cattle and grain, railways and gravel roads, grain terminals and oil rigs stand out in the mostly-empty landscape.
The land in Shetland, the rugged island archipelago north of mainland Scotland, is more hilly but equally empty. The sky and the land, the sea, beaches and rugged cliffs are stunning, but quiet, almost reflective.
We spent a few days in Shetland this winter, touring from Sumburgh, the most southern point on Shetland Main, to Saxavord Hill near an abandoned military radar base at the north end of the island of Unst; from the bustling capital of Lerwick to the rugged cliffs and lighthouse at Eshaness.
Even the economies of Saskatchewan and Shetland are similar. Farming – grain and cattle in Saskatchewan and sheep, fish and mussels in Shetland – are still important, but the oil industry has become more significant in recent years. Shetland is a major service centre for Scotland’s North Sea oil field. However, the field is now in decline. The government has insisted that oil companies remediate the field and remove and dismantle all production platforms. Much of that work will be done in Shetland which will provide much-needed work.
It really is a great idea for a party. The last Tuesday in January, a thousand men dress up in costumes, parade through the town carrying torches, light a replica Viking ship on fire and then retire to various community centres and church basements for an all-night party.
Up Helly Aa is the way the locals – and more and more tourists – break up the dark, dank and dreary winter on Shetland, the island archipelago in the North Sea north of Scotland.
Lerwick, the capital and largest town of these remote islands is north of 60 degrees latitude, about the same as Hay River, the former capital of the Northwest Territories and considerably north of Canada’s polar bear capital Churchill. Freezing rain and gale-force winds are more common than the bone-chilling cold of Canada’s north.
The festival has its roots in the early 19th century, and evolved into its present form later that century and early in the 20th. Around 1870 the name Up Helly Aa was introduced and nearly 20 years later the first Viking longship was used.
The Guizer Jarl and the Jarl Squad dress in elaborate Viking costumes, lead the processions and preside over the festivities. The party starts in the morning with a parade through Lerwick’s downtown pulling the Viking longboat. Then official photos are taken in the harbour. After dark the streetlights are turned out, the 1000-man parade forms, torches are lit, the longship is pulled through the throngs of spectators and finally torches are tossed into the galley. Fireworks explode overhead as the boat burns.
Other smaller communities on Shetland have their own Up Helly Aa celebrations on a smaller scale. The fire season runs from mid-January to mid-March.
The challenges facing a photographer tourist were many. It was dark, the subjects were moving and passing through the crowd was nearly impossible.
But the pictures were everywhere. And the more I shot the more I started to see shape pictures – pictures that are long and thin horizontals or tall and skinny verticals. I’ve always loved shooting shape pictures but that technique has nearly disappeared in today’s pre-formatted, web-dominated media landscape. And that’s a shame.
My first meeting with John Peterson was memorable. He, a battle-hardened photo editor fresh from the war that was the Toronto Star in the early-1970’s; me, a fresh-faced kid newly off the train from small-town Saskatchewan, just 18.
We met in the gymnasium at Loyalist College on the day students signed up for classes. I proudly showed him my portfolio – perhaps a dozen prints of my best work in an old yellow enlarging paper box. He flipped through them, barely looking at them, pulled a drag on his cigarette and grunted, “well, at least you can use a camera.”
I was crushed. And then I got mad and vowed to prove myself to this SOB and to make myself the best photographer I could be.
I was in the Journalism program and did well in that introduction to photography course. Sometime in that first semester John cornered me to ask about my career goals. I told him I wanted to be a news photographer and he told me that was a good thing, cause my writing wasn’t that strong. I should have been offended, but I was happy that I had a chance to chat about my career goals.
It was immediately evident that John had an incredible capacity for hard work. Several nights a week he’d stay late at the college, working until 9 or later. His supper was black coffee and a cellophane-wrapped sandwich bought from the cafeteria moments before closing time. The darkrooms were open one night a week and I usually stayed at school to make prints and hang out with fellow photo students. I didn’t have a car and often hitched a ride into town with a fellow student. One night I ran into John when leaving the building. He offered me a ride and then suggested we get a beer before going home.
Thus I was introduced to John’s second home, a faded watering hole called The Chart Room in downtown Belleville. The beer was cheap and a tradition was born. We (and often several other classmates) met a couple of evenings a week to talk about news, newspapering and photojournalism. I’m sure I learned more about the news business with a beer in front of me than I did in class.
John was different than anyone I’d known growing up. He was divorced, living in an apartment on his own, cooking his own meals, doing his own laundry. He cooked, baked and made marmalade and home-made ketchup. He loved to camp, hike, canoe and was a scuba diver. I’d dreamed of doing those outdoor activities and his example encouraged me to turn my dreams into reality.
On a snowy winter weekend he drove me and another student to the Adirondack Mountains where we hiked to a remote cabin. It was a long drive on snow-covered roads for one night of adventure, but John needed that wilderness time. It grounded him and it whet my appetite for more adventures.
John loved to hike and he thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, twice. The trail runs from Georgia to Maine and is about 3500 kms. long. On the trail he was known as “The Antiques Roadshow” for his outdated gear and advanced age. He was age 60 and 70 when he did the AT.
