10 Minutes With Art Perry, Emily Carr Instructor & Famed Photographer

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by Grady Mitchell | In the living room of photographer and Emily Carr instructor Art Perry, just off Commercial Drive, is a series of framed photos. Nothing unusual about that, but where most people would hang pictures of family and friends, Art has portraits of Philip Glass, Nick Cave, Laurie Anderson and Roy Rogers. Each has a short personal message scribbled on it. Next to these is a framed letter from Henri Cartier-Bresson congratulating Art on the birth of his daughter, Lulu, whose portrait is also on the wall, signed “To Daddy, with love.” Of course, the people in these images are his friends and family, just some of the countless people he’s met, photographed, and befriended over a lifetime as a photographer.

Some of his images have won prestigious awards, many have taken him around the globe, a few hold permanent homes in the Smithsonian. But all of them have kept him curious, driven, and deeply engaged with life.

Art was born in Ottawa and grew up immersed in Cold War paranoia (he was fascinated from a young age with the romantic universe of spies, and later he would explore this period of his life in a book titled Radar Boy). His interest in big personalities started young. He lived near a radio station, and whenever he learned of a notable interviewee he’d hurry down to meet them on their way out. In that way the precocious kid met Brenda Lee, Del Shannon, and all the “Johnny singers,” as Art refers to the crooners of the era. His childhood love of music would continue in the photos he would make as an adult, which are richly stocked with some of the century’s most talented musicians.

Teenage Art got kicked out of high school after insulting the vice principal during an assembly. He did better in university at Carlton, graduating magna cum laude (“which means, you know, ‘you’re a clever fucker.'”). While at Carlton he drew comics and wrote for the school paper. There he met Rock Chan, a fellow reporter who would shoot anyone’s portrait in exchange for a six-pack of Molson Brador, a malt beer less prized for its flavour than its potency. Rock showed Art the basics of the darkroom, and an editor assigned the fledgling shooter to photograph Rudolf Nureyev, the Russian dancer, on his pass through Ottawa.

Art snuck into the reception and found Nureyev. Juggling his camera and its instruction manual, he tried to line up a shot. But a balding grey head kept bobbing into his frame, blocking Nureyev’s face. Frustrated, Art moved closer and caught their conversation. The older guy was Yousuf Karsh, the famed Canadian portraitist who’d made iconic images of Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway. He was setting up a sitting with Nureyev the next day. The whole scene marked a fittingly auspicious start to Art’s career. “Once I did that, I said, ‘that’s it.’ So I began taking photos, really making it a part of what I do all the time,” Art says.

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After graduating he saved money working at the National Gallery and headed to Europe with his hippie girlfriend (“She wore a macrame choker and carried a dulcimer.”) They spent most of 1971-2 exploring Europe, tracing the Mediterranean coast. This marked his first foray into travel photography, which would eventually comprise a large part of his life’s work. When he returned to Canada, he decided he wanted to stay near water and so came to Vancouver.

With a comfortable home base established on the west coast, he continued to document his frequent travels through Africa, North America, Europe and Asia. In the nineties he spent five years working through the Himalayas, documenting the oppressed Buddhist communities in India, Nepal and Tibet. That series became a book, The Tibetans. “I wanted to show the incredible dignity and uniqueness of the Tibetan people,” he says. Rather than focus on the abhorrent oppression the Buddhists endured from the Chinese, he chose to document their perseverance, irrepressible joy and ancient traditions. The Washington Post named it one of the best books of the year, and The Smithsonian added a selection of the images to its permanent collection. In 2000 the book won the Roloff Beny Award and a $50,000 prize.

Key to the success of works like The Tibetans is something Art calls “poetic position.” “You’re not given everything,” he explains. “A poem is just a few words, and those words are just black scatterings on a page. You read that and all of a sudden you fill it in. It’s making the momentary monumental. Poetry is your personal epiphany of experience.” He nods to a favourite line from William Blake: seeing the universe in a grain of sand.

No photo, Art insists, can really be objective; the photographer grapples with too many biases, both conscious and not, when they raise the viewfinder. The viewer will never know what they’ve omitted, and why, much less the thoughts of the subjects. But Art argues that that limitation makes up the essential core of photography. In fact, his work hinges on the subjective. Warmth and empathy saturate his images. They’re immediate and intimate. An effective piece of art doesn’t tell the whole story, it just cracks open the door. It turns the viewer from a passive spectator to a collaborator asked to fill in the blanks.

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Ideally, Art sees photography as a way to articulate life, to efface himself and share a memory. “So this whole thing is about isolating the greatest parts of the human experience,” he says. “If a photo can do it, and I think it can, you have to be somehow invisible. You put everything in there, but that’s your magic. That’s doing something really complicated, and doing it simply.”

In order to achieve something profound, Art keeps his methods simple. Like Bresson, he shoots 35mm black and white film on a Leica, small, quiet, and unobtrusive. Monochrome, Art says, makes it clear that the image isn’t absolute truth but an interpretation, a world separate from the real one. He uses no lights and minimal posing, preferring to capture events as they unfold. “It’s like jazz,” he says. “You take the spontaneity of the moment, but you put in all the discipline and the awareness you get from the study of what you’re doing.”

Studying is an apt word. In conversing with him it’s quickly apparent that Art has an inexhaustible curiosity about other people. He peppers you with questions (even when you’re supposed to be interviewing him). This personality lends his mages vitality, makes them both urgent and contemplative, whether he’s freezing a rambunctious group of Irish youth or a making a quiet portrait of Nick Cave, smoking at his piano with a half-eaten ham sandwich in front of him. His easy nature disarms people, frees them to relax.

That curiosity has led to some good stories: burgers with Lou Reed, laughing with Dizzy Gillespie, visits in Central Park with Allen Ginsberg. Occasionally these visits don’t result in photos. Perhaps it’s an inopportune moment, or Art just doesn’t feel it, as was the case when he travelled to Tangier to visit Paul Bowles, or when he hung out with Andy Warhol in NYC (although Warhol did snap a Polaroid of Art).

Whether it’s a titanic personalty like Werner Herzog or a monk in a remote Tibetan village, Art approaches his subjects the same way. He strives to distill on film the inherent dignity in every person. For the past few decades Art has passed that philosophy on to students at Emily Carr. When faced with that adage, “those who can’t do, teach,” his response is characteristically pithy. “I do teach.”

And is taught in return. “What I’ve gotten from students is immeasurable.”

Between semesters he works on his own projects. The latest, just recently completed after seven years, is Ireland: Little Histories. For that book Art documented the Emerald Isle tip to tip, “celebrating the stories, music, politics and faith that shape the mysterious entity called Irishness.”

While it’s not clear what Art will do next, it’s certain he’ll have his camera loaded and ready. When he tries to sum up what a life of photography has meant to him, he reaches again for a poem. This time it’s a three-word piece by Carl Sandburg. “It was: Born, troubled, died,” he recites. “You know, that’s it. So if you can take photos along the way…”

To see more of Art’s work, visit his site.

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