Disciples of Light and Shadow 

Photographers are everywhere shooting everything, but there are a few who are looking at the world in entirely different light and shadow

click to flip through (8) STORY BY TOBIAS C. VAN VEEN - Disciples of Light and Shadow Photographers are everywhere shooting everything, but there are a few who are looking at the world in entirely different light and shadow
  • story by tobias c. van Veen
  • Disciples of Light and Shadow Photographers are everywhere shooting everything, but there are a few who are looking at the world in entirely different light and shadow

Whistler is awash in many things: grinning hordes of visitors, bastions of bears, mounds of beer bottles, a significant stash of used and abused skis, an extra supply of Ozzie DNA, and of course, an overabundance of photographers.

Too many, in fact. The historical figure of the photographer, like that pair of Force 9s at the Re-Use It Centre, has become a dime a dozen. A media theorist will tell you all the technical reasons: that the digital revolution changed photography forever, making the means of image reproduction affordable for an increasing slice of the middlest class. No more film was necessary, nor costly developing. Darkroom techniques went out the window. Sending off slides in the mail to far-off magazines became as quaint as polishing your jodpurs. Of course, computing technologies and software overtook the rest. Post-production came to define what photography meant for an entire generation. Out went paper, in came the final and decisive reign of Photoshop and Instagram filters.

Of course, such shifts hit the entire market that once supported photography, be it postcards or framed prints of Black Tusk. With nearly everyone pocketing a decent bit of light-catching kit in their smartphones, professional photographic prints became a tad less prized as collectibles. Photographers became entirely ubiquitous and yet a rare breed at the same time: while the number of snappers grew, those turning spray-and-pray shooting techniques into a competent and successful career capturing the ambiguities of light and shadow became fewer.

In Whistler there is another reason to celebrate the persistence of photography, and that's because so many top-shelf shooters in action sports, adventure, and outdoor photography have made their way here. The list is illustrious, from the classic styles of Paul Morrison to the innovative eye of Jordan Manley. Down in Gallery Row, landscape photographer Mark Richards has uniquely explored the potential of luminescent inks and inventive printing techniques to reveal the shifting palettes of morning and evening light.

Whistler has also sought to recognize photographers in its festivals. In particular, Whistler's Deep Winter Photo Challenge, launched in 2006, is one of the continent's pre-eminent venues for ski and snowboard photographers. This past January saw its sold-out 10-year anniversary, with 10 of the chosen few who assembled a slide show — yet another archaic bon mot of times past — from 72 hours of shooting.

One of the more memorable Deep Winter Photo Challenges remains the 2012 victory of Robin O'Neill with her reflective slideshow, Lifers. Robin demonstrated that action sports photography need not focus on the dope shots of cliff drops — even though she made sure to have a few gnarly snaps — to win the comp. Indeed, what Robin presented was an art gleaned from a true professional's eye: that of storytelling.

Reflecting on the competition some four years later, O'Neill describes her motivations for Lifers as wanting "to understand how our past and present intersect in Whistler. I wanted a reason to get to know the older generation of mountain heroes, including Werner Himmelsbach, Trudy and Peter Alder, and Karl Ricker, and how their experiences compare to our current ski idols."

Throughout Lifers, O'Neill paired shots of the same subject that shifted the camera's focus from foreground to background. By contrasting the far and near, she revealed the depths of perspective to be had from a single frame. Arranged in depth but also in triptych, O'Neill's style continues to explore how a photograph can be more than a flat image. This theme carried her 2011 entry, Tough Love, which transported us into the lives of working women in Whistler, from patrollers to ski pros. Sitting in the audience, it felt like we had been invited into the intimacy of Whistler's local culture, as O'Neill showed us the day-in, day-out routines of those who make the mountains move. In both Lifers and Tough Love, O'Neill captured in their fleeting essence the themes of the intangible and ultimately unphotographable, for they are of time itself: the passing of a torch from generation to generation, and the relationship between the immovable mountains and the lives shaped by them.

