When I started what is now the ILLUMINATION project, I had no preconceived idea about how it might develop or how long it might take to complete. In the fall of 2013, I was in England for a short work stint to exhibit my crystal sculpture at a glass art gallery in Mayfair, London. I had also been asked to accompany my wife, Sarah Hampson, a columnist with The Globe and Mail, Canada’s leading national newspaper, to photograph authors she was interviewing for an “at home series.” They included Alexander McCall Smith, Rachel Joyce, Mary Lawson, Jim Crace and Isabel Greenberg.
Photography is very different from my creative process working with crystal, which I have done for 30 years. Hand-engraving crystal requires a great deal of concentration – and the employ of all the skills, experience and techniques I have gained in order to not make a mistake. One slip of the hand could ruin a piece. My canvas is not one I can paint over. It is optical crystal, an expensive canvas that allows no mistakes.
So it is always refreshing for me to shift gears and use my eye for design in the context of framing a portrait. And I like its instant gratification – getting an immediate result compared to a crystal sculpture which can take hundreds of hours to complete.
Photography has always played a key role in the creation of my crystal art, with images often informing the natural and landscape imagery in my art pieces. I started taking photographs before I began my training as a goldsmith at age 16, at the Birmingham School of Jewellery, and before focusing on my chosen medium of crystal.
When I returned from the UK in 2013, I began to think about how much I really enjoyed portrait photography. It was then that I decided to embark on quietly photographing Canadian authors as a side project. I thought it might take me 4-5 years to complete. I never imagined photographing 150 portraits within 2 years or traveling over 20,000kms – let alone taking over 22,000 photographs.
So where to begin? In 2011, Canadian author, Charles Foran, had received the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, the RBC Charles Taylor Prize and Governor General’s Literary Award for Mordecai: The Life & Times, which became the most awarded Canadian non-fiction book in history. Charles very kindly had sent me a thank-you note regarding the crystal award I had created, and so I decided to contact Charles to see if he might be agreeable to being photographed for my project.
Fortunately, he did. His only request was that if he didn’t like the photographs, they would not be used. That wasn’t an issue for me. As our photo shoot progressed we began discussing the creative process and the experience of working alone with only your own idea of what you are attempting to do as company and inspiration. It was familiar territory and so the dialogue flowed.
I have always thought of portrait photography as a visual conversation. I get the best from the subject when the camera lens disappears. and personality is revealed. When I work in crystal, the conversation is with an inanimate object, one that I am trying to bring life to. With the photographic part of the ILLUMINATION project, I was the beneficiary of many interesting conversations.
Thank you, Charles, for your kindness and willingness to be photographed and for helping me to reach out to Canada’s literary community.