In the beginning …
It’s said that every picture tells a story, but there’s sometimes a hidden tale behind the image. I’ve decided to begin a series of posts that reveal some of the unseen details behind my photographs.
Before you read further, look at the picture above. What story have you created around it; what does it say to you?
I have an interest in both words and pictures (even as I admit they’re a poor counterfeit for immediate experience). Little wonder I spent a period of my life working in advertising and that my closest friends have often been graphic designers … or psychologists.
For better or worse, I’m going to tell the story that led to the making of “The Bible Society,” and the life it took on afterwards.
The decisive moment
I decided that morning, in 1981, I was going to become invisible. I’d read about Henri Cartier Bresson’s “decisive moment” and mastered at least the first part of the “f8 and be there” creed. I would remain alert, while blending into the crowd.
With a roll of Panatomic-X — one of the finest B&W films Kodak ever produced — in my trusty Nikon FM, I wandered over to my friend Bryan Beard’s house. After the usual pot of tea, we jumped on a bus and spent the long ride from White Rock to Vancouver reviewing our recent climbing experiences.
The contact sheet reveals just 10 images shot that day. We walked on Granville Street, where I exposed a few frames, including shots of a busking jazz trio, then we moved on to Chinatown, where I recorded fish merchants at work and an apothecary, who wasn’t too happy to have me poking my camera in his door.
Between these two locales, there is a single frame — the seventh exposure — taken at the intersection of Dunsmuir and Richards Streets.
Bryan and I were chatting as we waited for the walk signal and, when I looked forward, there was the moment. I didn’t raise the camera; I simply used the measurements on the focus ring to quickly focus and snapped the shutter, assuming the exposure would be similar to the last. A shot from the hip. Remember when one had to make all those decisions and execute them manually? Now it’s all ‘program’ and be there.
Ten years later, I entered the image in the juried show “Vancouver’s Vancouver” (Aug. 15-Sept. 15 1992), organized by Urban Photographic Projects. These shows (I’d seen an earlier project in Toronto) were distributed through the streets of the featured city, with shops hosting images in their windows, turning parts of the downtown into an open air gallery.
The Bible Society, paired with another one of my photos — featuring a younger though no less hirsute chap, emerging from the crest of a blooming cherry tree — was hosted in a women’s fashion shop on trendy Robson Street. The next part of the tale was relayed to me by the shop owner.
A group of women had congregated in front of the store window, enjoying the images, when one of them glanced to the side.
“It’s him!” she cried out, pointing to a man strolling up the street. The chap was understandably startled. Had he been mistaken for a thief? He stopped in his tracks.
“No, it’s you, here in this picture,” the woman explained.
A few days later, the proprietor of the shop handed me a business card: “Robert Easton, the Henry Higgins of Hollywood.” I phoned him a short time later. Easton, it turned out, is a dialect coach to the stars. His promotions list every actor under the sun as clients.
On that day in 1981, he recalled, he was in Vancouver working on a film and had just been down Richards Street, visiting his favourite antiquarian bookstore. He did not recall me or my camera. Another movie brought him back during the summer of 1992. Serendipity led him to Robson Street, and the strange welcome that awaited him.
Did I read? Voraciously.
Who was my favourite author? Hmm, that’s tough, but I’d have to say Aldous Huxley.
Turns out Easton knew Huxley well. The British novelist and philosopher spent his final years in California, working as a scriptwriter. Easton has also logged plenty of time in front of the camera, on television and in feature films. We talked at length about politics, culture, and the arts. I sent him one of the large show posters featuring the image.
I was awarded second prize by the jury (for another photograph, shot from the top of Vancouver’s Pacific National Exhibition roller-coaster trestle) but The Bible Society, as no other photograph I’ve made, was spontaneous in its original execution and ultimately surprising in the story it would create for itself.
Now that you know these background details, has the meaning you attached to it been devalued or have these words enriched the visual story? Would you rather I’d left you with your own interpretation? Let me know in comments.