Local photographer Lincoln Clarkes is probably best known for “Heroines”, his controversial series featuring women addicts. However, it’s been two decades since Clarkes made a splash with those images, and the prolific shooter continues to turn his unflinching, observant and sympathetic eye on Vancouver and elsewhere. Amidst (or in spite of) the drama of living, Clarkes recently found some time to pore over our questions in this insightful and introspective interview.
What was your first camera? As a teenager, I traded my car for a Nikon because my first camera was a Kodak Brownie that I received at eight. In the 70s, I had all my belongings stolen in Los Angeles along with pictures and negatives. I was left only with a jacket and the Nikon.
How many cameras do you currently own and which is your favourite? I only have a few cameras. Nikons payed my rent for decades but the Twin lens Rolleiflex was my favourite. Now I use a Fuji xt2 because it’s simply the best for what I need.
What’s your relationship to Instagram? Instagram is the new magazine rack. I could hang out there for hours. That visual candy can be addictive so I neglect it every chance I can. It’s an archive of the best and worst. I love it when it doesn’t make me roll my eyes. I also take it seriously as another one of my portfolios. And it’s a fine contact connector – another phone book.
How difficult is it for you to separate yourself as a photographer behind the lens and what you are capturing? It’s easy. I don’t feel a need to be involved with what I picture. The picture is an adoption of whatever it is. I’m fine with just being the messenger. I don’t want to be a spokesperson for what I photograph. Who, what, where and when are okay, but not why.
What draws you to your subjects? Someone worth a second look. There was a saying that went around when I was a child if you were caught staring at someone: ‘Take a picture; it lasts longer.’ I heard that a lot. Confidence draws me to a subject, a strong and individual sense of style even if it’s outdated. People who do what I admire and who are making a worthy contribution in whatever field that is. The face and what’s between the ears makes an improvement image-wise. The human element is what I prefer in a photograph, but if it’s the wrong person the shot is shot.
What inspires a series of photographs? Something that’s vast and more than a single moment. To tie up an event that’s fleeting. An introduction to it and the people involved. Perhaps to make sense of it on a later date. A series of pictures is a movie or documentary all in as many frames. It’s the perfect vehicle to convey anything in the language of photography.
Going through your different series, there is a sense of sympathy for the subjects and they feel a bit like personal essays. How much of yourself goes into your photographs? Since every photograph is somewhat about its author, choosing a subject or editing is personally revealing. I prefer photographing introverts. It’s more of a challenge yet offers potential for a rare glimpse. No matter who the person is, I try to be as kind as possible to their image. There are certain people I would never photograph because in taking a picture of someone, a particular alliance is formed.
Did you seek out to be a documentarian? That’s what I like best about photography; it’s time travel. It tells plenty without a single word. Great images are those that can’t be redone, no going back. I attempt to keep things a bit unknown so that questions aren’t immediately answered. Wouldn’t ever want to insist my view is what the viewer’s should be. I’m often amused by what people read into my images. When not saying too much other than location and date about a photograph, people will assume endlessly.
“The face and what’s between the ears makes an improvement image-wise. The human element is what I prefer in a photograph, but if it’s the wrong person the shot is shot.”
What is the line between photography as an artistic expression and as a process of documentation or journalism? Does it exist? And, if so, how conscientious are you of it when you are taking photographs? I try not to overthink a photograph when a camera is within reach. If I’m in doubt, I don’t. It’s helpful to have somewhat of a destination for a picture. What to do with it after the fact, where it might fit in. One must stand with one’s images and be eternally connected to them. That’s where editing/deleting comes in. Also an image doesn’t have to be one label or another, it could check many boxes. If something is done in the best way possible, it’s a contender for art.
What is your favourite place in Vancouver? In the world? My favorite places are the ones that I’m at with people I love. Most of the greatest places and locations have been renovated into oblivion, torn down or clear cut. I give up on location and go with a feeling anywhere.
The place in Vancouver that no longer exists that you miss the most? The vintage tile and granite water fountain that use to grace the front of the Vancouver Art Gallery. It was a wonderful place and the sound drowned out all traffic noise. It was surrounded by the tallest century-old trees in the city centre which were full of birds. Now it’s a posh parking lot draped in advertising.
What are three things that you would like to see change about Vancouver? I could list a hundred!
1) Housing for the many that don’t have it. More co-ops less condos. Most development is for profit not people.
2) Close bridges and streets to traffic. What’s the rush? Cars are so overrated.
3) Ease up on the overworked landscaping that destroys and controls the natural growth of plants and trees. Gimme shade. Let vines and nature rule because they do. Value what grows naturally.
Those three changes would apply globally to most cities and towns.
Where do you go to lay low? Home or someone else’s.
Where do you go to be seen? To wonderful parties, exhibitions and music gigs. Sadly many parties are simply gatherings. The best place to be seen I would think is in a forest.
