Interview by Jim Donaldson
Well, let’s start with why McGill first. As far as I could determine at that time, it was the best School of Architecture, certainly one of the best. And if you are going to do something seriously- this was my second degree after having gone through McGill once before, just having gotten a general degree in Science. And if you are going to do something the second time around, you want to do it right. And I went out to UBC. I would have fancied living out there on the West Coast attending that university. It’s a beautiful campus. I went in and spoke to one of the professors and he said to me, “Well, you may find this a little unusual, but we don’t even have any drafting tables in our design studio. And I thought that was a little radical and I remember mentioning that to Derek Drummond and he said, “Yeah, that is kind of unusual” . And so it seemed that McGill was the obvious choice. And I recall later, we had a project in third year for Professor Zuk to design a student centre and we went to Ottawa to see what the University of Carleton’s student centre looked like. And while we were there, we just paid a social visit to the architecture studio, to the School of Architecture there, and it was quite evident that their third and fourth year students were doing work on a level that we’d done in first year. So that was why I chose McGill.
As far as the first part of the question goes, probably for overly-ambitious and naïve reasons, I thought- it’s sort of quite ironic, because I had done a little bit of photography before going into architecture school and I thought, well, I can’t make a living doing this, unless I decide to do weddings or something, and it’s just not what I’m- my personality suited for and I want to do something in the visual design field and I’ll become an architect and I’ll redesign cities and design and build my own house and change the world. It didn’ t quite work out that way. After four years of all-nighters, I thought it would be nice to take a break and do something healthy for a change, maybe spend a few months hiking in the mountains. And just before I graduated, I got the opportunity. You know, Mel Herdig who had a publishing house at the time, gave me the opportunity to do a book on the mountains in Canada, it was called Alpine Canada. So I thought, well, that’s perfect. If somebody had said, “well, write your own ticket what you want to do over the next few months”, I couldn’t have come up with, you know, anything more fantastic. So I worked on that book project, and that led to another one and another one and that was just too much fun and too interesting to give up so I never went back to architecture.
But let’s- we’ve very conveniently skipped over a few years of your life, like those four, five years at McGill. Do you have any memories of sort of the good times at McGill or the professors? And I’m trying to think whether, there were a lot of them around at the time I guess. People like Peter Collins, was he teaching you or was he alive at the time?
He was, yeah, he was teaching us and I also took a course from him called Architectural Judgment, which- I had a great deal of respect for Peter Collins. Also, that particular course was very interesting because it, in a way, it summarizes the whole sort of feeling I had about the education I was getting in architecture school. You’re basically, in a way, learning about how the world works. You know, you’re not just learning how to design buildings, but you’re learning about, you know, how city administrations work, how legal things relating to buildings work, engineering and social questions, a whole range of knowledge was coming into the architectural programme. And in the case of that particular course, Peter Collins’s perspective on it was that one of the most important things that you brought to bear on architectural practice was judgment. And so in order to appreciate what’s involved in making good judgment, good decisions, he would offer a course where you examined the profession where judgment was the essence of it. But it was a lot more clever than that, because it was a seminar course, we would sit around a table. Every week, at the end of every session, we’d get a sheet of paper with another sort of case on it, and we had to come back next week and present what our opinion would be as if we were one of the appeal court judges making decisions on this case. But all the cases related to the building trade and to architecture. So you would have some case that had gone to appeals court that had to do with some contractor not fulfilling some obligation and got the architect involved with respect to the, you know, clients and we learned to distinguish between, you know questions- conflicts in legal matters regarding, you know tort versus contract, that sort of thing. So it was a very well-structured course.
