An Interview with Rick McGrath

KB: Rick, you have a literary background and you have been involved with J G Ballard for years. So what (or who) got you interested in photography? When did this passion start? Surely not Ballard?

RM: Surely not, whomever she is. Hah. Let’s go back to, oh, 1972 and my early days as a journalist. Our photographer showed me rudimentary darkroom techniques and in 1976 I bought a Nikon FM with a 50mm lens and motor drive. Took B&Ws for years, bought four or five lenses, used up the newspaper’s film and paper. Then I moved to ad agencies and I got into colour slides and finally started experimenting with infrared. It was all pretty basic stuff, tho… I look at some of those old slides today and man, sleep inducing — usual travel tourist pix, some obviously “artsy” stuff, group shots. I was still thinking as a writer. Got interested in other things and slowly stopped taking pix at all, only to have it all resurrect with digi photography in the 1990s. I had a little Canon SureShot, I think, and I still took the same boring shots, but this time it would run out of battery power and all the whites would come out pink. I also have a Canon GL1 digi movie camera, which I used to make little artsy shorts.
But to wander. This went on until 2009 when I finally got a Nikon D80 and started thinking about what I was doing. My ad agency creative career had allowed me to learn Photoshop, and suddenly I had fairly large images to work with. And a better computer. Plus all those great art directors of my past had slowly taught me spatial proportion. And I could take a zillion shots. Which I did. I also joined Flickr and was able to see an amazing amount of inventive and intelligent image-making, and I paid attention to what these photogs were doing. Within three years I had racked up about 100,000 photos, mostly of my two major environments: downtown Toronto and beside the ocean on the west coast of Canada. In 2014 I upgraded to a Nikon D7100. Lately my usual subjects seems to be animals and birds.
Ballard… no. Although I also started collecting him in 1976 — but no relation to the Nikon.

KB: So Rick, it seems you’ve had quite an extensive relationship with photography through your career: loads of shooting, even infrared??

RM: Yes, Kev, but really a hobby photographer… it seems part of my personal makeup is interested in saving and storing — hence journalism — and I’ve always had the urge to visually capture anything of historical — or hysterical — significance… well, to me, at least.
I actually didn’t do loads of shooting… I really only took the camera on “trips”. I probably took slides because they were displayable on a screen, and lord knows how many times I dragged that stuff out in an attempt to get guests to go home. The infrared phase was fun… I only found it as slide film, but who cares. This film records heat, not light, and it does wacky things with colour — green plants are red, skin is yellow, etc. Makes for some interesting shots if you live in a rainforest.

KB: That sounds amazing, Rick!
The digital age has brought photography to the masses, as The Brownie did some 100 odd years ago. I am an avid fan (after being skeptical through the 90s), although I dislike the slight snobbery with which some people associate with it, but hey, that’s their business. What’s your take on the social media side of things? Meaning, there are those that say it has killed photography, and those that say that it is just an evolution of photography. What’s your stance? (And where do you see it going from here?)

RM: I’ve faded from the Flickr scene and basically just upload shots to Facebook now. One thing about photos — they seems awfully alone if nobody’s there to see them. I’ve heard the publish-on-demand presses are full of amateur photo books, as are book and calendar publishers like Apple. Digi pix? I bet there’s more photos taken with smartphones these days than with cameras… a tsunami of pictures is uploaded every day, most wretched. But none of that bothers me as I’m almost entirely driven by the final image, not how anyone got there. Can’t see how more photographers will kill photography, except perhaps in the post-modern sense where there’s probably more photogs than viewers these days. Is it an evolution? Maybe more of a revolution, as the world seems to be moving from words to images and the McLuhanesque “global village” all plugs in.
Where might it go? Technologically, probably towards 3D and then virtual photos/movies. No more slide screens! Artistically, well, who knows. Although I’m optimistic as the bigger the base, the more likely some stars will shine through.

KB: That’s a good point: how can even more photographers kill photography? It’s a glorious paradox! Too many cooks though?
When you say that you are “almost entirely driven by the final image, not how anyone got there”,  – which I couldn’t agree more with for most of the time, although I do draw the line at heavy editing for bog standard images – does that mean that you don’t mind all this Photoshopping and Instagram filters permeating the digital image? When, and maybe more importantly, WHY should we limit editing/post production? As has been said many times before, it’s not like post production hasn’t been part of photography since its beginnings? The whole bleeding thing was based on chemical processes that came before and after the actual capturing of the image, right?

But you saw what happened with that Nikon* award that they took away from an image when they realized that it had been altered in post production? I’m sure you saw it, the replies were hilarious! By the way: thanks! I’d never even heard of McLuhan – but what a visionary!

