All photographs © Grant Black
GORDIE HOWE WITH HIS SONS MARK AND MARTY IN 1979
The brush with fame was, like so many during my career as a daily news photographer, brief, even rushed.
The Hartford Whalers were practicing at the Windsor Arena, a decrepit hockey barn on the edge of downtown Windsor. Gordy Howe had been playing for the Houston Aeros in the World Hockey Association for several years, skating along with his sons Mark and Marty.
But to The Windsor Star his 1979 pre-season appearance in our town was news. Front page colour news.
And that was unusual. At the time the Star ran one colour “project” a week, always on Saturday. The pictures were almost always shot several days before publication, were static, over lit and frankly, uninteresting.
Our work was printed on an ancient press that was never intended to print four-colour pictures. The reproduction was terrible. We often put our 35mm film cameras away and shot on clumsy twin-lens reflex cameras which used 120 film. This gave us slightly better picture quality and the flexibility to use fill-flash at higher shutter speeds.
We didn’t even develop or print our own pictures but rather used an outside lab.
I can’t remember if I used my 35mm camera or my old Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex for the assignment but I do remember being nervous. Very nervous.
I put a flash on a light stand bounced into an umbrella and had a fellow Star photographer hold a second light.
Howe and his sons skated over, I set them up, shot a few frames, perhaps a half dozen, and it was over. Gordie said something like, “ya got enough, kid,” I nodded yes and they skated to the showers.
That wasn’t the end of my Howe family photo assignments. A few years later I photographed Gordie’s youngest son Murray for the Toronto Star. He was studying medicine at the University of Michigan and has since gone on to a career as a radiologist.
After several months away from shooting for clients – a cross-country move and a summer job at the Pan Am Games limiting my availability – I’m back being a photographer. Recently, a long-standing client hired me to shoot an environmental portrait in Leamington, Ont. Yes!
It has been a exciting few months. In early May we watched as our stuff was loaded on to a moving van for our move to Amherstburg, Ontario, an historic town south of Windsor on the banks of the Detroit River. That day was the start of a complicated cross-country tango that saw us fly to Windsor to meet the furniture, fly back to Calgary to pick up our vehicle and camper trailer and then drive across the western flatlands through Northern Ontario and finally to our new home in southwestern Ontario.
Along the way we visited scores of friends and saw many members of our families. (Thanks to all for your hospitality.) Our decision to leave so many good friends in Calgary was a tough one, but we’ll be back to visit this winter and to continue our passion for skiing.
Three weeks after finally arriving in Amherstburg, I took the train to Toronto to start my stint as a photo venue manager at the Pan Am Games. It feels like I’ve spent more time away from home than at home. The move is still a work in progress. I’ve opened most of the boxes that line the basement, but storage must be built and a workroom finished before things normalize.
Why Amherstburg? We lived in Windsor/Essex for many years and have longstanding friendships that go way back. Within days of our arrival I was diving a shipwreck on the bottom of Lake Erie with old friends. Familiar and comfortable, it feels like I never left, even though it’s been 15 years.
I keep running into familiar faces at restaurants, wineries or even in the most Canadian of Canadian places – Canadian Tire. Sometimes I know who they are instantly, other times I don’t come up with a name until much later, recognition clouded by the intervening years.
In many ways, Calgary and Windsor/Essex couldn’t be more different. Calgary finds the oil that runs the cars and vans that Windsor builds.
Calgary: A martini town that makes beer. Windsor/Essex: A beer place that makes wine and whiskey.
Windsor: The Big Three rules. Calgary: Big trucks rule.
Calgary: Business tycoons are cultural heroes. Windsor: A good job is steady and preferably with a union card.
Alberta: Grain and beef. Essex County: A both plus corn and beans, fruits and vegetables, tomatoes, cucumbers and flowers under glass and the much-diminished fishery that pulls tasty perch from the green depths of Lake Erie.
Essex County: Pancake flat but surrounded by water. Calgary: Flat with rolling hills and magnificent mountains to the west.
The last leg of our cross-country tango followed the route I drove a lifetime ago when I moved to Windsor from Saskatchewan. I drove a less-than-reliable compact who’s starter died in Kenora. I found a replacement in Thunder Bay and donned my coveralls to replace it in the parking lot of a grocery store. This time a more reliable vehicle, but still the rugged scenery of the seemingly-endless Northern Shield.