I guess of the professors I remember the most, one tends to remember the beginnings the most, and my first design professor was Bruce Anderson. But I had a great deal of respect for him and what I liked about him was that right from the beginning when we started our first design course in first year, you know, he made it quite clear that, you know, we weren’t going to get much in the way of praise. And I thought this was stimulating. This was challenging and also this was serious. I mean, if you are doing something that’s important and you are doing it at a high level, back to the reason why I chose to go to McGill, then, you know, you are not there to be told how good you are, you are there to be told how much you can improve on it, that it’s simply not good enough. And that’s something that’s remained with me, even while I’ve forgotten a lot of the things that I’ve learned in architecture school, I sort of appreciate that sort of attitude towards things. You think of people that are- work at an elite level in anything, they don’t – in a way, it’s the ultimate compliment just to be criticized and to be said, “that’ s not good enough, you can do better”. And then when the praise does come, as occasionally he would say something was excellent, then, you know, it really made you feel good because you realized it meant something. When someone who is highly critical most of the time praises your work, well, that’ s a lot more meaningful than if you get your work praised all the time.
Are there any other professors that you recall, like did John Bland give you any lectures, or Norbert Schoenauer, or Derek Drummond? I guess Derek was the Director of the School then, eh?
I think he became Director a little bit later.
But he was on staff, though.
Yeah, he was our design professor in the second half of first year. And then John Bland was our professor in third year, if I recall correctly. And Professor Zuk.
Then you had Stuart Wilson?
What was your feeling about Stuart Wilson?
I liked him. I guess he had a reputation along with Bruce Anderson for being quite severe and not easy to impress, and I got the sense from some people that had him in the earlier years that he was, sort of, he could be tough to deal with. But when I had him, I had the impression of somebody that really, you know, enjoyed teaching and cared about his students. He just didn’t let on that he did very often because that wasn’t maybe productive to the kind of training he wanted people to have, but-
There certainly was never a dull moment when he was around. A lot of people have some interesting memories about him coming into classes and ripping a whole lot of them down and leaving, what, maybe three out of twenty-two or something like that, that were worth talking about.
I think he probably mellowed out when I had him because I never…
…had that experience.
…never had any experience of that kind.
Did you have- you mentioned Rad Zuk, Norbert; do you have any memories of those two?
Sometimes it’s hard to- you know, you have the memories of staying up all night, and everything after that is kind of a bit of a haze! I remember, I guess the crits are the most memorable, and the specific projects. And of course there was never enough time to finish anything, which I guess is a lesson for the real world when you get out there. That was the- I found the most difficult thing for me personally to deal with. I don’t think I’ve yet mastered the skill of budgeting my time and getting everything done exactly- you know, having it all fit together perfectly in that way. So that was- I remember for my final project in fourth year, I thought that the design worked out fairly well, it’s just that when it came to put up the final drawings, and of course if something was incomplete, this was one of the worst sins. I didn’t really get around to- not that I didn’t get around to, I didn’t have enough time to do all the lettering to explain what all these plans and elevations and all these details, what they were supposed to do and they were supposed to work together. So I felt I was lucky to get out of there alive. I still have dreams that I’m back in architecture school and I have- I don’t have my degree but I have been given the opportunity to go back and repeat the final year. And it’s coming up to the last few days and it’s the same old problem: not enough has been done and it’s not going to be finished.
You say that’s a dream, I guess in reality, it’s a nightmare!
I wanted to ask you, obviously, there were other students in your years. Did you ever keep in touch with any of them?
No, and regrettably I don’t really know where they have gone and what’s happened to them. I had one friend that I would have more than likely kept in touch with, Raymond Jotteramd and he was unfortunately killed in a mountaineering accident with another friend of mine, they were two of my best friends. I know Duncan Harvey works in Toronto, or did work. We got in touch over the phone a few times and never quite managed to get together over lunch or a coffee. And I don’t know- I’m sort of curious to know how many of my classmates are practicing and how many of them did what I did and went on to other things.
What year- did you finish around ’77?
I think it was ’78.
’78. I can let you know, because I have got lists from somewhere. I’ll send a copy to you because you might be interested for one reason or another. Before we close out on the segment at the university, is there any particular event or any particular course that you thought was going to be difficult to influence your career but was more influential on you than anything else? Any professor, any course?
