LOOK CLOSER: “For the Love of the Story: Four Short Photography Tales” by Rob Wilson

I wanted to call this article A Cabinet of Curiosities as I thought it a suitable title for a column about some of the funny, sad, weird, and wicked photography stories that I want to share with you, but a quick Google search revealed that there is both a novel and a Netflix series of the same name, so I immediately binned the idea. My next moment of “inspiration” led me to A Sandbox of Stories and An Avalanche of Anecdotes, before realising that this alliterative cliché-ridden nonsense would make even the most emotionless brick cringe like they were watching David Brent give his staff at The Office a pep talk. I also realised that my own linguistic games would not finish until I settled on A Box of Bullshit, and that that would probably be inappropriate, so I eventually settled on today’s more sober title.

My motivation with this article is to dig into the contents of the “box”, “cabinet”, or “sandbox” and look at some of the stories behind photography. We are so often obsessed with the stories that the images themselves create that we forget that there is so much more to talk about. Only one of today’s tales is really about the creation of a picture as I want to share stories that reflect the whole photography experience.

I have covered some great stories in previous articles. I am not entirely sure that I could beat Jean-Marc Carrise’s tale of how Jean Chrétien and Bill Clinton climbed over a wall and raced each other up a flight of stairs at the G8 Summit in Birmingham, England [1]. Equally, it would be tough to top David Andrews’s story of what happened when he was an official photographer at the Canadian Constitutional Conference of 1982. As he was standing on a plinth photographing Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who was caught in the midst of a scrum of pressmen, the then Premier of New Brunswick Richard Hatfield plonked the constitutional document between Andrews’s feet and signed it [2]. However, I am going to share some stories of events that happened to both me and others that have recently provided me with some entertainment.

One of my favourites is a short tale of revenge that I can share only on a promise of anonymity. One of my friends, let’s call him “Al” has spent much of the last thirty years creating editorial work for national newspapers and magazines. For this work, he has photographed many celebrities. He has told me that many turned out to be lovely people. However, some did not.

“Al” was engaged to photograph a globally well-known TV star who has created a very particular persona for himself. It turned out the man could not have been ruder. He kept “Al” waiting for three hours on a boiling hot day. When the celebrity did arrive, he was obnoxious and rude, and did not even have the good manners to offer “Al” a glass of water.

It was in the photo shoot that “Al” took his revenge. As a master of his craft, he knew exactly how he wanted to light the image. He made sure that he emphasized every wrinkle, every spot, and every blemish in an image that brought out the worst in the man’s face. I do not know if “Al” was inspired by or channeling the spirit of the great Arnold Newman, who famously took revenge on Alfred Krupp with a brilliant photo that made him look like an evil Bond villain, but this certainly came to mind when he told me this story. After the image was published and the negatives were returned to him, “Al” completed his revenge by burning the negatives and vowing never to work with the man again.

My main contribution to this article’s stories is an account of an afternoon of weirdness in the camera shop where I work for a couple of days a week. I was in the shop when a man came over and asked to look at a used lens. I picked up the lens and a Nikon D850 body to test it on, and he snatched both out of my hands. This was not only rude, but lacking the etiquette of how we demonstrate gear in our shop. I wish I had snatched them back and refused to serve him as he preceded to give me a “lesson” on portrait photography. He asked if I “shoot” and when I told him I did, he proceeded to ask me questions that he thought would trip me up. This was tedious to say in the least! I tried to engage him – oh why do I always do this? – and showed him some portraits, taken by my favourite photographers, that I thought were excellent.  He proceeded to tell me that Alec Soth’s wonderful portrait of Melissa, a bride in Niagara Falls, was terrible because she should not have been sitting on a chair as it did not cover up the fact that she was a large bride. Sorry, what?

He then began to brag about his own photography and tell me how good he was. I looked him up after he left the shop. He was a corporate headshot photographer. I am not going to criticize his work, but to be honest, I’ll take the Soth portrait every day of the week for the rest of time. What made the whole thing funny in hindsight is that the lens he was testing was a $300 hobbyist’s lens, which he complained was not sharp enough for professional work. Why would you be surprised? This does not enhance your credibility!

I can never understand why some people come in and try to show off to the guy behind the counter. Superiority complexes are just boring. To be truthful, I would much rather talk to the retiree who has no intention of buying anything but was a professional photographer twenty or thirty years ago and just wants to reminisce with someone who will understand.

From there, things became weird, really weird. The next customer to approach asked me if I could identify some old photos that he had. It was a quiet day and, ever the curious, I told him I was happy to try. One was of a spider. I could not help with this beyond confirming that it had eight legs and was definitely an arachnid. The second was an old picture of Abu Simbel, the great temple of Rameses II in Upper Egypt. This I could talk about.

Photographer asked not to be named as they think it is a terrible photo, Abu Simbel, Egypt

Foolishly, I told him what it was and went on to explain that the temple was over 3000 years old but had been moved during the 1960s due to the flooding of Lake Aswan in a truly remarkable feat of engineering. This was a colossal mistake. He asked me if I could jot down the information that I had given him. I said that that was fine. This compounded my error.

What I did not know was that the man was a walking talking conspiracy machine. He proceeded to tell me that the moon landings were fake. That there were other hidden military viruses ready to be unleashed on us. Chemtrails were in there too. I do not recall him reaching the point of telling me that the Earth was flat, but I was braced for it. He then went on to tell me about how the lighting effects on multiple science fiction shows had been achieved, giving me the impression that he might have worked in this field in the past.