Then I was apprehensive. A new job in a strange city where I knew no one. A move away from ‘home’.
That move worked out just fine and I know this one will too.
“What was I thinking?”
“Who is this?”
“Why did I waste film on this picture?”
I keep asking myself these questions as I continue the arduous task of going through, winnowing down and throwing out hundreds and hundreds of slides that I’ve shot over my 35 year career.
These aren’t the pictures I’ve shot for the newspapers. These are the freelance assignments for magazines and books, personal pictures from long ago vacations and pictures of people I was once close to, places and things I thought might have some commercial value as stock images and things I found visually interesting.
Lovingly captioned and archived in binders, they’ve been ignored for more than two decades.
Looking at them brings back good memories of family visits, exciting adventures and beautiful sunsets. Kodachrome won’t fade for 10,000 years, but our lives change and shift and memories fade.
Film was expensive, but it was worth it. I learned about light and exposure, technique and composition from every frame. And that helped me hone my skills and grow as a photographer.
We’re just back from a five-week trip to Europe where I shot over 3500 digital frames. That’s nearly 100 rolls of slide film, which would take up over a foot of shelf space to store. Those pictures fit on a handful of SC and CF cards and seem to take up nearly no space on my hard drive.
I tried to avoid joining the throngs of tourists shooting buildings and landmarks, instead trying to find photographs of real people doing real things. That was challenging in busy cities like Prague and Budapest where tourists were everywhere, pointing compact cameras, cell phones and even tablets at St. Stephen’s mummified arm, the Szechenyi Baths or Prague Castle.
We all need these vacation pictures to validate our experiences and to help remember the places we visited and the people we travelled with. But what will become of these digital treasures in five or ten years? Since most people don’t backup or print their digital images, will those memories be lost to a stolen cell phone or a crashed hard drive.
Or, will these digital images face the same fate that my beloved Kodachrome slides are now facing?
On Remembrance Day, the day we commemorate the end of the First World War 96 years ago, we wear poppies and attend solemn ceremonies. Ageing veterans, medals shining, march stiff-legged in the early winter cold. The last post. Two minutes of silence to remember those who didn’t come home.
I recently travelled through north-eastern France and western Belgium visiting some of the battlefields, monuments and cemeteries of the Great War.
Essex Farm Cemetery just north of Ypres, Belgium is where Dr. John McCrae penned his iconic poem “In Flanders Fields”. The concrete bunkers where he tended the wounded emote a palpable sadness. A few metres away lies the grave of the youngest soldier to die in the war, a 15-year-old. I shed tears for him, mourning for the future he didn’t have.
And that is the overwhelming feeling I’m left with after a six-day visit. So many young men and women who didn’t have a future, who were denied love, family and the joys of living. And all of us have been denied their creativity, their energy, their joy, their goodness. We can’t know what they would have become, what they could have achieved, how they might have changed the world.
That is the shame of that long-ago, senseless war, and of all wars.
The assignment was simple. Drive south of Longview to photograph a group of ranchers protesting oil and gas exploration on some of the last fescue grassland in the foothills. Their beef with big oil? That trucks and backhoes and bulldozers bring invader species – weeds – to this special ecosystem that could destroy the viability of the land that has supported ungulates since the last ice age.
It was the most visual press conference I’d ever photographed. Canadian singer-songwriter Ian Tyson led a group of mounted ranchers on a short ride through snow-covered pasture with the Rockies in the background. The picture was played huge on the front page of the Calgary Herald the next day.
The oil company that wanted to explore the area later withdrew its application.
That assignment and the iconic “Ian and the Cowboys” picture has changed me like none other.
A few days later I came across Tyson’s Cowboyography CD in a Bragg Creek shop. I played it scores of times. It became my go-to drive home music, soothing my jangled nerves on stressful days. One night over supper I described how Ian’s music, created pictures with his words. My wife Lee Ann suggested I photograph those pictures.
An idea was hatched. Ian’s song Springtime describes the end of winter in the foothills of Alberta. I started to photograph the scenes he sang about and also contacted him to get his permission and co-operation.
He agreed after seeing some of my pictures and I headed out to his ranch to photograph him. We hit it off well and he was pleased when my pictures and the lyrics and pictures were published in the Sunday Herald as a two-page spread.