I can’t recall anything, any course that - of course, the design courses were all- I mean, you could have spent, if you didn’t have these other credits you needed, you could have spent your entire four years in university just working in the studio on your designs. So all of them tend to be quite memorable. One thing that struck me is how much I’ve forgotten not having had to apply it. I mean, I have sort of these- what I appreciated about the programme at McGill was just even if you ended up not practicing architecture afterwards, it just seemed like you were getting such an intense and such a rounded education. But what that leaves you with when you are not applying specific things that you learned and certain skills and certain knowledge, I’ m not sure.
It’s interesting your comment, because if you were an engineer, what you just said really wouldn’t be relevant, because most engineers don’t practice engineering. They go into business and all sorts of other entrepreneurs. Whereas an architect is sort of stamped as an architect for the rest of his life regardless of what profession. Because, even in yours today, people will always remember you as an architect. Since you’ve graduated, of course, you’ ve found another career. So how about talking a little bit about your final days at McGill and what happened to you after you graduated.
Well, just before I graduated, I got a phone call from Mel Herdig, a publisher, at the time he was primarily a publisher in…
Out in Edmonton?
…Edmonton. And asking if I could come up and see him sometime, he said it would be worth my while.
I have to ask you a question, which is very relevant. How did he know about you?
Well, early on, I’d been doing some photography before I went back to McGill to study Architecture. And, you know, over the summers, I spent parts of them hiking in mountains, taking photographs. And before I went to architecture school, I actually had this idea I’d like to do this book on the Rocky Mountains and I sort of abandoned that when I decided to go to architecture school. But in the course of doing so, I’d seen Lorraine Monk at the National Film Board and Mel Herdig, I guess it was sometime in my second year or so, he was doing a book on the Rockies and he was looking for people that had photographs. And he got my name, I guess, from Lorraine Monk and I sent him some photos and he ended up using more of mine in the book than anyone else’ s. And then I paid him a visit once in Edmonton. I thought- I had it in the back of my mind that when I graduated, it would be kind of interesting to maybe work on a book project, maybe take some time off and as I was mentioning earlier, do something physical instead of staying up all night. So he was aware of my work. I never expected that one day, he’d call me up out of the blue, invite me up to Edmonton and say, “I want you to do all the photography for these two books I’ ve got planned”. But that’s what basically happened. Sort of like, I guess it doesn’t happen often, and that’s sort of one break you get in life, that one opportunity that a lot of people, you know, figure well, it would be in completely idle and hopeless dreams imagining something like that happening. But it gave me, you know, gave me an immediate focus. I knew right away what I was going to do when I graduated, I was going to go to work on this book project. I went out to the Rockies in May with one of the other, one of my classmates, Raymond Joderain and we did a two-week-long ski trip in the ice fields in the Rockies. And that sort of got me started. I went out to Yukon that year.
Were you taking photographs then, when you were on the ski trip?
Yeah. That was part- some of those went into the first book I did. That led to another book and that led to another book. And they were just too interesting- the projects were too interesting. I couldn’t imagine why I would turn my back on them and go and work in an office at that point. The first book I did was called Alpine Canada. I got to meet and spend some time with Andy Russell who wrote the text for that. The next project was Islands of Canada where I met and worked with Marian Engels. Mel decided to give me the responsibility of editing and writing a book called The Art of Canadian Nature Photography, so I met a whole range of other photographers in the course of doing that. I interviewed a lot of them much like you are doing now, except it was for text. I put them down on tape. And I had- a friend of mine [unclear], he was a pilot, not by profession but he had a lot of experience flying small aircraft, and I got this idea that it would be really neat to fly across the country and photograph it from the air. So I proposed that to Mel and he said, “Well, let’s do that”. So I went out, this friend of mine and I, we bought a- actually bought an airplane ‘cause that seemed to be the most practical or most cost-effective way of putting three or four hundred hours of flying in. The mathematics worked out it was cheaper than renting them at fifty bucks an hour, whatever. So we did that project and that built up a file of slides for me, a file of photographs that I was able to sort of spin off into other book projects. And then it also gave me a basis for having a stock file that’s marketed now and has been for quite a number of years by Masterfile. And that’s where almost all my income now comes from supplying them with pictures, and any book projects I consider as something I’m doing that basically subsidizes the book publishing industry, because when you work out how much you make per book, I’d have to do about two dozen photo books every year just to make a livelihood at it, which is of course physically impossible.
