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Nineteen Seventy-Four

If the success of an image can be gauged by how many comments it receives, then this one ranks very high among the photographs I have taken. It sat on the wall of our living room in a small grouping of black and white photos, for about 10 years. During that time, a great many (mostly female) visitors to our home noticed it and asked “Who is that?”

I have long forgotten the name of the subject, but he was one of a duo who approached me in Stanley Park, Vancouver, when they saw me taking pictures. They were forming a rock band, they said, and needed some promotional shots. One was wild and energetic, with long hair, bushy beard, and sporting a skin-tight buckskin suit that he’d personally designed and hand sewed. The other (pictured) was handsome, well-groomed, sophisticated and charismatic in a different manner to his partner.

I don’t know if these two ever got their group off the ground, but 1974 was a good, perhaps great year in music. Joni Mitchell released Court and Spark, which revealed her growing interest in new sounds – particularly jazz. Co-incidentally, I was just beginning to gain an appreciation for jazz through live performances at a local Vancouver club. In a different genre, Al Stewart’s Past, Present and Future (one of my all-time favourite albums) reached North America. The lyrics to Stewart’s haunting tune Roads to Moscow echoed, at least in part, what I was reading at the time – The Gulag Archipelago by Soviet dissident and author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

In a local bookstore, photographer Ralph Gibson’s Days at Sea almost leaped off the shelf at me. I was 20 years old, just getting seriously interested in photography, and studying the masters. And here was something very different – a book of grainy, high-contrast images often showing people with part of their heads or faces cut out of the frame. Yet, it was all purposeful and very effective. I drank it in and pondered.

Back to the photo. Technically, it’s quite terrible. I always liked the composition, but photographers will point out that the focus is actually on the subject’s forward shoulder and not on his eye, where it (traditionally) should be. It was a dynamic portrait session; he was moving, I was moving, manual focus, low light, shallow depth of field… And who takes portraits using a single bulb in a shiny reflector captured on pushed Tri-X? Yet, to all those who commented on the picture over the years, none of this seems to have mattered. The subject was interesting, perhaps even mysterious or alluring. No one ever asked me about the technical details of the picture.

These days, it’s easy to get caught up viewing images at full-size on screen and quickly binning those that don’t make the grade for some technical issue or other. I’ve learned, however, not to throw much away. Occasionally (very occasionally) I’ll see something of value in an image days, weeks, or even years afterwards.

A few other portraits from that year follow…


  1. John I really like this picture as well, I could say in spite of the ‘flaws’ but the truth is I don’t see flaws. The framing, the pose, the composition all add up to a very dreamy like capture of a young man. The fact that the eye is not 100% in focus, for me, adds to the wispiness of the image. The only down side of this images is that it reminds me of how much we have lost in going digital. Seems we have traded the magic of of Tri-X, the evocative of emotion for, the joy of imperfection to the gods of pixels and perfection? If so, it was a bad deal.

    John, well done on this image!

    • admin admin

      Thanks, Grant. I know someone who has a wonderful Nikon F for sale, but I don’t think I could bite! 🙂 Digital has certainly changed the game of photography, giving me more creative control than I ever had before. At the same time, the technology has pushed itself to the forefront for many photographers. Too often the ideas behind an image are subsumed by discussions about sharpness or dynamic range or bokeh. It’s what every camera equipment company pushes in their advertising.

      The push back is that a number of fine art photographers are not just returning to film, but exploring alternative processes. However, some seem to be relying on the ‘arcane’ technology to imbue their images with merit.

      At the local photo club I’ve given talks about technology, including discussions about sharpening and dynamic range. But I’ve tried hard to balance that with talks about ‘inspiration and influence’ (e.g. what looking at Wynn Bullock or Eugene Smith’s images has taught me), and to show a variety of images from both past and present masters. That second part is important, I think.

  2. Keep calm and carry on shooting interesting photos! I like your background story!

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