This project started with a simple idea: a retrospective of the last 30 years of my work. Retrospective might be too strong a word. It suggests a body of succinct periods and completed bodies of work, celebrated and exhibited before. It is in fact more a ‘retro spect’, looking back over half-hearted starts and open-ended projects not fully realized.
The title I had in mind for an exhibition along these lines was “Beautiful Loser”, a kind of working title that summed up a failed, yet gifted, talent. Well, be careful what you wish for. We were ready to exhibit, the invitations printed, a date set, the frames purchased, the editing and curating nearly completed when all manner of misfortune ensued. Brandon, my assistant and creative partner, fell off his bike, seriously injuring himself and I was fighting for my academic life trying to pass my third year of technical training as an electrician. We missed our deadline, of course, but the idea persisted and grew.
The creative output of my life has always been an adjunct to other things. It stems from the rare moments when I am able to unfetter myself from the demands of a normal life and try, or so I think, do something extraordinary. As an amateur you are always looking for that flash of inspiration, that evidence that you really do have it, you are not just kidding yourself; but it is in the end just the work that produces the insight. It is the persistent and dogged attempt to follow your dream that produces the results. It is the work. That is what remains.
While I was at BCIT over March and April, Brandon curated this exhibition loosely grouped around four themes that were inspired by my work: Marks of a Madman, Parts Found in Sea, The Writing on the Wall, and lastly, Boring Photographs. A fifth unexpected theme emerged from the process, Family Portraits.
It is an interesting place to start because I shy away from portraiture. It is too invasive, too complicated and too revealing of one’s latent talent. That said, my earliest memory of picking up a camera, around the age of 11, was to document my neighbours and my friends at school. Amazingly, I still have that camera, a Sear’s Instamatic that used black plastic Kodak colour film cassettes. I developed a deep love affair of the darkroom and my best friend in high school insisted I join the camera club, so by the time I hit puberty I was hooked. I had been caught in the act of committing photography and I liked it. My Dad was so impressed with my output he bought me a complete Nikon outfit with a set of lenses and a canvas camera bag. My career took off from my 14th birthday.
Let it be said that the impulse to be an artist was a blessing and a career I never quite mastered. After a half-hearted stab at an artistic career at Emily Carr College of Art, I went on to study, literature, sociology and philosophy at the University of Toronto – experiences that broadened my horizons but muddied my desire to create. My photo of a suitcase turned up on its end sums up for me this strange intertwining of the written word and photography. It is from the series that I printed at the University of Toronto darkrooms in Hart House.
The Parts Found in Sea theme is a direct product of this period, and culminated in my first and only complete exhibition – my first mature body of work. The progress of the work was simple. I’d moved from the 35mm horizontal compositions of my youth to composing entire photographs in frame from a square Rolleiflex medium format camera. I wandered the streets of Toronto looking for subject matter with my cumbersome camera and a heavy second-hand tripod.
My great source of inspiration was the street. Signs, images and advertising posters proved for me a kind of talisman, a harbinger for the next 25 years of trying to sort out what I was looking for in the meaning of this impulse that I had to photograph. A poster for a Toronto band in the 80’s sums up what I was doing: Parts Found in Sea. I was drawn again and again to posters, images and advertising that covered the streets and shop windows. This is not to say that I was averse to taking pictures of a general scene but I was first and foremost interested in composition. If there is one artist I can relate to it would be Piet Mondrian. I am highly attuned to geometric patterns, edges and grids. In shopfront windows and architecture I found these everywhere.
I moved to London in 1992, and worked as a photographer’s assistant to David Parker and then moved on to Tony Stone Images, in the Electronic Imaging Department. I once again became obsessed with billboards, graffiti and shopfronts around the chaotic streets of London. The title for this body of work, which is still ongoing but also a kind of Holy Grail, is the Writing on the Wall. I wanted to find an answer in the chaos I saw around me. This project culminated on the streets Vancouver, where I returned to in 2015.
It has been argued in the brilliant film, Anthropocene, that we are living in the man-made geologic era. I’ve always subscribed to the idea that we live in the petrol-chemical age. The age of plastics and gasoline, but significantly our urban and social environments, are becoming increasingly photographic. Indeed, the film Anthropocene is a kind of homage to the camera. Culturally we live in a universe of cluttered, disproportionate imagery vying for our attention. Nearly all of us have phones with cameras now. We obsessively document our lives. For those seeking fame on YouTube or Instagram, the photograph is the pictorial entrance to a world of possible notoriety and fame. In the city we can’t escape its presence. On the web, it is the lingua franca of international discourse.
The ubiquity of photography is also its downfall, a kind of stance I have taken ever since taking up a digital camera in 1997. The desire to scatter gun shoot one’s way through the environment is irresistible. I have read that if one wants to be a serious photographer one needs to focus one’s attention on a theme or a single stylistic approach. One can’t just take snapshots of anything and hope it coalesces into a coherent body of work. Instinctively I have always tried to avoid this kind of forced artistic mannerism, though I am not immune to it. I’ve dared to be both mediocre and undisciplined in my seeking out what visually interests me and what I want to photograph. An egoless approach, if there is such a thing.
The next series in this collection is an homage to Martin Parr’s book, Boring Postcards. My boring photographs are carefully composed to a certain extent but underlying it is the intention to just see, to bear witness to the endless possibilities of just photographing the built environment, the city we take for granted, the city that is constantly changing around us. A complicated, evolving, living organism.
I am not sure where egoless, “boring” photographs will lead, but I do know that photography is an art form, despite its ubiquity. I am expressing something about myself, something I would be the lesser without.
The final theme of the exhibition is Marks of a Madman, a theme that came out of the idea of displaying my private diaries in a back room of the exhibition. A peep show into the soul of the artist. In my back catalogue, I have shots of nudes and voyeurism but somehow the idea of a peep show morphed into madness and diaries.
My own battle with mental health has shaped both my adult and artistic lives, insomuch as it has framed the backdrop of a challenge that both inspires and detracts from the mission at hand. There is something about losing one’s voice when one becomes ill, necessitating the need to take photographs of photographs, an engagement in reproducing the language of imagery. Madonna’s lips ripped from a Sunday Times article to reveal the story behind the page, the poignant desire of photographing a complete stranger on the bus. The safety pin pierced through the lips of a navy chaplain’s photograph expresses for me the otherworldly realm of losing one’s autonomy and dignity.
These images signify madness. Medicated, sectioned, restrained. There is always the danger that if one goes too far there will be nothing remaining. The idea that the whole project of photography is a kind of madness is never far from my imagination. Photography is a list of certainties: the endless repeating of the world mirrored in a kaleidoscope of want, desire and replication. I cannot help myself. The innate pleasure of looking at something or someone, through a lens. To print, exhibit and publish photographs is ultimately the desire for someone to look back.
Going forward there is much to explore, with the creation of Hortin and Forrester, a collaborative project in its infancy that many will hopefully join and contribute. I am always looking for images with the same eye, the same zeitgeist, the same desire to make sense of what we see around us. We might even help to add to an intelligent narrative of our world. Our stories, a collective answer to the question of why exactly we take so many photographs, will flourish and in the end what will remain is our work.
Jos Brosnan ©2019 Hortin & Forrester