All photographs © Grant Black
“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.
After an 18-month sabbatical, I’m back in the assignment photo business as a freelancer.
Interestingly, my first assignment came from Apple magazine, the healthy lifestyle publication of Alberta Health Services. The story centred around a young woman with cystic fibrosis who had been the recipient of a double lung transplant some time ago in Edmonton, AB.
What made this story even more poignant for me, was that my cousin’s daughter Kristi was in Edmonton that same week preparing for her own double-lung transplant for the same disease. That coincidence certainly gave us lots to talk about during the photo shoot.
It’s a joy to be back, meeting and photographing fascinating people, giving workshops and preparing for more adventures that are so unique to photography.
See you on the street!
The heavy police presence counteracting threats of terrorism that are a part of the Sochi Olympic Torch Relay are lightyears away from the laid-back, joyful experience I had 24 years ago.
I’m not even sure there was any security – beside traffic and crowd control – for the 1988 relay. I spent two days covering the event in Southern Ontario for the Windsor Star and then joined the photo crew for Share the Flame, The Official Book of the 1988 Olympic Torch Relay on New Year’s Day, for a 12-day adventure that ended in Thunder Bay.
What a ride it was. Windsor, Chatham, London, Kitchener, Barrie, then north through Huntsville to Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie then west over Lake Superior to The Lakehead. I worked with magazine photographer Greg Stott of Toronto, alternating between coverage of the relay, often from the photo deck on the back of a camper truck and behind-the-scenes portraits of torch bearers.
I remember driving north out of The Sault in a blizzard and enduring the bitter cold in Thunder Bay. The days were short, the sun clung to the southern horizon. The light was beautiful, giving pictures that golden blue tonality. I had the time of my life.
I photographed many fascinating people in interesting locations: A torch bearer posed in the nickel smelter facility in Sudbury, a First Nations teenager wearing moose-hide mitts his mother had made, the grieving brother of a young torchbearer who drowned before he could carry the torch, and a Thunder Bay physician (at the Terry Fox memorial just east of the city) who had lost his wife to cancer.
But mostly I photographed scores of jubilant torch bearers wearing bright red uniforms. They were universally happy to carry the torch and take part in this historic event. The procession stopped several times a day for a brief ceremony. I found these hard to photograph through my tears. Oh Canada got me every time.
I hope that sanity will prevail and keep the torchbearers safe so that they can enjoy the experience as much as I and the 1988 torchbearers did.
Although many would claim it to be the most boring drive imaginable, we always see something interesting in our long drives across the flat lands of Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Recently we saw a huge herd of Pronghorn Antelope – perhaps 200 or more– slowly walking across a pasture near Maple Creek, Saskatchewan. We usually see smaller groups of these rugged animals, who prefer the wide-open spaces of the short-grass prairie. On the return leg of the same trip we saw a smaller herd of Pronghorns and a herd of about 200 elk near Medicine Hat, Alberta.
On a trip several years ago we saw a mother Pronghorn and her baby chasing a coyote – and the coyote looked scared. On other trips we’ve seen moose, deer, hawks, owls and vast flocks of shore birds.
The Palliser Triangle, a large area of prairie in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan was named after John Palliser, who led a survey of Western Canada, starting in 1857. His work took 12 years. He felt the dry, treeless land would not support agriculture.
How wrong he was. Hundreds of farmers grow wheat on hundreds of thousands of acres. Ranchers raise thousands of head of cattle. This area is so vast and the land is so productive that it always feels to me that it should be able to feed the world.
But it is a harsh place, too. We drove through -36 C (without windchill) near Duff, Saskatchewan then watched the mercury rise to -4 C near Saskatchewan’s border with Alberta. On a trip last summer, the temperature reached 37 C in Swift Current.
I never met him. Never shook his hand or got close enough to feel the glow of his radiant smile.
But I did photograph Nelson Mandela. Shortly after his release from prison Mandela came to Detroit. Adoring supporters filled the old Tiger Stadium on a cold fall night. The stage was in centre field, the still photographers confined to the photo hanger along the third base line.
Needless to say, even with a 500 mm lens the pictures weren’t memorable. They were barely publishable. They’re now hidden away in the dusty archives of the Windsor Star.
But why did Mandela choose to visit Detroit?
One reason – The Detroit Free Press.
Several years earlier, the venerable daily had assigned a reporter and photographer, David Turnley to cover the anti-apartheid turmoil in South Africa. Turnley, a Pulitzer winner, made memorable pictures of the revolution in that far-away land. You can read his post about photographing Mandela’s release from prison at http://lightbox.time.com/2013/12/05/a-tribute-to-nelson-mandela-by-pulitzer-winner-david-turnley/#1
He wasn’t there for just a few days or weeks. He moved there, covering the conflict in great depth and becoming close to key players. That allowed him to make unique behind-the-scenes pictures like his picture of Archbishop Desmond Tutu reading the morning papers with a cup of tea in bed.
Now that’s access.
I photographed Archbishop Tutu as well. He spoke at Cobo Auditorium in Detroit, raising money for the anti-apartheid cause. The photographers were kept well back, but I was lucky enough to once again be in the presence of a great leader and make photographs of him.
As children we all played. Some of us with footballs and hockey sticks, others with Barbies and Easy Bake ovens. Hot Wheels and GI Joe have given way to X-Box and Wii, but children still play.
As adults some of us still play. Perhaps a weekly game of hockey, recreational slow pitch or a trip to the mountains for a ski or a hike. Or, more commonly, we play at watching spectator sports on a big-screen TV.
But we usually don’t put “play” and “photography” in the same thought.
But we should.
Play is an essential part of creativity.
On a recent trip in Northern Ontario I wasn’t happy with my photographs of autumn leaves. They were to sharp, too literal, too, well, ordinary. So, on a short hike with family members, perhaps inspired by my great nieces and their cousin skipping stones on Lake Superior, I had a moment of playful inspiration.
Choosing a slow shutter speed I moved the camera up and down, turning the static scene into a fluid image of birch tree trunks and yellow leaves contrasting with the green of a spruce tree.
I was just playing, just trying to see what I could make, just having fun with photography.