05/08/2012 07:37 EDT | Updated 07/08/2012 05:12 EDT

These Shutterbugs Have Nothing to be Camera Shy About


If you can get a photographer to talk, oh the stories you will hear...

Over the years I have handled publicity assignments for some of Canada's best known artists, authors, and, now and then, photographers. Although one shouldn't make sweeping generalizations about the personality traits of red hot artists, when it come to photographers, the best cliché is "Mum's the Word". Authors know that the gift of the gab sells books, and for centuries, painters have been expected to attend their exhibitions. Sculptors appear larger than life -- just like their carvings.

But, photographers are different. Really different. Doesn't matter what language. Open the dictionary to the word "shy" and it will likely read: photographer.

They see the world with a box held to one eye, separating them from their subject. For Montreal's Lynne Cohen (who won the first Scotiabank Photography Award in 2011), the barrier between the public, and picture-taking is even wider. Her large format camera, complete with a light-blocking sheet that she ducks under to focus her camera, all keep her persona well hidden.

I have been assisting with this year's Scotiabank Photography Award (SPA). There are three photographers in the running: Montreal's Alain Paiement, Toronto's Arnaud Maggs, and Vancouver's Fred Herzog -- all exceptionally talented, and worthy of national treasure status. The winner is going to be announced on Wednesday.

As part of the assignment, I helped create five videos (four in English, one in French) with this year's shortlisted photographers. I also helped create a video at an SPA sponsored exhibition for last year's winner Lynne Cohen.

Normally, it would difficult to get these seasoned photographers in front someone else's camera. But, SPA is Canada's richest photography prize -- $50,000 cash, a curated art exhibition, and a publishing, and distribution deal with Steidl -- so the artists have been quite generous in supporting the publicity cycle.

They made the time to stand in front of our cameras, and talk candidly about the art that they produce. A good picture is a good picture, but when its creator describes what is actually going on in the photograph, it becomes a masterpiece. As a result, the SPA videos are about Canadian masterpieces.

Photographic artist, Arnaud Maggs lives and works in Toronto. Videographer George Socka, and myself filmed, and talked to Maggs at the Susan Hobbs gallery where his After Nadar exhibition was hanging.

Maggs was "inspired by a series of photographs of the celebrated French pantomime Pierrot, taken by the Parisian photographer Nadar in 1855." In his new show, writes Susan Hobbs, "Maggs' newest images are a restaging of these photographs using himself as the sitter."

Three things excited Maggs during our conversation. Why? He was happy with the Susan Hobbs exhibition, and thrilled with the Scotiabank Photography Award nomination. He was also looking forward to the opening of his new show at The National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

In April I took the train to Montreal to film Alain Paiement. I didn't have the luxury of a long stay, and I filmed Paiement for both an English, and French language YouTube video, returning to Toronto the same day.

Muse Magazine informed me that for twenty years, Alain Paiement has been a major figure in contemporary photography. His genius lies in his "spatialization" of photography, and unique construction of vision. His lens takes the ceilings off homes and businesses to giving the viewer a bird's eye view of what really goes on inside.

While we sat in his Rosemont Studio he explained that he was reclusive by nature, "I am very much an outsider, I don't know that many people. This nomination is my [coming out party]


Videographer Dr. Phil Nuytten of Vancouver, builds submarines, designs space age diver suits, and he owns Diver Magazine (to which I frequently contribute).

When Phil has time, he likes to talk to artists. Lucky me. He volunteered to take his cameras to the Equinox Project Space to interview Fred Herzog, the third finalist for the Scotiabank Photography Award.

Nuytten's six-minute video should have had a musical soundtrack using Paul Simon's hit, "Kodachrome." You see, the 82-year Herzog has used slide film to capture pictures of downtown Vancouver during the first 50 years of his career. His body of work is the history of the city, documented in vibrant Kodachrome colour.

As with many Canadians artists, it took took a half century for Herzog to become an overnight success. Nuytten was able to get him to talk about his new book, his work and the SPA nomination.

The final video was taken at the Design Exchange earlier this week by Socka. During the press preview of the SPA exhibition "Lynne Cohen: Nothing is Hidden" (which is part of her SPA prize), he wanted to capture Ms. Cohen's reaction to this comprehensive exhibition, and her new 172 page book. Both are a major draw at this May's CONTACT photography festival in Toronto.

Typical of a photographers' need for obscurity she revealed that for years she had naively named all of her works "untitled". She realized that that wasn't working. Especially when photographs were getting mixed up by galleries, and in reprint, so she has since given each of image a subtitle after the ubiquitous "untitled".

Just who wins the second annual Scotiabank Photography Award remains to be seen until later this week. I am guessing that typical of most photographers, these artists would rather be behind the viewfinder, or out in the field, than be at the centre of camera flashes Wednesday night.