Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2017

© Jeremy Ferugson/Global Gypsy

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Oh Camera!

Wondering where to hone your photo skills this summer? How about home?

We Canadians have, to paraphrase a late prime minister, too much geography. From Newfoundland’s brooding Cape Spear (closer to Ireland than Montreal) to brawling Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island (next stop: Japan), the quantity of our country intimidates us. When my editor asked me to write about photographing Canada’s landscapes, big skies and untamed wildlife, my response was: wait a minute, who wants to do that?

Certainly not most of us. Canadians are usually urban creatures whose notion of wilderness is a long weekend at the cottage and whose idea of life-endangering wildlife is SUV-driving yuppies bullying their way up ribbons of blacktop. Nah, I told my editor, don’t send Doctor’s Review readers out to shoot coffee-table books. They’ll never come eye-to-eye with a grizzly and if they do, they’re amuse-bouches. It’s much more practical to encourage photographers to use our abundance of nature and truly wondrous light as a studio in which to extend our creative selves and capture the moments we love best in a way we’d best love to do it.

This means less driving and more “imaging” -- the 21st-century word that encompasses both traditional film-based photography and digital camerawork. It means being able to capture remarkable images on a day off or on a Sunday afternoon, not just in harried moments plucked from Teutonically blueprinted vacations. It means you have the capacity to experiment constantly, to hone your skills all year long. It means the chance to do something special and be somebody special behind the lens.

It starts at home

I discovered this decades ago, when I was a young father with a real job, the kind in which you work nine-to-five and collect weekly checks. The company I worked for was Kodak. Sages around me dispensed the wisdom that to know what you’re doing with a camera, you had to shoot 10,000 frames. Happily, the company was generous with its film and I got to shoot my 10,000 frames. Nowadays, this isn’t the financially daunting prospect it used to be: with a digital camera, you can shoot all 10,000 without having to buy a new disk.

More importantly, I found the camera articulated my feelings -- love, in the case of the first five years of my son’s life. I was near-grafted to my camera. I began with the backyard and neighbourhood as my studio and eventually expanded my space to include the streets of Toronto, the Ontario countryside and further on, the Atlantic Provinces and the Rockies.

Seasonal Impulses

Then there was autumn, which always seemed more like a place than a time, a province in its own right. The crystal-clear light of fall, the burnt reds and yellows of dying leaves represent this country at its most visually arresting. Fields, woods and lakes in autumnal hues strut Canada’s stuff. A collage of Technicolor leaves bursting out of early morning mist or set against the blazing blue of an October sky surely ranks as a national icon.

My wife and son were the stars of my own production, but I quickly found others -- family, friends, strangers -- drawn into the plot. Not long before his death, I captured my father cradling his grandson. As mosquitoes slept, I photographed a friend naked in the north woods, a nude that is to this day one of my favourites. The images were more often than not people: fishermen working their traps on the Bay of Fundy, lovers exploring Quebec City by calèche, Chinatown merchants, Japanese tourists ahhhing at Niagara Falls, Native Peoples in full regalia, anglers reeling in wild salmon on the Pacific coast.

Naturally I sought out sunlight and warmth -- the short, sweet sensuality of summer that creates such exhilaration among Canadians -- but the camera also compelled me to dabble with mist and rain and -- good grief -- winter, which I continued to loathe anyway.

Shooting on principle

I learned as I went along. And I learned that pictorial wisdoms endure for good reason. For instance, composition and light (which marry better than olive oil and balsamic vinegar) are the elements that elevate images from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Composition is the way you arrange the elements of the picture to please the eye -- like arranging furniture in a favourite room. Its first rule is simplicity. Define your subject in your mind's eye, be it an Alberta alp or a child’s expression of wonder. Move in and eliminate any distracting peripheral detail. That way, your subject is in command of the frame. And so are you. Now you have impact. Isn’t that exactly what you want?

Old chestnuts make sense: that your subject is best placed off-centre in the viewfinder, that the middle of anything is a monotonous place. That the S-curve is the sexiest distance between two points, accounting for the winding streams and country roads that win prizes in photography contests. That framing a subject with relevant foreground detail can add a compelling -- and telling -- sense of depth to any picture.

Some common bugaboos are easily avoided: your subject should be facing into, not out of, the frame. That way, the viewer's eye will follow into, not out of, the image.

The top of the frame is an oddly popular pitfall in this land of big skies. I've seen countless pictures reduced to tedium with blocks of dull, empty sky. But conversely, when the sky is wonderful -- flared with billowing cumulus clouds, say, or streaked at sunset -- turn it to your advantage. A two-thirds ratio of land to sky is a sound rule of thumb, but it isn’t written in stone. There are exceptions to everything.

Light fare

The other critical component is light itself. Remember, photography translates from its Greek origin as "writing with light." Teach yourself to be aware of light as a living, breathing entity as fully realized as a particularly capricious human being. Treat it with the respect it deserves and odds are, you'll be richly rewarded, for light is the very the soul of the image.

Early morning and late afternoon, when shadows are long and light takes on toasty hues, are the imager’s prime time. But the best of all possible light, is when the sun breaks through a stormy sky to drench landscapes and buildings in a wash of brittle gold. Usually this happens as you’re passing a garbage dump. Once in a while, it happens in the right place. When it does, screech to a halt, move like a madman and burn images.

Reflections, whether from a rainfall or natural body of water, almost always enhance a picture. Foul weather, with which Canadians are so richly endowed, can be a blessing: fog and mist can transform the routine to the remarkable. My most dependable fogs are in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.

What this boils down to is a heightened awareness, a way of seeing things -- what we used to call visual literacy -- that captivates and enriches the creative you. No two among us see and interpret the world around us in quite the same way. There's something reassuring about knowing that no amount of computerization and micro-circuitry can duplicate this intensely human perspective. Traditional or digital, the camera is merely at your service.

1/100 of a life

I knew my landscapes and natural images would never really be up to the standards of Canada’s professionals, giants such as Freeman Patterson and Courtney Milne. I did the best I could. But over the years, I’ve made very few images that reflect the physical grandeur and monumental loneliness of this land.

I captured my son candidly, close-up, backlit, immersed in fields of flowers, tumbling in autumn leaves, laughing, bawling, any way I could. My weekends were a high: I shot pictures until I drove my family batty. Because the image was an end in itself, I didn’t stop to think of its long-term implications.

That came later, as the child transformed into an adult like some special effect, as I began to feel the loss of my five-year-old prince who would never come home again. Now I look at my images, their vibrant colours perfectly preserved, their hues as rich as they were 30 years ago. I think: “If only I could have stopped time.”

I understand only too pungently about images that begin with the human eye and end with the human heart. Like old wine, they deliver their punch with time. It is the unique power of images to seize us by the heartstrings and deck us before we know it. They give us back fragments of our own lives we didn’t even know were missing. And Canada was all the backdrop we ever needed.

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