In second year, our class was responsible for producing the bi-monthly school newspaper, The Pioneer. Production day was Friday and we often worked past midnight to perfect our small publication. John would make a run to McDonald’s to pick up supper and also beer and snacks for the post-production gathering at his apartment. Sometimes the party would go all night and we’d fall asleep on the floor. More than once he cooked us a hot breakfast. Needless to say we were a close-knit group and many of us are still close.
John was instrumental in getting me my first job on a daily. While at the Toronto Star he befriended the photo editors at several dailies in south-western Ontario. When Windsor Star photo editor Bill Bishop was hiring a photographer he called John and I sent off my pictures, hoping for a break. I didn’t get that job, but Bill told me he would have another opening in 18 months and that I should keep in touch. I did, sending Bill clippings monthly. I worked at The Star for 22 years.
John was a man of great vision. He transformed Canadian photojournalism as the driving force behind several innovations.
He was the behind-the-scenes spark that created the Ontario News Photographer’s Association, which has evolved to become a national organization representing photographers from coast to coast to coast. While at the Toronto Star, he called a meeting of a small group of photo editors and senior photographers and planted the seed for the ONPA.
He spoke at one of the organization’s early educational seminars and edited it’s newsletter Newsviews for many years.
He founded the photojournalism program at Loyalist, which continues to graduate quality photojournalists. He built the program, hired the staff and set it’s direction. He did innovative projects like the Pixel Pioneer, an all-digital newspaper published a decade before the tidal wave of digital photography.
He founded The Loyalist Photography Workshop, a four-day workshop for community newspaper photographers and reporters. The annual workshop ran for more than a decade.
But these ideas took more than vision to be successful. They took planning, organizing and hard work, thousands of hours of hard work. John was a successful immigrant, he worked hard, built a life in Canada and made a difference here. America’s loss was Canada’s gain. He made Canadian photojournalism better.
John was there to mentor me as my career grew. Many times on assignment, I heard his voice, urging me to work harder, see better, climb the next hill, push the envelope, print better – all to make better pictures. He set a standard – and a high one – for me and many other Canadian photojournalists. He made us better.
Later he encouraged me to consider putting the cameras down to become a photo editor. Few photographers want to make that career move, but through his example I saw the value in becoming a newsroom leader.
John made a difference in my life and career and in the lives and careers of many Canadian photojournalists. I was and remain thankful that he was there for me and I mourn his passing.
I’ll remember him as a teacher, mentor and friend. I’ll remember him every time I pack my dive gear, paddle a canoe or pitch a tent. And of course I’ll remember him when I pick up my cameras.
It should come as no surprise that the new president of the United States asked television technicians to replay his interviews without the sound.
Why would Donald Trump do that? My guess is that he knows the powerful impression images make with viewers – impressions that trump anything he said in the interview. And he’s acting. Practicing to perfect the gestures and expressions of his lofty office.
Savvy politicians know that voters don’t vote with their heads. They vote with their hearts. Emotions over facts. Images – still or moving – speak directly to the viewer.
Remember the picture of Stephen Harper wearing a misshapen cowboy had and a too-small leather vest during The Calgary Stampede a decade ago? Nobody remembers what the prime minister said that day. The photo, by my former Calgary Herald colleague Mikael Kjellstrom, shows a nerdy Harper looking decidedly uncomfortable. You can see it at http://www.mikaelkjellstrom.com/photojournalism/stephen-harper-photographer-mikael-kjellstrom-10_4_48.html That photo, and others, show Harper as tense, awkward and shy.
Contrast that to pictures by White House Photographer Pete Souza. His favourite photos of 2016 of President Barack Obama, at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/12/31/barack-obamas-2016-year-photos-pete-souza/ show a loving family man, comfortable with children, colleagues and heads of state, yet serious about the serious business of running a country. He’s genuine.
Smart politicians are hiring photojournalists to make real, honest and spontaneous photographs of them on the job. Calgary photojournalist Chris Bolin worked for Danielle Smith and the Wild Rose Party, documenting the photogenic and media savvy former newspaper columnist during her brief time leading the party. He continues to work for the party, covering leader Brian Jean.
Recently, former Globe and Mail photojournalist John Lehmann left the paper to freelance. The B.C. Liberal party is one of his main clients where he covers premier Christy Clark. His loss to the newspaper business is her gain. Justin Trudeau’s photographer Adam Scotti was featured in a Globe and Mail story recently and has very close access to the PM. You can see his pictures here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/adamscotti/
Critics claim that this represents the victory of style over substance. They are wrong. Photographs use a different language. Pictures use the language of light and moment, expression and composition to speak. Yes, the concern remains that photojournalists working for politicians won’t release unflattering pictures. But look at a few of the thousands pictures of Obama posted to flickr.com and you can’t help but get a good feel for his personality.
Many years ago I saw Paul Martin, the elder statesman of Windsor politicians on the periphery of a press conference. Martin had been a Windsor lawyer, MP, cabinet minister and Canada’s High Commissioner to Great Britain. In his retirement he was working on his memoirs, but often attended events in the community.
