“I found this series of images very distinctive. There’s a masterful use of abstraction. There are also really interesting sub-texts and metaphors, among them humanity’s relationships with the natural environment and beauty even in decay and destructive practices.”
Barbara Bullock – Wilson
Please tell us about yourself.
I was born and raised in Medicine Hat, Alberta, a small city on the Canadian prairies. I was actively involved in art from an early age. After high school, I pursued a four-year studio intensive program at the Alberta College of Art where I received a Diploma in Visual Communications – Photography.
With an ardent interest in fashion, I quickly established a career in fashion photography first in Milan, Italy and London, UK and then in New York while traveling extensively on assignments to many remote corners of the world shooting both on location and in the studio. Inspired by my interest in design, style and aesthetics, my photographs appeared in publications such as British GQ, Conde Nast Traveler, The New York Times Magazine and People while also creating celebrity portraits of Channing Tatum, Olivia Wilde, Tom Ford and Tyrese Gibson. National campaigns included Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue as well as images for Brioni, Ermenegildo Zegna, J. Crew and Nautica to name a few.
In the wake of a re-energized passion for fine art photography, I came back to my fine art roots seven years ago prompted by my academic studies of the History of Photography at SUNY New Paltz in New York. After a thirty-year absence from a classroom, I received a full-fledged BFA in Photography from the newly re-organized program at the Alberta College of Art and Design. I found myself immersed into the strange (to me) but fascinating world of the aesthetics and theory of photography, after a long and rewarding career as a fashion photographer. It has fueled my thinking as I have pursued a six-year, five part exhibition series. Snag is the final part in this series.
After residing in New York for almost twenty years, I returned to live in my small hometown in Alberta three years ago. I continue to photograph in both the studio and on location responding to the natural beauty and detail that surrounds me.
Would you share with us one image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time?
The images of Robert Adams have long-held my attention and I believe they have affected my vision as a photographer. There isn’t one particular photograph that has stayed with me but rather many of his photographs as they reveal man’s encroachment on the natural landscape.
For me Adam’s work is both formalist and modernist. I would be happy to think mine to meet those standards. The simplification in his choice of black and white puts emphasis on the forms and compositions while the tonal range is wide and luscious. His book entitled, Beauty in Photography, is a highly recommended read. Adam’s photographs are optimistic in exposing nature’s beauty even while capturing the relentless brutality of man’s practices against it. Beauty still exists.
Please tell us about the portfolio of work you submitted to our call.
Three years ago, I was leaving for the airport after saying goodbye to my mother. She was dying of cancer. On the long drive across the Alberta prairie, I found myself distracted by flapping remnants of plastic bags, caught in barbed-wire fences that lined the ditches. Whipped violently by the wind, they were left shredded and lacerated, but trapped nonetheless in the no man’s land of boundary fences, neither here nor there. Thinking about mortality, pain and death in the context of my mother’s terminal illness, these forgotten shreds of plastic took on a deeper significance. Snag.
Shooting during the seemingly lifeless seasons between winter and spring in 2015 thru 2017, I photographed sixty-six sites in Southern Alberta, Canada. Some locations required multiple visits to ensure the optimal lighting and wind conditions.
All the photographs were shot using analogue film in a medium format camera. Given the focus of the subject matter on physical, material processes of decomposition by natural forces, it was critical to the logic of this series to maintain the immediacy of their chemical, imprint on the film. Its translation onto a slightly warm toned fiber-based photo paper creates a material, substantial presence that would have been impossible to achieve digitally.
What has been your most memorable experience as far as your photographic work is concerned?
The most memorable and rewarding experience in my photographic career has been being re-energized by photography as art. For many years my commercial work consumed me. It’s only through my fine art photography that I have rediscovered my passion for photography. For many years I was very fortunate to be surrounded by a crew of world-class creative artists and talent. Together we primarily made the photograph to please our client’s needs although fashion editorials for magazines provided an outlet for the creativity that I often craved.
As much as I miss collaborating with many of these creative geniuses, there is nothing like being alone hunched behind a camera and a tripod in a ditch, trying to predict the movement of a shredded plastic remnant caught in barbed wire as it struggles in the howling prairie wind.
