All photographs © Grant Black
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.
The sky was a dark leaden grey Monday and it rained heavily Tuesday night. There is more rain ahead with heaviest amounts forecast for the Oldman River basin south of here.
Southern Alberta is holding it’s collective breath. People are nervous, with memories of the massive destruction of June 2013 still raw.
Friday Swerve magazine published one of my post-flood pictures (above) last week. Here are some of the others I made in the last couple of months. These pictures show the damage the flood did to some of our cherished natural areas – the Bow and Elbow river valleys – and the power moving water has over both natural places and man-made things.
“April meant still not quite spring in Edinburgh. A few sunny days to be sure, buds getting twitchy,
wondering if winter had been paid the ransom.”
“Death is Not The End” by Ian Rankin
Had Rankin’s fictional detective John Rebus collared bad guys in Calgary, the prolific Scots writer would have had to change April to May to fit recent weather on this patch.
Only two days after seeing a hint, just a hint of green in the poplar trees on the south side of Fish Creek Provincial Park, residents of this corner of the southern prairies got hit with a spring snow storm. It melted (generally) when it hit the pavement, but the trees and lawns, the decks and roofs got a good 20 cm.
Spring always seems to come slowly here. April boasts warm sunny blue-sky days. Summer shorts and shirts are retrieved from the back of the closet, bike tires are filed and winter kit is put away until the fall (hopefully). Then suddenly summer dreams are turned into winter nightmares.
Well, it isn’t really that bad. It wasn’t mid-winter cold and I know (OK, hope) spring is lurking around the corner.
A half-hour walk around our neighbourhood and through Fish Creek gave me a handful of nice pictures. I hope you enjoy them.
I recently had the opportunity to go cat skiing with Canadian Olympians and Para-Olympians, thanks to Chris Welner, editor of Impact Magazine, and jumped at the opportunity even though this would be my first attempt at such an endeavour. What could be more fun than hanging out with cool people, making some turns in deep powder and taking a few photos under a blue-bird sky?
After an early morning and a long drive, the group met in the day lodge at Castle Mountain near Pincher Creek. Coffee and muffins, introductions, the safety briefing, instructions on the use of the avalanche beacon, bag lunch in the backpack and we were off.
The Powder Stagecoach cat skiing operation uses Castle’s Huckleberry chairlift to get us part-way up the mountain The snow cat then crawls up Giddy-Up Trail taking us to chutes and bowls that run off Haig Ridge. Up top we practice finding a buried avalanche beacon and then we’re off.
Into the fog we ski following our guide Darrel Lewko and photographer Jan Schoelzel. I make a few turns behind them, conscious that I’m struggling in the deep powder and feel uncomfortable with borrowed fat skis. But I make it down the first couple of pitches without pitching over and join Jan to make some pictures of the other skiers.
With a 20 mm lens mounted on my camera I wait for the first skiers to come out of the fog. This isn’t just a bit of fog. I doubt I’d see Sam Spade if he stepped out from behind a tree. I can only just see the trees 25 metres away.
Then Graham Nishikawa, guide for visually impaired Nordic skier Brian McKeever, cuts across in front of me and makes a tight left turn only a couple of metres from me. McKeever, fresh off his multiple-gold-medal performance in Sochi is right behind him riding telemark skis. They keep coming – cross country skiers Brady Lehman and Ivan Babikov, ski cross racers Louis-Pierre Helie and Brady Lehman, McKeever’s brother Robin, and Para-Olympians Michelle Salt and Alexandra Starker. And I’m shooting with the widest lens in my bag!
The group stays close together, following guide Lewko’s shouts and the barely visible tracks from other skiers in our group. The next couple of pitches are sweet and I begin to get my powder legs. The Olympians are having a great time, skiing fast, whooping and hollering. Finding joy in movement and the snow.
Then the snow turns a bit crusty, the terrain gets steeper and the trees are just a bit closer together. Not wishing to interact with a dangerous tree well, I slow down. After stopping to catch my breath a couple of times I reach the cat track at the bottom of the run, turn left and head down to the bottom of the Huckleberry chair, exhausted and elated.
Funny, the 20-and-30-something Olympians seem to have more energy than I do. Duh?
As we wait for the snow cat, Lewko’s certified avalanche rescue dog Huck and his young trainee dog Anfo play in the snow. The cat was hauling the other group of Olympians and media up the hill so we had a short break. Thank God.
I feel more comfortable on the next run, but fall a couple of time near the bottom. Damned those trees and narrow chutes.
On the third run the fog has lifted a bit and I decide to forget about pictures and just enjoy the run. Nice idea, but my legs refuse to cooperate, my balance is all wonky and I have no energy. I fall several times, the soft powder making the falls painless, but making getting back on my feet awkward. Our other guide Tom Ross stays with me, patiently encouraging me. Getting to the bottom is a relief.
I decide to call it a day.
But I did it and enjoyed it. I got to meet and photograph some terrific people and have another wonderful adventure.