As O'Neill says: "There is a commonality and a ruggedness in the women and men who love the mountains that spans generations," and it was showing such a story, in photos, that "connected to the audience." Of course it did more than this: in 2012 it won the competition and arguably changed it forever. The door had been opened to a shifting of perspectives, to a changing sense of capturing the ephemerality of chronos.

Thus photographers are everywhere shooting everything, but it remains the province of a dedicated few to seek the toughest challenges in capturing that which cannot be shot nor cannot remain still. In what follows, we turn to two photographers who favour the Sea to Sky — Whistler-based Kyle Graham and Vancouver-based Tomas Jirku — who are peering at the world in an entirely different light. Graham turns to a self-reflective study of anxiety, sexuality, and cultural taboos in self-shot portraiture and nudes. Jirku unveils the spectrums of light that secretly grace the ancient monuments of the world — the deep time of trees, mountains, and geology — by using infrared techniques and geometric framing to capture the unseen.

Lines of Light: Kyle Graham

Graham gazes upwards at the slatted ceiling of the Audain, where he works his day job as lead security guard. "Being underneath it feels like being underneath Noah's Ark," he says. Shafts of sunlight stream in through the slats, and as we watch the light shift slowly to the movement of the sun, patterns of shadow and light form across the perpendicular.

Shooting architecture is one of Graham's passions, as well as a source of income. Though most photographers consider action photography and weddings as staple fare, Graham has carved out a niche taking photos of the immobile objects in which we all dwell.

"Being a little more of an introvert, doing real estate, it's quiet," he says, of shooting houses and other such buildings up for highest sale on the "surreal estate" market. "I'm usually on my own a lot of the time, so I can just go in, focus specifically on the piece, on lighting and everything else."

Graham unzips his DaKine kit bag and we go through the assortment of glass (what photogs call their lenses), Speedlight flashes, remotes, tripods, knick-knacks, and his backup body. Some lenses get more use than others; his favourite is the staple 50mm Canon 1.4, which is a classic — a light, fixed length lens with excellent boca. What's boca, you might ask? It's that fuzzy background effect that many photogs aim for, basically a blurring of light produced from good glass when shooting at a narrow focal length.

Besides buildings, Graham is interested in bodies. His portfolio includes a selection of unconventional nudes posed in outdoor settings. For awhile, he ran a venture called Playful Photo Parties that focused on tasteful boudoir images for clients seeking something a little more classy — as well as spicy — than sexting selfies. Sexuality and anxiety are two themes that run throughout Graham's contemporary work.

But before we begin talking about his self-portraiture, Graham describes a project he has yet to shoot. It aims at tackling the barriers around discussing erotica, and he imagines it would be captured in both video and still. As a hypothetical project, it also serves as an excellent introduction to his artistic concerns.

Roughly, the concept is of a couple performing sexual acts, but only their shadows are seen, backlit against a homily living room wall. "It's a very simple idea," says Graham, "but we have so many walls up surrounding (sex) that, it's like, there's that wall." Graham sees this future work, and his contemporary erotica, as addressing questions of shaming the body, as well as freedom of speech. Though he knows he could post it to Vimeo, other services might not be so friendly to such experimentation. YouTube, and particularly Facebook, pose interesting boundaries of censorship.

"It's right on the brink of what they might allow on Youtube," says Graham. He mentions as an inspiration the Hysterical Literature YouTube series that features videos of women reading from novels while undergoing semi-secretive orgasms. (One could also gesture to "Blow Job," the infamous 1964 off-camera orgasm film of Andy Warhol; the first Hysterial Literature video, of note, features avant-porn actress Stoya.)

"It's trying to push people's mental boundaries," says Graham. "It's an idea exploring that we have these walls up, but it's still under the table. Chatting about sex should be a more open and respectful environment all around. Whenever people think about sex, people put up a wall immediately, even if they watch pornography at home."

In this sense Graham's work attempts to capture the threshhold of the socially appropriate — or of what separates art from the explicit flesh of a body made attractive for titillation and excitement. French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault once infamously said that the Victorian era's apparent repression of sex was completely at odds with its discourse: Victorians couldn't stop talking about it. Over a century later, in the mad technological mayhem of the 21st century's hook-up culture — with explicit means of sharing sexuality aided by social media apps such as Snapchat, Grindr, and Tinder — discussing sexuality with friends still remains something of a taboo. Graham aims squarely at this point, where body-shaming and personal anxiety reveal the hypocrisy of an oversexualized culture, and it is a point that is personal for him, too, in turning his gaze inward — one could say to the third eye that sheds his own skin.