He stood in strong, contrasty light. Imposing, dignified, a lion in winter. I changed to a telephoto lens, snapped the picture without him knowing. The Windsor Star archived the photo and published it the day he died.
Fast forward over 25 years and I’m covering his son, Paul Jr. in Calgary, campaigning at the Chinese Cultural Centre. It’s routine. He’s shanking hands and chatting with people, he makes a brief speech. There are about a dozen reporters, TV cameramen and a couple of other photographers. The reporters need their quotes, so his handlers announce a scrum in another room and everybody leaves.
I stay with the candidate. The White Eyebrow Martial Arts Club drum group starts to play, Martin climbs on the stage and joins them, playing a drum and cymbals with gritty determination. He’s having fun, taking a break from the routine of the campaign trail, enjoying himself with supporters. Showing his real self, being genuine.
You can see more of my work at www.grantblackphoto.ca
I’m often asked whether I prefer digital over film. For the type of pictures I take, there is only one answer.
Digital. No contest.
I’m nostalgic for the long meditative hours of printing black and white. The radio playing classical music, the safe lights glowing orange-yellow, the gentle gurgle of water. Yes, I’m nostalgic for my youth, like all of a certain age.
But once the newspaper demanded colour on all assignments, the darkroom time went from joy to drudgery. The craftsmanship was overwhelmed by the mechanics of the print processor and the demands of colour reproduction on an ancient press.
Young digital-native photographers, staring into their laptop screens, work in isolation. They’ve never had the mentoring that went on in a wet darkroom. Colleagues were there to offer a second opinion on picture selection, crop and printing style. I learned a great deal from them all.
But today, the quality, versatility and the high ISO performance of digital cameras rules. This picture of the Northern Lights, taken from the rolling deck of a cruise ship somewhere in the Labrador Sea between Greenland and Newfoundland, just wouldn’t be possible without digital.
That said, every now and then I feel the nostalgic pull of the black and white darkroom. Perhaps I’ll follow that dream some day.
It was the first camera that I bought as an eager teenage photographer.
I bought it from a local camera shop’s used cupboard. My little Pax M2, built sometime in the late 1950’s or early 60’s, came with a brown leather case and a simple strap. I loved the size and weight and the rangefinder focusing. I loved the retro look and the quiet shutter that made me feel just a bit more like a fly-on-the-wall photojournalist. The lens quality, however, left a bit to be desired.
Since then I’ve owned and used four more small, quiet cameras and loved them despite their foibles and idiosyncrasies.
Canon G-III QL
Next came a Canon G-III QL, which arrived in my camera bag in the late 1970’s when I was a young news shooter with The Windsor Star. I covered it in black book-binding tape, trying to make it look more discreet. Again, the lens wasn’t very sharp, but it was quiet and easy to use. Tucked under the front seat of my car, it came in handy more than once when I came upon spot news when my regular gear was at home.
I saved my pennies and a few years later I bought a used Leica M4-2 with a 90mm lens and soon added a 35mm and a 21mm. The lenses, made in Germany, were incredibly sharp. The rangefinder focus was a treat to use and I learned how to zone focus when shooting fast-moving news pictures. My pictures were always sharp even in poor light. I finally felt like a real photojournalist. My heroes always used Leicas. My Leica and an older Leica M2 were simple beautiful cameras. Many years later I toured the Leica factory in Wetzlar, Germany. It was like visiting a sacred place.
And then came the digital revolution. The Calgary Herald supplied huge, noisy digital beasts designed for news and sports. I longed for a quiet compact that would take my Leica lenses. But that was the way it was riding the bleeding edge of new technology.
My dreams came true when Epson, a company known for printers and scanners created the R-D1. It had some cool features – you cocked the shutter with a retro thumb wind just like you were advancing film back in the day – and the black and white files look just like Tri-X. Beautiful. At 6 megapixels the files were a bit small, but did manage to make some nice pictures for the paper.
I bought it used from a friend in Vancouver – a globe-trotting photojournalist who often works for international aid agencies, who bought it from a well-known wire service photographer who has done lots of international work, so it had a good pedigree.
I remember photographing a woman who reacted badly to the noise of the shutter and the light from a flash. I opened her curtains a crack and used the R-D1 to make a nice portrait with my fast 35mm nearly wide open. I was allowed back stage while Cirque du Soleil artists practiced. My quiet Epson was the perfect camera to capture intimate moments as they stretched and exercised, talked and taped tender joints.
The camera is unique, nearly rare, but significant enough to be featured in an “Unsung Cameras of Yesteryear” episode on TCS TV. TCS TV is a great YouTube channel brought to you by the folks at The Camera Store in Calgary. You can see the feature, hosted by Chris Niccolls and produced by Jordan Drake at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YIOk6kmYOWc
My current compact? The retro-styled Fuji X100S. Beautiful colour, a silent shutter, light and compact, fast to use, good auto-focus and nice low light performance. It isn’t my old film Leica, it isn’t perfect by a long shot, but it has become my go-to camera when travelling light and shooting on the street. And it sure is fun to use.