RM: It’s tough to point accusing fingers when you’re also guilty of the same (gasp) crimes. Take these two shots:

Rick 1Rick 2

RM: In both instances I’ve added the birds… by fiddling with photoshop I can make their feathers look like they’re reflecting light around them… this way I can take reasonable shots of birds & landscapes and mash them into a more interesting, 3D image… I’d never see these images otherwise…
How & why to limit digi processing? Hell, I’m a processor… I’ve never understood those photogs who require the pix to be exactly as the camera took it. Huh? That reduces photography to the technology of the camera. I eradicate that step by being an obsessive bracketer — gimme something close and it can be played with — well, except out-of-focus. Do people get wired over painters using different ways of getting colour on a surface? No. This argument, for me, is the same as those “purists” who insist zoom lenses are spawn of the blind devil and you need to lug 20 lbs (1oKg) of glass around in a lens bag to be a real “artist”. These cats are confusing artist with “professional”, many of whom I’ve known and all of whom require highly specialized equipment for their work to be acceptable by their clients — often, picky ad guys like me. They may also be artsy photogs, but they’re pro photogs first.
Nikon Award… yes, quite the raising of pitchforks! Easily fixed — have more categories. And to stop cheating? Surely someone can develop a technique to find implanted images…

KB: But who is this Surely Someone?? Haahaaa!
Wow, Rick, there are loadsa great points here!
I love this bit: “That reduces photography to the technology of the camera”, just brilliant, and so true! Yeah, that really bugs me about all that “I only shoot film, and use primes” malarky! I learnt how to do all my “archi-abstract” shots (thanks for that term!) exclusively using my bridge with its 480mm Eq. zoom lens! Like was that a crime? It was a wonderfully creative learning curve for me (and it’s far from over!).
Another thing I learnt from Flickr was to have respect for each and everyone’s own photography: you wanna shoot cats – your business, good luck to you! The fact that I’d rather die than take pictures of dogs, flowers, purple wrinkly babies or whatever, is also simply my business too. Everyone else worried about what everyone else is doing by actually not really worrying about what everyone else is doing! Like it really matters? Each to their own I say, Rick, no, mate? Horses for courses.
PS And can one infer from your comment that photography has a meaning above and beyond just capturing a scene?  It’s more like a tool that permits us to develop ideas and create something more than just a frozen fragment of time captured within the frame? It’s like a springboard to something else – something that the creator possibly intended, or something discovered – a type of metamorphosis – after the shot was taken?

RM: Sure is for me, Kev… I can’t say I ever think of time when I’m out & about… don’t really think of it in terms of a frame, either — the format is part of the technology, and I dunno who decided on 35mm, but it’s an arbitrary canvas. I say this because I’m a constant cropper, Steve, and I tend to see “my” shot within “the” shot. Rarely is my final pix the same size as the initial image. I find it freeing.
I actually consciously try to layer most of my urban, flaneur shots. I’m in a big city with lots of oddball shopping streets and one of my fave techniques is to find an interesting shop window — many are designed by amateurs & offer up oddball layouts — and then shoot it in such a way that combines what’s in the window with what the window reflects… you capture two images and hope the juxtaposition works… I like mannequins so usually it’s not a tough trick… Here’s some examples of what you can get from a store window poster and an opposite building:

DSC_0009

 

RM: I’ve not tried multiple exposures, though I know a local photog who basically does nothing else. Multiples seem like similes, somehow, whereas my blending seems more metaphoric. I also find I go into a specific mindset when I’m out with the camera. The world becomes enhanced, visually, and often many appealing shapes/colours appear. I shoot many pix, and am often amused when I get home and download — lots of the shots I don’t remember taking! It’s getting caught in the zone, I guess, and for me that place is timeless… I slip into it, then come out an hour or so later. In many ways, it’s the reason I do photography — as well as write, design books, etc. It’s an ego-free, non-self-conscious space with no judges, no rules. Those improvement-oriented characters come out in Photoshop.

KB: And all this from the man when referring to photography said: “What do I know?”
Some really beautiful insights here, Rick. I agree about the confines of the frame being “an arbitrary canvas”; I recently did a post on the frame, and cropping vs framing, take a look, let me know how bad my writing is!
When you say, “It’s getting caught in the zone, I guess, and for me that place is timeless… I slip into it, then come out an hour or so later”, I can understand that (and it’s a beautiful thing too). And let’s be honest, whenever we are totally absorbed by something that is engaging we often tend to have that timeless feeling, don’t we? You said, “It’s an ego-free, non-self-conscious space with no judges, no rules.”, is it really though? Do you mean in the moment of shooting you have this clarity of thought and sense of timelessness? What about when we later post those images? Why are we even posting them? Does the ego-thing then take over? Most people do their social media thang just as a popularity pole, to have some “likes” or comments, some existential confirmation or whatever. You said yourself, “One thing about photos — they seems awfully alone if nobody’s there to see them”
.