Things such as loading and unloading my own film magazines, taking my own light meter readings, shading the lens with my hand, have become rewarding in themselves. The simple things are often the most pleasurable and rewarding.
What image of yours would you say taught you an important lesson?
Photographing two of my series, Rapt and Snag, have probably provided the best lessons for me in life.
Rapt is a very tightly focused series photographs that concentrates on trees that have been used as supports for a variety of chains, cables or sections of fencing, used to restrict access to the landowner’s property. Over time, as these trees continue to grow with these constricting bands of material, the dialectical tension between man and nature builds to a particularly emotional pitch. As the wire, cables and chains cut into the trunk of the trees (a process literally called ‘strangulation’), the organic vegetal response seems to embody human, visceral feelings of pain, emotional constriction and dogged survival. The chains and cables remain very still as they cut deep into the tree’s bark.
Opposed to this haunting stillness is the motion of the shredded plastic as it fights the wind and the elements while caught in barded-wire in Snag. Both series are highly charged emotionally as they deal with issues such as mortality, man’s struggle with the environment, and boundaries amongst several other metaphors. Bringing these deeply buried sub-conscious feelings and thoughts to light and expressing them in my art have helped me both an artist and as a human being.
As far as lessons learned in photographic technique, both these series have allowed me to put to use many of the things I had used in my previous fashion photography career. Whether exposing and recording the finest details in fabrics or the motion of the fabric as the model jumped through the air or ran down a beach, I was able to incorporate my technical knowledge and then build upon it encompassing my newly unpacked feelings and emotions. It’s been extremely rewarding on a personal level and I’m grateful for it.
Do you have any favorite pieces of equipment that you find essential in the making of your work?
I hadn’t thought of the most essential and important piece of equipment that I use in my work until you asked. They all seem vital but I suppose the most indispensable one would be my light meter whether hand-held or built-in the camera.
Since light is my tool, it is fundamental that I am able to measure it with accuracy in order for me to determine the desired exposure. With the crucial information it provides, it helps guide me in how to achieve my preconceived vision of the final photograph long before I squeeze the shutter.
I often shoot with a nearly wide-open aperture or by using selective focus by manipulating the focusing ring on the lens. Whether freezing motion or creating an intentional blur, a relatively narrow depth of field helps to isolate the object I am shooting by drawing attention to the textures and the material itself. The light meter also helps me in determining how much information I want to hold in the shadows without them plugging up completely or the highlights burning out to white.
A wide tonal range has always been a passion of mine especially in my black and white work. A camera body and a lens can always be manipulated no matter the quality of it, but without a good exposure it is impossible to produce the photograph one had pre-visualized especially in film-based photography.
What is on the horizon?
I am currently working on the sixth and final series of interrelated photographs that I have meticulously developed over the past seven years.
All of the series contain multi-layered metaphors of suppressed feelings that are deeply rooted in loss, impermanence and mortality that once uncovered cannot be concealed again. This newest body of work is not complete but rather in the preliminary stages. The prototypes have been shot using my iPhone’s camera and very soon the sites I have visited will be recorded on film.
Once again the ubiquitous and unseen are brought to the forefront. This time the scar that is left behind when a tree trunk experiences premeditated lopping, vandalism or is violently damaged in a storm is revealed, exposing the tree’s vulnerability to disease or alternatively its ability to persevere, survive, regenerate and heal. Not unlike human flesh, these scars are reminiscent of an amputation where drastic measures were taken to prevent further pain, malignancy or even death. This most recent series is a significant step forward for me on a very personal level as it reveals the benefits of my art as my therapy. This sixth series, which I call Heal, has delivered me to a point of recognition, acceptance and moving forward.
Some may ask me why I have taken so many photographs of the same things over and over and over again? I often wondered the same thing as I repeated myself week after week after week on my therapist’s couch, saying the same things over and over and over again, until it all made sense. The day the unseen became the seen.
*Five of the six series are to be installed in very large grids while Snag is hung in a singular long line image after image. Each series consists of twenty-one to thirty-six edited photographs.
Thank you Wes for sharing your work and words with us.
To learn more about the work of Wes Bell please visit his site at Wes Bell.