A time that you and/or your artwork was misinterpreted? I guess that would be when I photographed hundreds of heroin and crack-addicted homeless sex trade workers in a Vancouver ghetto who were dying of AIDS and being murdered left and right… Most people understood my motives but others sure got their knickers in a knot.
Are you a humanitarian? Because of all the things I don’t photograph, I must be.
How much of your own political beliefs go into your photographs? All of them, it’s my voice speaking in the language of photography. There’s so much that drives me bonkers with the world and plenty that I absolutely adore.
Have you ever witnessed your art making a change? What was that like? Art and photography make a change when it’s emotional. I strive for that in the equation but not in a graphically obvious way. I’ve seen people burst into tears and weep looking at my pictures. I’ve also had my camera smashed a few times and have been slandered into the gutter. I can take it. I have no choice. What’s praised is often equally condemned.
What impact do you hope to make? That I was helpful. That I or my photographs shifted someone for the better or changed their view. Moments are a dime a dozen. Life’s good episodes that make the most impact usually have someone involved. Personal pictures apparently have the highest value. It’s an honor to be involved with their creation.
“The media is much too sensitive about offensive content. A tough picture could have a healthy effect on the pampered public. Tragic traffic accidents are kept out of view because we don’t want to upset children. Censorship has made people oblivious to reality and this is where it’s brought us.”
Tell me about a time you felt powerless. Driving a rental car and spinning out of control in a mountain snow storm in the middle of nowhere.
How about a time you felt the most powerful? Being head over heels in love.
Photography has changed in the media over the years, what are your views of it now? I’ve always thought censorship is obscene. We hear of school shootings and see the police but we never see any dead kids, blood or hospital corridors. Can you imagine the impact of a published visual of a floor in a classroom? People would freak out on the media not the NRA. The media is much too sensitive about offensive content. A tough picture could have a healthy effect on the pampered public. Tragic traffic accidents are kept out of view because we don’t want to upset children. Censorship has made people oblivious to reality and this is where it’s brought us.
What movement, demonstration or historical moment in time do you wish that you could have photographed? I never wish for things that are not possible. Here and now is plenty to deal with.
Poetry and film photography are arguably two of the most under appreciated arts…What is the attraction? Perhaps because a poem or photograph could mean a lot of different things to many people. Move some to tears, jump off a bridge or jump for joy. They’re both to be experienced solo and absorbed in a private encounter, preferably unplugged.
What was the last poem that you wrote and what inspired it? “Water Bombers Yes, Jet Fighters No!” Rather short and to the point. I recently posted that because of the environmental emergencies that are evolving daily.
What is the most exciting part of the photographic process? The most frustrating? It’s most exciting when you see a top image for the first time and know it’s a contender. Most frustrating is that a photograph in any format is easy to lose and fragile. That’s what makes them so precious. I’ve lost plenty.
What celebrity do you wish you could capture, incognito? Kate Moss, because she’s always so aware of the camera.
If you could be photographed by any photographer, living or dead, who would you choose? That would be a toss-up – either Helmut Newton or Sarah Moon
Your personal motto or slogan? The biggest problems have the simplest solutions.
Who was (or is) your mentor, if you had one? Ian Wallace and Fred Herzog always helped me out through the years. They gave me plenty of advice and laughs. And there are countless others. Even people I knew briefly offered help and wisdom.
Do you consider yourself a mentor? I like to be influenced by people and what they do. I’m always looking for someone to be impressed with. If I can offer anything to someone else who I think is wonderful, I’ll take the time to do so.
What three current photographers are you most excited by? 1) Greg Girard – I love what he is pulling out of his archive. I was right there on those landscapes of Vancouver but out of frame.
2) Mandy-Lyn – her untamed vision of sexual contemporaries. She has conquered a signature style that’s all hers.
3) Steven Meisel – Italian Vogue.
“I don’t have any dreams of what could be anymore. I had those 30 years ago and things worked out just fine. Now the future is abstract.”
You recently curated a show of Mandy-Lyn’s artwork. How did that relationship come about? What do you look for when curating a show? When I first noticed Mandy-Lyn’s photographs, I thought, ‘Here’s someone who sticks to a vision.’ She keeps her style and work identifiable but fun and light. She’s an original with her heart in her eye. Her subjects show private enthusiasm publicly which is a credit to her, the director. Then I found out she was living two blocks away… She’s an easy friend to have.
What can we look forward to from you in the next year? Anvil Press is publishing a new book of mine entitled “Heroines Revisited” with new essays and unpublished duotone portraits circa 1999. Other than that, I have absolutely no plans for the next year except to do what I always do, which is to see what unfolds and be open to ideas.
What is the next project or series that you would like to do? I’d like to travel throughout the United States and photograph women and children with bullet wounds. That would give the US a good slap in the face and perhaps bring their gun laws into focus.
Where do you see yourself and your practice in five years? A decade? I don’t have any dreams of what could be anymore. I had those 30 years ago and things worked out just fine. Now the future is abstract.
How do you want to be remembered? Intimately and publicly.