Life in the lens

Joan Sullivan
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Photographer looks at landscapes, streetscapes, cityscapeUs

Ask photographer John Haney if he has a genre, and he laughs. The question is a legitimate one. His series of work have focused on New Brunswick forests ("Clearcut," 2006), European streetscapes ("Berlin," 2006) and the architecture of a planned, abandoned community ("Pleasantville," 2008).

Various stuff, in other words. No one subject. But can they even be categorized under one style - landscape, say, or still life? Hence the query.

Untitled toned silver contact print. - Photo by John Haney

Ask photographer John Haney if he has a genre, and he laughs. The question is a legitimate one. His series of work have focused on New Brunswick forests ("Clearcut," 2006), European streetscapes ("Berlin," 2006) and the architecture of a planned, abandoned community ("Pleasantville," 2008).

Various stuff, in other words. No one subject. But can they even be categorized under one style - landscape, say, or still life? Hence the query.

Haney's response was not dismissive, but an acknowledgement that he has wondered about this himself.

In fact, he said, he used to be obsessed with the matter, convinced that all artists needed to have an overarching voice or a personal vision that defined their work.

"But I think I just become interested in things. In juxtaposition, in composition. In order, in form. By the natural forms in the environment, and the whacky work of humans within the environment."

Haney spoke over the phone from Mount Allison University, where he is working as a photo technician. Though he is not in the city at the moment, his work sure is.

He is one of the featured artists in "Republic," showing at The Rooms, and his latest solo exhibition, "Groundwork: Photographs of Terra Nova National Park," opens Sept. 4 at the Leyton Gallery of Fine Art. The show includes 18 framed black and white contact prints, 4" x 10", and up to 10 colour images of the same size, taken in June 2008 when Haney had an artist residency at the park.

"Basically they are fairly earnest, subtle, composed landscapes that range in terms of scope and proximity."

Some he took quite close to the ground. Others were snapped from a high vantage point. He made these formal studies with a wooden bellows camera, called a Wisner camera.

He used the same method for the Pleasantville pictures, but those were blown up to a very large format. The Terra Nova pictures are contact prints with the negative applied right on the paper in a one-to-one ratio. This lends the pieces "extraordinary amounts of detail and a perfectly smooth tone."

The standard format for such works is 4" x 5", but through happenstance (and someone breaking into his car and stealing some film supplies) he acquired a cache of outdated 4" x 10" film, going for half price. He bought it and put it in a freezer for a year or so. When the Terra Nova project came along, it seemed a perfect fit for the film. It meant he would have to work slow, and close to the ground.

"I'd been doing a lot of digital photography, bread and butter work, and was looking at computer screens, and fussing over colour balance. I thought, how lovely would it be to wander with this camera for three weeks? As most people do, I have just driven through Terra Nova before. This body of work is an intimate, considered engagement with the park."

As a tool, cameras dictate the process, and therefore the results. Haney has used big view cameras, set up and waited for the image to compose itself within the lens (a technique he admits he lacks patience for). "The longest I've waited is 45 minutes, and that was almost the end of me; I should have brought a novel"), and small hand-held cameras, which allow for greater spontaneity and mobility.

Haney also switches from black and white to colour, which he only started using in 2005, when he moved to St. John's.

Lots of things spur his attention. Pleasantville was about "history, the residue of history on a landscape."

A shot of a spider on a chicken wire fence was about "the ingenuity of that spider in not wasting its time making its own web, but using that metal web."

"Clearcut" "was totally pivotal because it was the first time I started for one reason and finished for another. I started it as a totally reactionary, angry, environmental protest. I worked for 14 months using a big camera. The pictures were very sharp, very detailed. And the centerpiece was a 1964 Rambler Ambassador, robin's egg blue. It had been driven into the forest, but now the forest was cut down around it."

The series included five photos of the car. "Clearly people were coming in and tampering with it. Opening the trunk, opening the doors. But there was this inverse of the car disintegrating and the renewal of forest. A tree was growing up through the driver's seat."

So, "Clearcut" turned out to be "not about nature - nature will do just fine without us. It is about human survival. It became a lamentation of our own situation."

Right now, Haney said, he was catching up on all his printing, and devoting time to a huge vegetable and flower garden. And, oh, there is also his show in Berlin, opening in November and running into the new year. In a complete magnitude jump from the "Groundwork" pieces, "Island" is seven huge seascapes, 27" x 72", all taken from the Lady's Lookout on Signal Hill.

Despite their scale, they are extremely smooth and detailed, Haney said.

"You can see individual waves. These stand up to scrutiny. And I was interested in making colour photographs where there is no colour at all.

"And it is meant, not to replicate the experience of being overwhelmed by Newfoundland's seascape, but to refer to the overwhelmedness I felt as I stood there. At arms length, they fill your peripheral vision. And the next thing is Portugal or Ireland or Iceland, depending which way you point your boat. I wanted to make really simple, really meditative, I suppose spiritual statements of pure light and form."

"Two Painters," with Iakov Afanassiev and Louise Sutton, and "Groundwork: Photographs From Terra Nova National Park," opened Sept. 4 and continues until Oct. 3.

Organizations: Mount Allison University, The Rooms

Geographic location: Berlin, New Brunswick, Terra Nova Terra Nova National Park St. John's Signal Hill Newfoundland Portugal Ireland Iceland

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