RM: If I were to get freudian about it, I’d suggest the timeless bit is when we’re in the zone, operating on instinct… and then we’re self-conscious, and I say that’s the super-ego judging what we’ve done…

KB: I see what you mean – makes sense.

RM: Or… it’s the old left brain – right brain thing… regardless, my point is that when I get into flaneur mode it’s easier to open up to possibilities… see it, shoot it, and sort it out later on the computer. I think it’s the same for writing and drawing… you first have to get it (create) and then work it (edit)… I think a lot of people try to do both at once and become paralyzed looking for something, well, perfect…
I think it works that way for everything, actually…
Yes, the public aspect of this is interesting… who are we making these images for? Ourselves first, of course, otherwise why do it? Then the sharing… yes, I suppose we all post pix and await comments… unfortunately with flickr or facebook all the bloody comments are good! You can’t learn in an overly polite situation, unfortunately, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve backed away from flickr and really don’t care about FB feedback, which is amateur-based, anyway. If I want to share pix these days I usually make a little book or a calendar for my friends… and, as I’m a book publisher/designer I can also sneak them into the publications I’m working on… Many Toronto photogs have also organized little showings in local restaurants, and that’s another way to get your stuff out there. But, to be honest, let’s face it: there’s literally billions of photos out there and yours are somewhere in the middle… if you only make images to show off your skills to others, you may not be grasping the concept — visual control.
Or, the fun of making something from nothing…
End.

 

 

Rick McGrath, A Short Biography:

I was born on the west coast of Canada, in British Columbia, on the 4th of July, 1946. In 1952 my war pilot father rejoined the Royal Canadian Air Force, and for the next 12 years I lived the daffy life of an “air force brat”, moving to and from air bases on the east and west coasts of Canada. In 1964 the family settled in a greaseball little seaside town called White Rock, on the border between Washington State and British Columbia. The following year I was admitted as a Charter Student at Simon Fraser University. This event marked the beginning of my life as a creative person, I say with eyes rolling towards the ceiling. Because SFU was a brand-new school we were really forced to invent our own “instant” student traditions. This was the latter 60s, tho, and our traditions were hardly ivy league.  I jumped into the fray immediately, and was one of the founders of the university newspaper. In later years I became a rabid radical, protested the Vietnamese War, became quite hairy, and generally raised hell. Notwithstanding my anti-authoritarian leanings, I graduated with a First Class Honours degree in English Literature in 1969, and was admitted into SFU’s graduate school in 1970. Coincidently, I felt bored and constricted with campus journalism and talked The Georgia Straight, Vancouver’s then-underground newspaper, into hiring me as the paper’s rock critic. By 1972 I had decided I didn’t want to be either a university professor or a rock writer, and was hired as a reporter for a Vancouver suburban newspaper, rising to editor before leaving that job in 1978 to become a founding partner in an advertising agency. That lasted until 1981. Moving on, I was the Creative Director for a number of local ad agencies and in 1987 was hired by a Vancouver-based investment dealer to create and manage their advertising and marketing communication programs. In 1989 that firm was purchased by Canada’s largest investment dealer, and I was transferred to the firm’s Toronto head office, where I created an inhouse ad agency with staff of six to handle all the firm’s communications & advertising needs. I retired as their Vice President, Creative Services, in January of 2000. Since then I’ve been, well, doing whatever the hell I feel like doing.

 


References and Sources

 

*PetaPixel. (2016). Nikon Awards Prize to Badly ‘Shopped Photo, Hilarity Ensues. [online] Available at: http://petapixel.com/2016/01/29/nikon-awards-prize-to-badly-shopped-photo-hilarity-ensues/ [Accessed 21 Apr. 2016].

Flickr – Photo Sharing!. (2016). Rick McGrath. [online] Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rick_mcgrath [Accessed 21 Apr. 2016].

Kev Byrne 1971. (2016). Ramblings 3. [online] Available at: https://kevinbyrne1971.wordpress.com/2016/03/16/ramblings-3/
[Accessed 22 Apr. 2016].

Encyclopedia Britannica. (2015). Marshall McLuhan | Canadian educator. [online]
Available at: http://www.britannica.com/biography/Marshall-McLuhan
[Accessed 21 Apr. 2016].

 

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