Photographer shows N.L.’s ‘Spirit of Place’

Josh Pennell
Published on May 6, 2013
John McQuarrie, an Ottawa-based photographer hopes readers of his new book, “Spirit of Place: St. John’s, the Avalon and the English Shore — Then & Now” will be surprised by what they read. — Submitted photo

In the 30 books Ottawa-based photographer John McQuarrie has worked on, he puts his experience shooting his book on Newfoundland in the Top 3.

“Spirit of Place: St. John’s, the Avalon and the English Shore — Then & Now” is a visual walk through history, geography and culture that combines McQuarrie’s contemporary photos with those he personally hand-picked from archives.

There’s very little actually anchoring him to the province, either physically or genetically.

“The only connection I have is watching those beautiful TV ads,” says McQuarrie.

And he’s not a historian. So how does one — even if he’s an accomplished photographer — publish a history book on a place he doesn’t know? Pictures, after all, can’t tell a whole story, McQuarrie says.

“The expression that every picture (is worth) a thousand words is not true. Every picture will help a thousand words, but you need the words,” he says.

So McQuarrie finds the people who can provide them. The list of people who co-authored the book include recognizable names as John Furlong of CBC’s “The Fisheries Broadcast,” author Roy Dwyer and Torbay Mayor Bob Codner.

It results in a unique blend of historical writings and storytelling driven by McQuarrie’s eye for photography.

McQuarrie may not do a lot of the writing, but he directs it.

“I want, on every page, for the person to stop reading and say, ‘I didn’t know that’ or, ‘Isn’t that interesting?’”

McQuarrie took 15 10-day visits during the course of 18 months to put the book together. On his first visit, he stayed at The Battery Hotel in St. John’s, and looked over the harbour and city before sunrise watching the light take hold.

“I said yes. This is gonna work.”

As he was putting this book together, he would show it to people on airplanes and in hotels to get their feedback.

“When you see somebody stabbing a page with their finger, then you know you got ’em,” he says.

This book is one in a series of “Then & Now” books McQuarrie has published. He got the idea walking past a bookstore window in Ottawa one day and saw a title that read “New York — Then and Now.”

“The lightbulb went off in my head,” he says.

He’s done a string of successful “Then & Now” books since, focusing on different areas in Canada.

Two other books combined with this one — one on the Canadian Air Force and another on working cowboys — form the Top 3 experiences he’s had in his career.

McQuarrie has a Volume 2 of his Newfoundland and Labrador book coming out, for those wondering why they can’t find their community in this publication.

“Spirit of Place: St. John’s, the Avalon and the English Shore — Then & Now” hits stores the first week in June. It will be carried and distributed locally by Downhome Shoppe & Gallery. It will be available nationally through Chapters.