(Originally published in Sitelines magazine   August 2014)
"The surreal haze of jet lag tinged the landscape of northern France as I drove from Paris to Arras. It was autumn, mid-afternoon and there was limited time to get to the site and prepare for the work slated for the morning. A palpable panic started to rise as a wave of fatigue rolled over me and I was forced to pull off the road."
A professional photographer walks a fine line, balancing a dizzying array of variables that come to bear on the final images that are delivered to the client. For us the physical world is a mixed blessing – a feast of visual delights and curiosities, and an assorted tangle of irritants ranging from unfortunately placed power lines, stubborn authorities, imperfect weather, slow moving tourists, construction crews, garbage, and an astonishing proliferation of bad judgment and poor taste woven into our built environment. Out of this amalgam we are charged with the task of producing images that serve a variety of purposes, and that communicate in the desired manner to an audience with a wide range of interests and tastes. As well, these images need to compete for a viewer’s attention amid the sea of visual stimulus that has become our world.​​​​​​​
"I was jarred awake and had to organize my thoughts as I rolled down the car window.  There was a sense of relief realizing that it was still daylight and I would likely make it to the site in time to do what I needed.  But I would first have to negotiate with the police who were making such a racket on the roof of my car."
“f8 and be there” was the phrase my friend Pat Morrow used to sign off his postcards (f8 is an average size aperture setting on a camera lens).  Pat is a mountaineer and photographer who has spent his life travelling the world and photographing for books and magazines.  He was the first person to reach the highest summit on every continent.  His tagline referred to the notion that to produce a memorable image one simply needed to get to a remarkable location and have a camera of some sort on hand to get the image.  This is of course a simplification, he is a talented photographer, but in general it served him well.  For most of us and our day to day assignments, the remarkable location variable rarely comes into play.  We are very fortunate when, if ever, it happens.
"Back on the road, I estimated that I would have an hour at best to find the site and then as quickly as possible figure out how to approach photographing it.  I had notes from the client as to important features and view lines, a map of the site and a general sense of the topography.  What I needed to do when I arrived was to determine where the important views were, what time of day would be optimal to shoot them, what intrusions into the scenes to anticipate, and what types of images to try to get from each.  I would make a shot list with notes to organize how I would do it.  As I drove I recalled that the site is 250 acres."
When I was commissioned by Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg (now PFS Studio, Vancouver) to photograph the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France I had a sense that it would be an interesting assignment.  They had recently participated in the restoration of the Vimy Monument and grounds.  The site commemorates the Canadian soldiers killed or presumed dead in the First World War in France who have no known grave.  The Battle of Vimy Ridge is widely held to be a milestone in Canada’s history and sense of nationhood.  What I couldn’t know was what a truly remarkable site and landscape it is.
"The light was already fading when I pulled into a parking area at the site.  I felt a need to rush, to run about and see as much as I could to get a sense what I had to do the next day.  I knew that the actual monument was the centrepiece of the site and would be the focus of my work, so I charged in that direction.  I also knew that much of what PFS dealt with was the landscape surrounding the monument and the details of that landscaping.  I was thinking mechanically about the shot list: wide, medium and tight shots, direction of light in the morning and evening, where would (could?) I find the one shot that captured the essence of the site, where were all the view lines and elements that Greg (Smallenberg) listed for me in their office in Vancouver."
Every site that I photograph on assignment has challenges that have to be met.  Some are so visually appealing that they almost photograph themselves, and some are so difficult that they are virtually un-photographable.  In almost every instance I take a similar approach to the task – working through the site from a set of standard angles and points of view, recording a mix of wide reference shots and details, looking for images that characterize the project, etc.  In this way the important images are usually covered off.  This site would present a different type of challenge – its sheer significance.
"I spotted the monument in the distance with the rapidly fading sunlight washing it.  The sight forced me to stop.  I had to pause and then continue the long walk toward the monument slowly.  There was an immediate and overwhelming sense of approaching a sacred site – a landscape imbued with significance and history and importance.  I reacted to it almost as a pilgrim, and felt torn between my emotional and professional responses.  As I drew closer to the monument, it’s size becoming apparent, I found myself almost overwhelmed by its solemn beauty.  I wandered until it was dark, finding my bearings and getting acquainted with the site.  In the pitch black I worked my way back to the car and drove to Arras to find a meal and a hotel."
A complication that I was immediately forced to grapple with was that, in addition to commercial architectural photography, I also do black and white work as a purely creative endeavour.  These two enterprises are very separate as they require different ways of seeing, different approaches and techniques, and very different frames of mind.  The expectations of the viewers are also very different.  I feel like different people when I am doing the two kinds of work.  At Vimy I needed to document the site and ensure that the images contained the required information.  Without having the client there I had to imagine how they would want it presented and try to capture the views and details that we had discussed.  In addition, I had to bring my own visual sense to the project to see ‘through the lens’, as imagery goes through alterations when filtered through a camera.  But here, in this place, I knew that I would want to, and probably have to, address the impulse to engage with the artistic aesthetic while photographing.
"I arrived back at the Vimy site early in the morning, well before dawn.  Jet lag, lack of sleep and a strong sense of anticipation drew me to arrive well before what we call ‘the magic hour’, the first light of day.  I wanted to be in a certain spot – the same one that I had my first glimpse of the monument – when the morning light appeared.  It was cold and dark, and I waited.  As I stood there trying to make out any shapes that I could on the horizon to orient myself, I suddenly became conscious of the stillness and loneliness that the soldiers must have felt a hundredfold as they waited for their tasks to begin a century ago.  The sky was clear and when the light arrived I began to work.  I went back to wandering and seeing and experiencing the place, and photographing.  I felt privileged to be there, and proud to be Canadian, and also proud to be connected in a small way to the history and spirit of the place and the monument."
And so at Vimy I photographed the site and the landscape as a commercial photographer and also as an artist.  I didn’t feel I could do anything else, and hoped that PFS would find the images useful to their enterprise.  I also hoped that I would come away with some personal work that had meaning in some different ways.  Meaning in art is elusive and probably rare.  It is also up to the viewer to find.  I don’t try to define it or impose it artificially.  What I endeavour to do is to see somewhat differently than others might and to present that, to make the effort to explore visually and discover and capture in my own style.  I come from a traditional, craft-based background and sometimes feel lost and confused in the current proliferation of images and styles of photography.  But photography is much more that just pointing a camera.  It is immersive, and to do well, hard work.  Occasionally it can be supremely joyful and rewarding beyond words.
Photographing Vimy was one of those rare occasions for me.​​​​​​​
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