All photographs © Grant Black
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.
Passengers reflected in the window of the Chi-Cheemaun ferry on Lake Huron
Four provinces, 65 days, 10,800 kilometers driven.
One metal roof installed, one garden tilled, one shipwreck discovered and explored.
Twenty different beds.
One fundraising gala, one 25th anniversary celebration, one hospital research building opening, one ferry trip, one cottage on Lake Erie.
Scores of dinners, lunches and breakfasts with old friends and former colleagues.
(Don’t ask about my weight gain).
Five pleasant weeks in Windsor/Essex. Two weeks driving there and two weeks driving home.
Some observations from the road:
All in all, what a great country to explore.
The familiar melody of The Eagles’ Hotel California blasted through the open window of a Canada Post delivery van, stopped beside me at a red light in Windsor.
“You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave.”
Thirteen years ago I checked out of Windsor but it feels like I’ve never left.
This down-but-not-out city on the banks of the Detroit River has changed. The once mighty auto industry is a shadow of its former self. The economy is slowly evolving from manufacturing to a more diversified knowledge and service based economy. In adjacent Essex County, the wine industry is booming. Retirees from Toronto are fleeing high housing costs for the laid-back lakeside towns of Leamington and Kingsville.
But what has not changed here are the friends. Good friends. Solid friends. Friends who treat you like you’ve just been on a long holiday out west, away from your real home. In five weeks here I’ve shared breakfast, lunch and dinner with scores of old friends. We’d need another month to visit with everybody. The highlight for me was a couple of days out on Lake Erie with old dive buddies searching for shipwrecks and diving on a recently discovered one.
Everywhere I go I see things that remind me of stories I covered, pictures I made, people I photographed. Walking along the Detroit River near the Ambassador Bridge I remember Bart Tucker, the electrical contractor who took me to the top of the bridge to photograph his crew installing decorative lights. On the other side of the River I see the U.S. Postal Service mail boat. I spent a chilly fall day on the tiny boat delivering mail and supplies to passing freighters. An accident here, a fire there, I’ve taken a picture on every street corner it seems.
Now heading back home, driving north and west, crossing this great country, that familiar guitar lead comes to mind and then the lyrics; “On a dark desert highway …”