As our conversation (very) slowly drew to a close, he revealed that the pictures had been “left” for him as some kind of message that warned of an imminent catastrophic event which risked ending the world. What was quite remarkable, bizarre, and impressive about the whole interaction was how he was able to create and describe a whole series of links and meanings that he believed could be inferred from the information I had given him about the picture.  He was flawless in his delivery of absolute nonsense. As he turned to leave the shop, he looked back to me, stared me straight in the eye and with absolute earnestness said, “Thank you Rob! You’ve been more of a help than you will ever know.” Why me? Why always me?

Our third story comes from my friend and occasional FRAMES columnist Rick Halpern. It is somewhat painful to recount.

Halpern was photographing Toronto’s Kensington Market: a place that is a street photographer’s delight. The area is an interesting and engaging setting which is populated by all sorts of characters. While shooting, Halpern noticed a young photographer. The lad, aged perhaps nineteen or twenty, was shooting with a beautiful Leica M6, a camera to make most of us shutterbugs go a little misty-eyed. Sadly, he clearly had no clue about how to use the camera. Halpern watched in bemusement for a few moments before moving on and continuing with his own photography.

Rick Halpern, Kensington Market

About one and a half hours later, Halpern found himself waiting for a streetcar (a tram for us Europeans) and noticed that the young man was there too but was still struggling with the camera. This time, he was trying, and failing to change the lens. Halpern decided to approach and offer assistance. Yet, before being able to intercede, the lens detached, dropped to the ground, and bounced a couple of time before rolling into the road.

Now imagine that everything suddenly becomes slow motion as the young man exclaims “Noooooooooooo!!!!!!” (in true comedy style) as the lens begins its journey of doom. As the lens reaches the conclusion of its passage, it spins in a circle for a few moments (perhaps reminiscent of the spinning top in Inception), before settling. Sadly, before the now desperate snapper has the chance to reclaim the precious item, a large white cargo van enters the scene, and promptly runs straight over the hallowed glass, crushing it to dust.

At this point, Halpern turned to kid to commiserate. The poor chap burst into tears, and wailed, “It’s my dad’s!”

Recounting this story to me, Halpern said that the whole scene was tragic, pathetic, and comedic all at the same time. This is certainly true.

After our tales of revenge, weirdness, and tragicomedy, we finish with one that is just plain sad. It concerns a visit my wife and I took to Ottawa’s lovely Chateau Laurier. This wonderful old pile, apparently designed in a “French Gothic Revival Chateauesque” style, was built by Charles Melville Hays, then president of the Grand Trunk Railway. It was named after Sir Wilfred Laurier, the first French Canadian Prime Minister of Canada. It is now a Fairmont Hotel.

Yousuf Karsh, one of the greatest portrait photographers of all time, made his home in one of the Chateau’s rooms for seventeen years, so it seems appropriate that an area next to the lobby housed a number of examples of his work. These included his portraits of Albert Einstein, cellist Paolo Casals (my own favourite), and, of course, his most famous work, the great portrait of Winston Churchill.

For many years, the photographs were easily visited and viewed by anyone. My wife May and I took this opportunity in mid-August last year. The pictures were a rare pleasure to see. The prints are beautifully toned and capture their subjects perfectly. However, things took a curious turn when we got the Churchill picture.

May looked at the picture, angled her head onto her shoulder in a quizzical way, and stated that there was something wrong with the signature on the Churchill picture. “Really?” I asked. She nodded her head insistently. I looked at the signature before checking it against the others in the room. She was right. The signature was quite different. We thought this rather strange, but I suggested that he might have made this particular print much later in life and this much scruffier John Hancock reflected his advanced age. We left having enjoyed the display immensely and thought little more about it.

Not a week later, a news story broke. The Churchill portrait on the wall of the Chateau was a forgery. The original had been stolen. As I write this article, the authorities have made little progress in recovering the masterpiece. The picture was taken some time between Christmas Day 2021 and the 6th of January 2022, when the city was enduring one of its COVID-19 lockdowns, but there are few other leads. I doubt that had we approached the hotel’s management there would have been any difference in how the subsequent sorry tale progressed, but I do wish we had made my wife’s suspicions known. The manager of the hotel has said that the picture needs to “come home”. She is right.

Stories make our lives so much richer. This is also true of photography. Ansel Adams’s Moonrise, Hernandez is all the better for knowing its backstory, Lunch Atop a Skyscraper cooler for the surrounding mystery, and Steve McCurry’s portrait of a young Sharbat Gula all the more compelling for knowing her tragic life story. I hope, dear reader, that you have enjoyed this short excursion in the world of photography anecdotes. If you have a similar story to tell, I would be delighted to hear it in the comments below.

[1] Look Closer February 2023
[2] FRAMES Digital Companion April 2022

Every year we release four quarterly printed editions of FRAMES Magazine. Each issue contains 112 pages printed on the highest quality 140g uncoated paper. You receive the magazine delivered straight to your doorstep. We feature both established and emerging photographers of different genres. We pay very close attention to new, visually striking, thought-provoking imagery, while respecting the long-lasting tradition of photography in its purest incarnation. Learn more >>>

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