I photographed him a couple more times over the next few years and I came to see the creative drive that still burns within him. He turns 81 this month and is still writing and performing and is passionate about his art and his craft.
Through him I came to see the creativity in me. For too many years I thought of myself as a journalist who used artistic techniques to tell stories. Ian helped unlock that creative awareness, and for that I’ll forever be thankful.
So why all these words about a picture I made 12 years ago.
Calgary Herald reporter Tamara Gignac and her family need our help. She’s just 40, but is battling cancer. She’s the mother of two young children and Tamara and her husband Heath McCoy can use financial support for child care when she’s in hospital and for a special vacation. You can read more about Tamara’s story at http://bit.ly/1xU9qLE
A Meet the Press fundraiser is scheduled for Sept.16 and Ian has signed a print of the above picture. I’ve had it framed and it will be one of the silent auction items. It is the only copy of that print that Ian has ever signed making it a unique item. If you can’t make it please consider making a donation.
The US border guards were nice, friendly, even welcoming. Seattle bustling with the Hemp Festival, tattoos and dreadlocks celebrating the new marijuana law. Traffic lined up for blocks for the ferry to Vashon Island. A short ride across Puget Sound to the island hangout of old hippies, democrats and organic farmers.
Business with a difference. A clothing shop owner who dishes out empowerment slogans with her funky, handmade threads, “The President of Me”. The farmer’s market, complete with greenies raising awareness of the plight of the bees and bored teens sipping organic fruit juice. An old man fixes his truck on main street. Supper in what was an old hardware store.
A salmon supper, then singing folk songs with a new friend playing an old guitar. A Dylan lament the first number. Relaxed, gentle, easy.
But still America. An antique and sports car show on a dusty gas station parking lot attracted hundreds. The stars and stripes flies from front yards and docks. Patriotism, but not the patriotism of the blue states in the middle.
A ferry ride back to Victoria for a drink at The Empress’s Bengal Lounge. Comfy leather couches, impeccable service in contrast with a suburban mall where a huckster sells running shoes. More dinners with old friends. Lazy all-morning breakfasts.
On Salt Spring Island welcomed by the first rain in months. The island votes green, but the grass is all brown. A foggy morning. Ships sound their horns, kayakers wait for the fog to lift. Gulls wheel overhead. Relaxed, gentle, easy.
I actually had to dig out my unworn souvenir t-shirt to find the exact date, because I couldn’t find my copy of The Book.
Thirty years ago, June 8, 1984 to be exact, I was one of the “100 of the world’s best photographers” shooting on the Day in the Life of Canada book project.
Pretty heady stuff for a 26-year-old.
The whole thing was a bit intimidating. Famous photojournalists were everywhere. Photojournalists who’s work graced the pages of Time and Newsweek, Life and National Geographic hung out at the bar, chatted in the lobby and shook your hand in the hotel check-in line.
The cool and calm conflict photographer James Nachtwey was on my flight to Vancouver. My room mate was Roger Ressmeyer, who did several stories for National Geographic. His fun portrait of two children, one dressed for her first communion was later chosen as the cover.
We Canadians, mostly young newspaper and wire service shooters hung together at the Toronto social events and quietly wondered if we had “it” to compete against the big guns.
I spent my day in Vanderhoof, BC a sawmill town west of Prince George and Fort Saint James, a smaller town about an hour north. I started my day at dawn shooting the sawdust burner at the local saw mill, then heading out to a nearby dairy farm for morning milking. Later my local guide and I headed north, visited a reserve and then ended up back in Vanderhoof in a bar.
And then the wait. Several weeks passed without knowing if I would be published in the book. Then a call from an editor asking for more cutline information and I knew the picture shown above would be in the book. Whew!
The editors selected another picture, a portrait of a local fellow taken in the bar, for inclusion in the travelling print show.
A year later I saw that show in Winnipeg. My sawdust burner picture was printed huge – perhaps 40-inches tall – one of the largest on display.
The project was good for my ego and my career. It opened doors for me, got my name around and led to a couple of other book projects, some magazine work and representation by an up and coming stock photo agency.
A couple of days after I initially wrote this post I found my copy of The Book, tucked away in our basement storage room. It was great to flip through it again.