Photography is a way of experiencing life more fully

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, July 18, 2007

By now most of you will have correctly concluded that I’m obsessed with photography. I not only enjoy taking my own photographs; I also thoroughly enjoy looking at others’, especially when our camera-toting coffee companions take the time to tell me the stories that go with the photos they’ve taken.

My passion for photography nearly came to an early end, however. When I was about 10, I had one of those popular Brownie Hawkeye cameras that took square black and white pictures on 620 roll film. The camera cost around $12, if I remember correctly. On one important school occasion I shot a whole roll of flash pictures of my classmates, only to discover later that I had forgotten to advance the film after each shot. Face upon face, action upon action, a chaos of shapes lay superimposed on each other. For what seemed like a humiliating eternity, I never wanted to hold a camera again.

Fortunately, I had a change of heart. While in high school, I experienced some autumn scenes that demanded I take their picture. With the entire earnings from my summer job, I bought my first 35 mm camera, a Zeiss Ikon. Aware that I’d been saving that money toward college, my sister, a generation older and much wiser than I, was furious over my wasteful ways. She was surprised and pleased later to see how that camera – and my growing interest in serious photography – played a major part in paying for all my undergraduate education.

In the mid-1960s, I upgraded to my first single-lens reflex (SLR) camera, a Pentax. With it I began to experiment with the role of photography in story-telling. I made my first slide shows about journeys through national parks and southern Mexico.

Ultimately, I settled into Nikon camera equipment, at first film, and then in just the past few years, digital. I must say that digital photography has totally spoiled me, and I would never want to return to the long hours in the darkroom amidst the irritating smells of developers, acid stop baths, and fixers. I’m quite happy now doing all the post-shooting work with a computer.

Over the years two still photographers have had a major influence over me. Ansel Adams is known around the world for his nature studies, most notably in Yosemite National Park, California. Who has not been moved by his famous 1952 “El Capitan,” his interpretation of the largest exposed granite rock face in the world?

The other is Yousuf Karsh, master Canadian portrait photographer. His 1941 image of Winston Churchill, resolute in the face of war, continues to inspire me to capture people’s expressions that most typify their relation to what they think and do.

Interestingly, in contrast to our fascination with colour, the Churchill image and “El Capitan” are black and white, depending more on the interplay of context and shadow than on glitz.

In fact, for me, photography is the art of context and shadow as experienced through a camera lens. Context reveals story. Shadow reveals form, depth and mood. For this reason I have a dislike for most straight-on flash photography, for the context is lost in the dark background, and the shadows are almost non-existent, washed out by the flat light of the flash. (Of course, there are ways serious photographers can use flash that are not at the expense of context and shadow, and there is much written on such techniques.)

There is a third influence on my own work: National Geographic. From my earliest childhood memories of this amazing photographic treasure of cultures, nature and science, I’ve come to admire the story-telling power of images strung together in essay. As much as possible, I have tried to emulate its example.

Which brings me around to my enjoyment of our coffee companions’ photos of family, flowers, holidays and friends. Pretty much every photo someone takes is alive with story.

Over coffee you’ve shared with me your photographic memories. You’ve taken me with you to Everest and Kilimanjaro, to the Amazon Jungle and the Sahara Desert. You’ve shared the joy of birth and the respect of age. You’ve allowed me to stand by your side as you were awestruck by hoarfrost or a breathtaking sunset, the power of ocean waves or the gentle descent of an autumn leaf. You’ve shared with me the thrill of seeing a butterfly light on a blossom, of watching a child take his or her first steps, of admiring an artist touching canvas with brush, and of soaring with hang-gliders. You’ve shared with me the peace experienced around a summer campfire.

Yes, I love photography. So please, share with me your pictures and help me see life more fully . . . and more beautifully.

© 2007 Warren Harbeck

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