You mentioned something. First of all, people are always interested in great photography. And you mentioned something about the tree growing out of the small trees and how that could- a lot of your pictures are metaphors for, I guess, for future applications. And you showed me a number of other photographs. Is this in your mind when you are taking a photograph? ‘Cause when you say you are going down to the Maritimes, do you have anything specific in mind when you take a trip like that?
No, you basically, you are totally dependent on what you are going to find and what the weather is going to be. And much of the time I’m just looking for, if I’m out in the landscape, I’m looking for beautiful landscapes under beautiful circumstances, with the right lighting, the right weather. What succeeds in the marketplace in stock photography are those pictures, they are rare but they sell over and over and over again. It’s not that uncommon for a best-selling photograph to actually have a value in the six figures because it will see multiple use around the world. People will use it, I mean, in annual reports. They will use it in advertising. They will use it in brochures. They will use it any number of ways in which photography is used to communicate. Ideally, I mean, if I had a hundred such best-selling photos, I wouldn’t need the fifty thousand other photos I’ve got on file with the agency. Their photos get published, the ones they consider to be the most marketable get published in quite handsome catalogues that go out every year. And what you are looking for in the ideal photo is a metaphor that’s applicable to primarily in the business world. If it’s something, as I found once driving through the Maritimes, a single tree that’s taller than all the other trees in the forest that’s been left uncut, standing while it’s surrounded by low second growth, it’s – the landscape might not be very beautiful, the photograph might not even be very interesting, but it’s still the perfect metaphor for outstanding growth, rising head and shoulders above the rest, that sort of thing. It’s easier to- you can’ t count on finding such things. I mean there are obvious metaphors like roads. Roads shots do very well. So when I’m driving across the country, I keep an eye out for those. But you’d be amazed at how rare it is to find a good photographable road. It has to be freshly paved. If it’s grey, faded pavement and it’s all cracked it doesn’t look very good. There can’t be, you know billboards and wires and dumpsites along the road. It’s got to be in a pristine landscape. The light’s got to be right. That doesn’t come together very often. If you take the same idea of looking for visual metaphors and take it into a photo studio, you can pretty well get it right every time, it just takes a lot more time. Like, one example I can give, it’s a very simple photograph, but I did a golden egg. Spray-painted an egg and then lit it to make it look like it was made out of solid gold. And that went in the catalogue and it sold over and over again. I guess it’s probably used on, you know, bank brochures, people trying to sell mutual funds. I’ve seen it on the cover of an Economics textbook.
A question I’m sure you’ve often been asked, and I know very little about photography. If this was Bruce Anderson interviewing you, he would be talking to you for the next hour and a half. I can’t afford to do that. First of all, I don’t have the knowledge nor the time. What separates you from the other photographers? There must be hundreds, maybe thousands of photographers around that take pictures, and I can think of a lot of them that are considered not professionals but they are considered good amateurs, but your work really becomes a piece of art. I mean, that’s a compliment, but I think, there’s an artistic quality to it, so it’s- I guess, as an amateur photographer, I mean, how do you explain- what do you do when you go out and once you see a subject, what is it that separates you in the work that how you capture that subject from the average person?
