Unlike anyone else I’ve profiled in the Lounge, I’ve actually shot with Derek Shapton. It was a great experience- he’s calm, he’s friendly, he’s not at all pretentious, he’s smart and he really likes taking pictures. Oh, and the client was very pleased with the final shot too. All of this other “stuff” around the image making process is important and Derek has a great ability to project both ease and a deep professionalism concurrently.
Derek approached me a few weeks ago because he has a new personal project that he wanted to debut in the Lounge. I was excited to do this for a number of reasons. Derek is a busy, commercial photographer (see APE’s interview with him here) and yet he continues to pursue personal, fine art projects. As you might glean from reading this blog regularly, I am ever curious about this murky crossover between a photographer’s personal and commercial work. In Derek’s case his photographic style shifts seamlessly between these two streams.
There is nothing overly wrought about his photographs, they are simple and soft with deep underpinnings. In all of the time that I have been looking at Derek’s work, and in contrast to many photographers, his style hasn’t changed markedly (although I know he went through a Hosemaster period in the distant past). That aside, he is pursuing a steady path.
Here is a selection of his commercial/editorial work:
Derek has a curiousity about the world that has helped him go beyond the initial assignment to a deeper story. Editorial work can become a jumping off point for greater and greater personal projects in the right hands. Case in point, this next selection is from a beautiful project on soldiers turned anti-war activists. It’s called Dissidents and came out of a documentary assignment for The Guardian Weekend magazine. The first two portraits show interrogators trained to serve at Abu Ghraib. As an aside, for more on photography and the role it played in Abu Ghraib, Errol Morris and The New Yorker have teamed up to create this fascinating exploration.
Derek’s newest series is called Here. He writes:
For the past year, I have been revisiting and photographing the locations of vivid early memories, ranging from the sidewalk in front of my childhood house to the park I used to play in to the former location of the pool where I first learned to swim. The images in Here are selections from this ongoing exploration.
The series had its genesis as I played with my two and a half year old son. His awareness and understanding of the world is developing incredibly quickly, and it occurred to me that my earliest recollections are from when I was just a little older than he is. I realized that the circumstances that would coalesce to form his earliest memories might be occurring as I watched.
I became intrigued by the paradoxical quality of these experiences. As children, we have little control over our surroundings. Unremarkable settings can become charged with powerful emotion, forever altering our perceptions of them in deeply personal ways. Everybody has places they can point to and say “here is where it happened” — places that mean little or nothing to anyone else. The idea of a concrete, yet intangible personal geography, at once unique and universal, is at the heart of this project.
Fell Off Bike, 1979:
Learned To Swim, 1976:
We Saw Them Making Out, 1982:
Chris Got Kneed In The Face, 1987:
Leanne Fell Through The Ice, 1980:
I had a few questions for Derek:
Do you consider these pure memories or are they fabricated from all sorts of events and then distilled in this one place. I find it hard to distinguish between real and influenced stories when I think about my own memories. Are these snapshots in your head?
In a way they are snapshots in my head but I’m trying to avoid anything that I think might be something I’ve invented based on some story I‘ve been told all my life by my parents. And in most of these cases, nobody else has any memory of them, even the other people who are involved in them. My sister doesn’t remember falling through the creek at all. I think that it’s pretty safe to say that these are all memories that actually happened but on the other hand, that’s part of the interesting thing about these, they are purely mine.
I tend to remember things in singular moments, almost frozen frames- complete with a memory of the sounds and the smells and the feeling in the air. Primarily it’s a very distinct visual impression and I think that’s helping with the shots.
Can you talk about your process of creating these shots?
Learning to Swim was the very first one. I came up with the idea and I tried a few things and it became apparent that not every vivid memory has a particularly interesting visual component. So there are a few memories that I just will not be able to get. For example I have an image of floating underwater when I was really little. I don’t know where it was and I was wearing swim goggles for the first time and seeing rain on the underside of water. I thought that was such an amazing thing. But it’s such an abstract image that’s not tied to any location. I can’t see how I can get a shot of that which would work in the same way as some of these others. The ones that work have the memory folded into the geography somehow.
Again, remembering the thing and figuring out a way of photographing the place in a way that injects something into it visually is key. Fell off my Bike may not have worked if it weren’t for the weight of the light. I got lucky that day. I’ve talked to many photographers who’ve experienced this: you’re working for a long long time, fighting with an idea and then suddenly something clicks and you get four shots all in a row on one roll that work brilliantly.
I’d like to think people can look at these images without any knowledge of what this series was about, without any reference of the title and see something significant. I’d love it if that were the case.
I’d like to hear more about the paradox you mention when you say: “Unremarkable settings can become charged with powerful emotion”.
What I meant by the paradox, comes back to looking around at the world- odds are that for every place in the neighbourhood, somebody had an extreme experience and has a powerful memory of that experience. You have no control of where that happens. I think that my memories are likely overlaid with everyone else’s, and yet there’s nothing there, it’s a generic suburb. It’s the idea of something being special and not special at the same time.
I’ll leave you with another aside: Derek’s last comment brings his photography in-line with an ongoing audio project in Toronto which I’ve been following with interest for several years. It explores the same theoretical ground (no pun intended) as Derek’s Here series in a completely different way. It’s called [murmur].
[murmur] is a documentary oral history project that records stories and memories told about specific geographic locations. We collect and make accessible people’s personal histories and anecdotes about the places in their neighborhoods that are important to them. In each of these locations we install a [murmur] sign with a telephone number on it that anyone can call with a mobile phone to listen to that story while standing in that exact spot, and engaging in the physical experience of being right where the story takes place.
The smallest, greyest or most nondescript building can be transformed by the stories that live in it. Once heard, these stories can change the way people think about that place and the city at large.