"I'm wanting to explore more of my mind, than exploring my body," says Graham, who is referring to years spent as a rockclimber and endurance runner pushing physical limits. To this end, Graham turned away from action sports, where shooting multiple days on the hill might only yield a handful, if lucky, of publishable shots. Turning away from the spectacle of speed and snow, he turned his camera upon himself. "I'm trying to explore anxiety. I'm trying to explore depression," says Graham. "I'm trying to explore different emotions, and what those really represent, and what change can mean, and if change is possible."

It is in Graham's nude portraiture, either of models in outdoor settings, or of himself, that one finds the "random triggers from the past" that he discusses in relation to anxiety. Forcing himself to confront such triggers has put him in intentionally uncomfortable positions. He has posed as a nude model for live art drawing in Whistler, and recently he has posed in drag for his own self-portrait. It is in these moments that Graham's photography becomes the most intimate, as it begins revealing the shadows of what the body is unable to speak on film, but does so nonetheless.

"I decided to explore the body head on," says Graham. "When I was travelling through New Zealand, I would go skinny-dipping, which was liberating. Then I was like, what's the next step? So I would go down to the nude dock at Lost Lake, first wearing a piece or two, but then eventually over a few summers, I would feel comfortable, and strip down."

Then Graham saw an ad in the paper for live nude modelling. "It's the polar opposite of envisioning everyone you are talking to naked," chuckles Graham. "You are the one naked. And everyone is legitimately staring at you. They're looking at every little nook and cranny. But I remember walking out of that with my head held high, and my shoulders back."

Graham cites Spencer Tunick as an inspiration, a photographer internationally renowned for his images of gleaming masses of nude human bodies. However, Tunick does not like being nude himself. The documentary Naked States (2000) shows his discomfort when shooting naked at a nudist colony. Graham's work differs from Spencer's in this respect: what Graham shoots isn't external to his own experience, but rather an extension of it. For Graham, photography is a form of self-exploration and performance. One could say it is a quiet means of documenting his own performance art.

"I do call myself an artist," says Graham, pondering the question I have posed to him. "To me art just isn't on a wall at a gallery. It's all around you all the time. It's your perception. It's creating emotions. It's making people happy, but it's also making people angry and sad and aggravated and anxious. That's about being human. We're given this gift of emotion. Let's explore it."

Graham's most recent exploration consisted of wearing women's lingerie — which was "next level for me," he says. A friend mentioned the idea, and he thought about it for several days before deciding. "I am obviously anxious about this, so I have to do it," he says. He intentionally combined a masculine pose and look with the femininity of women's lingerie. "A lot of people loved the image because it did make them think a little more," says Graham. "It made them think whether I was gay, or straight, or trans, or whatever. That idea dawned upon me even more. What does that even matter? Does it matter? Does it represent anything?"

Graham has since furthered the series by posing in women's lingerie alongside a female friend in domestic poses. He sees the series as questioning whether perceptions of sexuality can change, and be changed, through performance photography.

Asking whether he would be alright with publishing his lingerie photo in the Pique, Graham says it would be "scary as fuck," but he'll do it. And that takes balls (a phrase whose metaphoric ambiguity should be self-evident by now). It is a prankster trait that is even more evident in his provocative website projects, which can be accessed through his personal site (see sidebar). Websites such as SugarMamaForKyle.com and Luxury Cat Toys (with the tagline "Only the best for your pussy") merge Graham's penchance for scathing humour and subtle critique.

