Portraits of Canadian Writers

By Bruce Meyer

Portraits of Canadian Writers
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In Portraits of Canadian Writers, Bruce Meyer shares the portraits of some of Canada's most beloved writers alongside anecdotes that reveal their personalities.


Overview

In Portraits of Canadian Writers, Bruce Meyer shares the portraits of some of Canada's most beloved writers alongside anecdotes that reveal their personalities.

Excerpt

The odd thing about author interviews is that authors always manage to reinvent themselves as they wish to be seen no matter how hard we worked to phrase our questions to reveal something other than the self-aware persona that emerges from the printed page. If an author, such as Al Purdy, expressed both raucousness and profound spirituality in his poetry, the persona he presented to us during the interview only reinforced that perception. What struck me each time we sat down with a writer to discuss his or her work was that they were assured about who they were and how they wanted to present themselves. They were image-conscious, but at the same time disarmingly unaware?if they could be that?of the extent to which they were living the idea of themselves they created to create the work. In some cases, that self-perception was far different from the writer's day-to-day life. What I learned is that it is hard, if not impossible, to separate the author from the author's persona. That persona, the voice in the work and the voice behind the work, was more than an expression of a person writing about what they knew. It was the presence of a personality on the page and in the room in front of us that continually sounded its unique qualities. I soon realized that my duty as a photographer?not just an interviewer, critic, or reader?was to articulate that voice that I was hearing in their answers. After each interview I would ask the writer to take me to the place where they felt comfortable and where their imaginative work took shape. Some simply stood still. Others would lead O'Riordan and I to a study or to a back porch or a bay window. That is where these photographs were taken.

Listening to the authors was essential. When I looked through the view-finder of my single-lens reflex or scanned a contact sheet with a slide magnifier (I worked, and still work in black and white, with film, 400 ASA, all natural light, no flash permitted), I realized that what I had to do was more than record the personality I heard or even capture the likeness of the person. I wanted to understand how the words, the personality, and the appearance all fit together like pieces in an elaborate puzzle. Authors are the sum of all these elements and something more that I cannot name but I always sensed was there. Perhaps it was the sense of self-integration that enabled them to do one of the hardest things possible for a human being: to imagine themselves. I realized I had to see them as more than just faces or I would be doing them and their works a terrible disservice. I wanted my portraits of them to be memorable and in order to understand what makes a portrait memorable, I began a study of portraiture.

I realized that portrait is, arguably, the hardest of all the visual arts to learn. This fact struck me when I poured over the works of such contemporary literary photographers as Jill Kremitz (the wife of Kurt Vonnegut), Christopher Barker (the son of Elizabeth Smart and the English poet George Barker), and earlier portrait photographers who had chosen writers as their subjects: Julia Margaret Cameron, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Yusef Karsh, John Reeves, Arnaud Maggs, and the great Nineteenth century French photo-biographer, Nadar. What struck me was that their images were not just snapshots of the person, but serious extensions and reinventions of the art of portraiture, and critiques and interpretations of the authors' works. That's a tall order.

(... Continued in Portraits of Canadian Writers)

Reviews

`Yes, this is a book that should be in every Canadian library for reference but it is also a book that should be read and discussed. Not in a critical way but one that starts thought process and spawns reflections and considerations. It is a gifted read. And charming one at times.

`Bruce Meyer has given us readers a serious bit of enlightenment for our minds with his Portraits of Canadian Writers. The combination of writing and images engage any reader's complete psyche and give insight to some of Canada's greatest wordsmiths.'

Steven Buechler

`[T]he world being created in this fascinating collection is very much a memoir of sorts, through the eyes of Bruce Meyer, the author of nearly 50 books of non-fiction and poetry. We learn much about him, what attracted him to these writers, but more importantly, as anyone who has done interviews realizes, we discover what follows from these interactions is that we come away with a veritable sense of something more intimate, more personal. That couldn't happen without Bruce Meyer, without his perspective, his curiosity, and his camera. This book serves as a significant document that in a way taps us on the shoulder and reminds us that the twists and turns our literature has taken has its origins here in the lives of these individuals. In that way, Portraits of Canadian Writers is a trusty guide to our writing, and maybe explains why it has blossomed.'

Marty Gervais

What takes the collection to an exceptional level is Meyer's devotion to and passion for Canada's literary legacy.

Bruce Meyer's Portraits of Canadian Writers compiles nearly two hundred photographic portraits of literary notables from Canada's various provinces, combining intuitive camera work with short anecdotal or biographical profiles.

Though Meyer is primarily a writer, poet, arts advocate, and educator, his photographic skills are enhanced by his own knowledge of the writing life, as well as an insight into the complex, often evasive nature of his fellow wordsmiths.

Meyer began work on this collection of portraits and their accompanying interviews in the early 1980s, using a Pentax camera and black-and-white film. Natural light prevailed over the brightness of flash, with the resulting photographs varying from striking to somber, warmly candid and intimately accessible to determinedly detached and distant. The portraits are paired with brief yet distinctive pages of text by Meyer, generally a personal connection to or memory of meeting each particular subject.

Among the more famed names are novelists Margaret Atwood and Joy Kogawa, poets Dorothy Livesay and Elizabeth Smart, and troubadour/author/musician Leonard Cohen. Cohen graciously offered "a spread of schnapps, matzah, kosher dills and Montreal smoked meats" and played a song he was working on at the time. This "pop song about holiness," as Cohen described it, would ultimately become the haunting ballad "Hallelujah." Cohen posed for three portraits, offering glimpses of his deeper artistic side along with a somewhat more jocular showmanship.

From Lorna Crozier's standing before a fruit and vegetable stand in honor of her erotic poetic parody "The Sex Life of Vegetables" to Austin Clarke's fondness for London gin martinis, Portraits of Canadian Writers brings life and intriguing detail to these contemporary literary figures. Meyer notes how Neil Bissoondath had the tenacity to wake before dawn and methodically craft a first collection of short stories before heading to his day job. The intense poet Milton Acorn often stayed at a run-down Toronto transient hotel, his room unusually "bright and sunny" amid the otherwise hellish corridors. Catherine Owen's smile seems serenely untroubled, yet her work is expansive and mystical.

Portraits of Canadian Writers could be described as an admirable project, but what takes the collection to an exceptional level is Meyer's devotion to and passion for Canada's literary legacy. His impressions of and meetings with these portrait subjects are memorably joyous, quirky, respectful, and poignant by turns, with his ultimate goal being to bring well-deserved recognition to such a diverse group and all "the dreams they put into words."

Meg Nola

`Chock full of lovely verse, laughs, and a lot to learn...'

Jessica Raven

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