About Saint John Photos, an interview

Is photography your full time work or a hobby? If it's work, tell me what you do. If it's a hobby, how did it evolve? Did you study it formally?

I have been a full-time, practicing visual communication designer since graduating from the Communication Design program at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 1995. I have been working at an IT company in Saint John since relocating here from Halifax in 1999. Although I have occasionally used my photography in this work, I certainly do not regard myself as a professional photographer. On the other hand, because of my intentions in the medium of photography as one avenue (among several) of artistic self-expression, I do not consider it a hobby either.

Medium you work in – digital, 35mm, whatever. Why the choice? If you work with different formats, can you talk about the differences from a photographer's perspective?

I am currently working in 35mm (film) photography using SLR cameras, with various fixed focal length and zoom lenses. I have tried digital cameras, but for economic, technical and archival reasons, I prefer to continue using film at this time. Although I have past darkroom experience developing and printing my negatives (both black and white, and color), I am currently using a 'digital darkroom' – scanning individual negatives, performing dodging, burning, perspective correction, etc. on a computer, and producing large (12x18") inkjet prints as well as low-resolution images suitable for the "Saint John Photos" website.

I get the film commercially developed at a local supermarket minilab, and use the 4"x6" machine prints to evaluate the shots. With digital techniques, I have far greater flexibility and precision in controlling how an image is going to look, and it is much faster and more convenient, not to mention eliminating chemistry required for wet darkroom work. The scanning process itself is very tedious, but perhaps that is a good discipline because it makes me very selective about what I am going to scan. I spend on average one or two hours per image to obtain a quality suitable for the web site. For the large-format prints, I will spend another 6 – 10 hours printing, tweaking and reprinting an image.

So far I have stuck with a fairly faithful rendition of the original negatives, at least as reconciled with my visual memory of the actual scenes I photographed. I have encountered some controversy in the photographic community about the ethics of digital manipulation, but as far as I'm concerned, all photography is a manipulation and distortion of reality, right from the moment you snap the shutter. However, extreme manipulation is just not that interesting to me, and I generally dislike anything where the manipulation is too obvious.

Tell me a little bit about your subjects. I've had a little peek at your site and some of the pictures are unusual in the way you've viewed rather ordinary things...others are quite straight forward...what do you the photographer see?

The trick in photography is to reconcile the visual wonder of a dynamic reality, perceived stereoscopically in three dimensions, with a static, two-dimensional, monocular medium. There is also the issue of a very compressed tonal range relative to what we can see. I am both gambling for surprises, and working towards a predictive mastery of the medium. Triangulating from both approaches could lead to a kind of representation of the subject. That's the theory, at least.

My intention for "Saint John Photos" is to create a portrait of the city, though not in the usual, touristic or civic-booster sense. Saint John has many special visual qualities. Coming from Halifax, where I really grew to detest the 'Disnification' of the Historic Properties waterfront area, the pandering to tourists with a phony confabulation of the past, I found that Saint John had a refreshing honesty and charm in its presentation. This is what I hope to record, because I suspect it is not going to last much longer.

Beyond that, I am looking at the whole history of photography as a medium in all its aspects: journalism, art-photography, amateur snapshots, everything – looking for a personal niche to occupy and explore. Photography is such a cold, technical medium that it is extremely difficult to find a personal vocabulary in it. Many subjects, and my treatments of them, are repetitions of my past work (going back some 30-years), and the work of other photographers whom I am consciously and unconsciously trying to emulate.

My current project is to distill all this into a coherent statement about the main subject of the website, by adding, removing, rescaling and cropping images, and shooting new ones almost every week. I spend a lot of time looking at the website as an entity, evaluating individual images as building blocks for this shifting, dynamic portrait of Saint John.

Tell me about the web site. What made you decide to have one? Did you build it yourself? Purpose of the site? Goals for the future.

The impetus to produce Saint John Photos came about when my wife and I acquired a new camera in June, after I had been using my old, half-broken (but otherwise quite excellent) SLR for nearly 30-years. My wife (who is a collage artist) wanted to learn how to use this type of camera, but the old one was simply too fragile and idiosyncratic to be suitable. Anyway we both immediately began taking huge amounts of pictures, and I formulated the Saint John Photos website project as a way to introduce some purpose and discipline into my own picture-taking. This project seems to have eclipsed another digital animation project I had on the go, at least for the time being.

I built the website myself (I have designed and built many websites over the years, for my current and former employers, and their clients). As a designer, I seem to be moving in a minimalist direction, reflected in both the visual presentation and the code (I have been involved in extremely elaborate projects in the past). Many people seem to equate graphic design with 'eye candy', with little regard to how this approach can degrade whatever it is they are trying to communicate, and a major challenge is educating people on how design can better serve their needs.

One aspect of the site design that is less straightforward is the presentation of the photos in various scales, aspect ratios and alignments – I'm experimenting with a meandering quality reflective of the way I experience the city visually. I've also kept the images quite small, for a couple of reasons; to minimize page download times, and to discourage misappropriation of the images. Right now, the navigation menu is very simple because I've tried to preserve the visual surprise I experience when I'm out taking pictures. Unfortunately that doesn't work so well for return visitors, and I'm going to have to change it so they don't have to wade through stuff they've already seen to find new images. I'm thinking of incorporating a very simplified map of Saint John to indicate where the images were taken, and adding descriptive text tags which appear when the cursor is moved over each image.

It would seem to me that SJ would be infinitely interesting to a photographer, there are so many nooks and crannies and unexplored areas. Can you compare taking pictures here to taking pictures elsewhere (assuming you have...)

Saint John (like virtually any other area on this planet) is an infinitely engrossing subject, compounded by weather, changing seasons, and the relentless effect of people on the immediate environment. Every day, every hour brings a new light as well as physical change. I have felt I could happily spend the rest of my life photographing nothing else.

My biggest challenge is photographing people, and that is going to be the key to rounding out this portrait of a city.

Post script

In late summer, 2006 my wife (the collage artist, Inez Caldwell) and I relocated to Toronto, and in spite of my best intentions to continue adding Saint John photos from my substantial stock of negatives, I found myself focused exclusively on our new environment ever since. In January 2007 I decided to retain saintjohnphotos.com as an archive site, and shift my endeavors to designartcraft.com as the new web home and visual identity encompassing past and current projects in the fields of design, art (including photography) and craft.

Perhaps I will eventually get back to my vast library of Saint John negatives, and add more pages to saintjohnphotos.com...

David Smith

Other links
Recent and older work, outside the purview of "Saint John Photos"

designartcraft.com, January 2007

Toronto photographs, since September 2006

Studio Still Life experiments, December 2003

Selection of photos ca.1979 – 2002 (for a show)

Pictures of the installed show, "Human Presence", June 2003

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