Gazing into Deep Time:The Unseen Light of Tomas Jirku

To a generation of post-ravers, technoheads, and electronic music aficionados, Jirku is something of a familiar name. Since releasing seminal cuts on Québec's Alien8 and Germany's Force Inc/Mille Plateaux labels in the early '00s, Jirku continues to produce and perform variants of 4/4 house and techno music. But in 2003, Jirku left the urban rat race of Toronto for Vancouver, switching up the modernist aesthetics of the city for the vastness of the B.C. backcountry. For Jirku, it is a love of the wilderness that has drawn him towards distant landscapes of "unreachable goals." Gazing off into the endless horizon of rugged mountain peaks gives him "a change of perspective that you just can't get in the city, where everything is completely immediate, where there's just not that depth to it."

Over the past few years, Jirku has shifted his artistic focus from sound to sight. Picking up a DSLR and landscape photography kit, he's turned his inquisitive nature to that of the technical means of photography as well as to the nature of nature itself.

First, the technical. Jirku has taken apart one of his DSLRs to fit it with an infrared sensor. "I was curious about infrared photography long ago, ever since I first saw what was possible, but it's not easily accessible," says Jirku. He goes on to explain: "Digital camera sensors are already sensitive to IR (infrared) light, but are built with a sensor to block it out. It's not an easy process, but basically you take apart the entire camera to get to the sensor, and you replace the IR-blocking filter with an IR-passing filter that can be purchased and cut to the same size."

With an IR filter in the DSLR, the realm of nonvisible light that hides just beneath the range of human sight is unveiled in splashes of vibrant purple and desert red. But it's not the technical that interests Jirku per se, but what such technical dissections avail of our perspective upon the visual spectrum of landscape photography. By shooting in IR the already strange aspects of the natural world are brought into even sharper relief. Jirku describes his wonder at "that whole alien landscape that you get in the alpine, where there's so much life, and so many different macrocosms that already seem alien, that they start imparting another layer" upon our perception of the world. He sees the struggle of miniscule life in the high alpine's short growing season as giving us "perspective upon what we can possibly endure" while at the same time reminding us "how simple life can really be."

Jirku's recent work overlays geometric design and infrared layers atop landscape photography captured during his backcountry excursions in the Sea to Sky. Each image juxtaposes the geometric with the organic, the modernist with the archaic, the infrared to the visible. Jirku carves out the spectrums of the visible and nonvisible through intentional design: on the boundaries of the geometric figure, what our eyes can see; on the inside, what our eyes cannot. The technique is unsettling, and its execution is exact. Each image must be shot twice in the same position and style with two cameras. Yet what Jirku aims to capture is not just this juxtaposition, but what the juxtaposition reveals of the natural world: that it is an impossibly ancient record of deep time, and that there is nothing natural about it.

"Whether I'm compositing two moments in time, or two different ranges of light frequency, usually from the same vantage point, I'm trying to show that scale of time or perception that a single photo can't express in the same way," says Jirku. Looking at his images, you can see how he carefully arranges two images from the same perspective. One is shot with his normal DSLR, the other in IR. The two frames must be exact, their position perfect. Then he cuts a window into the IR world, with a circle, triangle, square, or rectangle. What is seen is not a Photoshop filter, but the digital capture of infrared light. And it is this shift of light that cuts into our perception, that makes us question our own filters of how we see the natural world, which is to say, a world ever shifting and changing and yet incredibly ancient and still.

"You can take for granted that a mountain has been there long before you, and will be there long after you are gone," says Jirku. "But on another scale of time it will no longer exist. It's an argument against the status quo, realizing that everything changes."

Jirku's work explores such monumental juxtapositions. Not just between the geometric and the organic, but between our perception of time and that of geological time. The totality of human existence is but a blip compared to planetary time. And yet, at the same time, geological time unfolds in instants, such as with the sudden release of the Meager Creek slide. As we chat over webcam, Jirku reveals his fantasy of being immortal, an observer to the unfolding of geological processes: "That has always been my greatest fantasy, to be immortal and sit up on a mountain, to sit and watch the landscape change, like a stop-motion of geological time over millions of years, unfolding within a few seconds in front of you, where you would really understand what those processes are."

In his quest to shoot the nonvisible, in both time and light, Jirku crafts landscape photography into a more personal exploration of human perception, in which he is "not necessarily looking for answers," but "seeing what's around the corner" — that parallax of shadow and light that hints at what the world we can't see has to say.


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