I don’t think anything really separates me apart from, you know, I’ve had the opportunity and maybe I’ve stuck with it. I don’t think there’s- it’s a particularly demanding level of skill involved in taking good outdoor photos, for example. What makes a good photo, obviously, it’s a truism but it’s one that even photographers like myself tend to forget from time to time, and that’ s the quality of the light. Just as music is made up of sounds, you know, you wouldn’t think of considering something good music if there was something lacking in the quality of the sound, regardless of whatever attributes it had. The same applies to each and every photograph. Even though sometimes it’s not- you know, the quality of the light is not obvious, it has to be right. That’s the essence of it.
But I don’t think- it’s funny, I had a philosophy going through architecture school and I have it to this day. I don’t consider- I never believed that people had something you can call talent. I believe that anybody- when I went through architecture school, I had a bit of an arrogant attitude that I wanted to be, you know, the best in the class. But what that didn’t exclude was the possibility that everyone else could also be the best in the class. If you got, you know, a hundred on your Mechanics exam, you’d obviously get the top score and you would be the best, but that didn’t mean that every single other student in the class couldn’t get a hundred. And I also didn’t feel- I felt that anyone could do what they wanted to, if they really wanted to. I mean you had to genuinely want something and work hard at it and you would eventually find the skills and find the ability to do it. I tended to think of talent as something that people had- people who had talent had a lack of something that stood in their way, you know, you could find it by finding out what it was that was sort of preventing you from, for example, drawing well. I mean, it’s quite obvious, people would come into architecture school, some of them could draw very well and others couldn’t draw worth a damn. But you would often see surprises, you know, people who in first year couldn’t, you know, couldn’t even- could barely draw a stick figure, by the time they would graduate, they might have some of the best sketches in the class. It just depended on motivation and on a love for what you were doing. You know, maybe that’s why I didn’t go on to become an architect because it was- although I was highly stimulated by it, I realized it wasn’t the only thing I loved to do. It wasn’t my- I loved being in the mountains, in the outdoors, being physically active. All these things don’t sort of fit in with long hours at drafting tables and all-nighters in studios. And I never intentionally, you know, when I graduated, it wasn’t really on my mind that, you know, maybe I wouldn’t practice or I wouldn’t go on to design buildings, it’s just I needed a short break and that led to the career I have.
What do you, what do you expect to do for the rest of your life? The same that you’re doing right now, I guess, eh? ‘Cause it’s basically a hobby that you get paid for. And that’s the way everybody should have a business.
Well, some- a lot of people in the design profession feel that way. I mean, I remember, gosh, I forget the name of the professor, but-
Yeah, it was Landscape.
Not John Schreiber?
Yes. I think it was John Schreiber. He said that he never worked a day in his life. He was having fun doing what he was doing. Some of us found that sort of hard to relate to, staying up all night and getting criticized for having put out our maximum effort.
But that would apply to you today, I’m sure, in your life.
You probably could say “I’ve never worked a day since I graduated.
And we all know that’s not true, but that’s your perspective of it and I guess it’s mine too.
Yeah, if you’re doing what you love, that’s, you know, you can’t get enough of it. And I did love architecture, you know, much of the time. I mean I found it to be, you know, challenging, which is what I wanted, and stimulating. It was something that was of importance. I’m not sure that what I’m doing now is of importance.
Right now you are doing something extremely important. Talking to me! I’m curious, because I know I’ve talked to you on a few occasions when you were on your way West out in Salt Spring Island. When do you use that home that you have out there?
All summer, over March break when the kids get out of school and Christmas. I would prefer to be there full-time. I mean, we are right on the water. The location is ideal for me when I’m doing or photographing what I like. I still like to photograph best, I guess, is grand, dramatic landscapes on a big, spectacular scale. I’m halfway between California and Alaska. And, you know, in a day, I can drive down to the Redwoods, in a long day. In a half-day, I can, you know, be hiking around some of the largest mountains in North America. I can get out to the ocean. You can’t do that out of Toronto, but when you have kids, all of a sudden you realize that every decision you make and every plan that you have has to take them into account, not only does it have to take them into account, you have to put them ahead of everything else. At least that’s the way I feel about mine.
I guess we’re now on camera, and I was curious because you were a photographer, not necessarily of note, before you went back- before you went to the School. Did that, would you say, enhance your thinking about photography? Because obviously you have never practiced architecture since you’ve, I assume, since you’ve graduated.
Well, a lot of people have asked me. They’ve said, “Well, going to architecture school must have given you the abilities that you have in photography. I don’t really think it did but what I think is going to happen is that eventually, this will probably come full circle. Because in the business I’m in, I don’t consider it to be- I don’t consider myself to be as much of an artist as a communicator. And as I’ve mentioned before, I’m looking for visual metaphors to either find them out in the landscape or create them in the studio. And when you start creating them in the studio, there’s obviously design skills that come into play. But the way the industry is going, as in a lot of things, the computer is having an enormous impact on photography as on anything else. And I’ ll be moving into digitally working on my photographs in the very near future. I should have done it some time ago, but again, with kids and everything, it tends to delay your plans. And the possibilities are endless. I’m doing stuff in the studio that’s architectural in nature in terms of working with shapes and forms, and once you bring the computer into play, I can see myself designing sets, buildings, landscapes, urbanized geometric kind of landscapes and incorporating those in my photographs or making those my photographs and using the tools that are available for people that work in Photoshop and other computer programmes to generate new and different images. And that’s going to- I’ve already- I mean for the first time since I graduated, in the last few months, I’ve dusted off my drafting table and I’ve been working with an illustrator on a few concepts where I’ve drafted up the perspective and I’ve copped up what I want him to render with his airbrush techniques and we’ve been taking his illustrations and enhancing them with lighting effects in the studio. And so, ten years ago, or even three or four years ago, I probably would have thought, well, the time I spent in architecture school is long passed. Soon it will be completely forgotten and none of it will ever be applied. And I’ve got my old drafting pencil out on the table down in the basement now.
It’s never too late. One question I would like to ask as we sort of come to the end of this interview, you’ve now been practicing your profession, your sort of second or first profession for about twenty-odd years, is there one or two, I guess everybody has one great memory and you’ve got another twenty to forty years to go, but in this sort of double decade, is there anything that you remember particularly that either excited you, which is a good memory in your career?
Well, there have been a lot of spectacular moments. If you are a photographer, basically you live for the moment, what you are recording, what you are capturing, even for something that’s, one would think, is as relatively unchangeable and static as a landscape. It’s actually extremely dynamic. You see it once on a very rare occasion, in unusual circumstances, and that’s when you get the great photographs. You’re not going to get a great photograph of a landscape by photographing it the way it appears most of the time. So there have been some quite intense moments, you know, early mornings in the Himalayas, flying over the mountains in the Yukon and Alaska, hiking through some canyons in the Southwest. I’ve got a lot of quite intense and remarkable memories. I guess if I had to choose one sort of highlight in all the trips and all the places I’ve seen, I’d go back to Nepal and think of the time that, you know, we, my wife and I, we hiked around the Annapurna Massif, because that led to, you know, just to something else that is quite important to me, my daughter, Anna. Her name Anna comes from Annapurna.
Oh, that’s interesting. She’ll have a great memory to share when you tell her that story.
Yeah, I’ve got Polaroids of the mountain for her. She signs herself that way quite often.
Full name, Annapurna. I remember, Linda was pregnant and I was reading a book on the origins of mountain names, which sounds like dull reading, but actually, it was quite fascinating, the history of these various mountains. And it got to Annapurna and it said, “the name of this mountain is as beautiful as a-, the origins of the name of this mountain is as beautiful and as poignant as the mountain itself”. And I started to read that and thought, well, if we have a daughter, her name is going to be Anna.
Beautiful story! Well, thank you very much. I’ve enjoyed this as hopefully as much as you.
Yeah, well, thank you, Jim.