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An Interview with John King

John King  (jckingca on tumblr) is a photographer from a small town in Newfoundland Canada.  He has been making photographs for more than 35 years and has exhibited in group and solo shows.  John also makes hand stitched books using original inkjet photographs.  He photographs the environment around him, usually with some affection.

On your blog you say you have been working with cameras for 35 years, what initially drew you to photography?

In 1975 a major Diane Arbus exhibition was showing at the National Gallery of Canada.  I had no idea how personal and powerful photography could be until I saw those photographs.  It was easily one of the more intense experiences I’d had in an art museum, not unlike seeing Picasso’s Guernica at MoMA a few years earlier.  I knew I wanted to make photographs after experiencing Arbus’ work.

My father was a pretty good amateur photographer so I had learned the basics of exposure and composition from him.  He loaned me his 1959 Canonflex camera and it wasn’t long before I had a darkroom set up in my basement.

Are you trained formally in photography or the arts generally? If so where and when did your training occur?

I’m self-educated with photography.  In the 1970s there weren’t a lot of technical instructional books available but there were some excellent ones by people like Ansel Adams and David Vestal.  My largest appetite grew for books of photographs by people like Paul Strand, Harry Callahan, Edward Weston and later Eugene Atget.  I spent more on books than on equipment in those days.

I was most interested in seeing how individual images worked together within the larger context of a series and how expressive they were of the photographer.  Those are still my interests today.

I was lucky to live in Ottawa during those years and was able to see photography exhibitions at the National Film Board (NFB) and the National Gallery of Canada.  I don’t think there is any substitute for experiencing original work.  I learned a lot by studying the print qualities of exhibited work and trying to improve my own printing.

Elliston, Newfoundland

Many people choose to work with extremes in lighting conditions, whereas, your work seems to be dominated by soft diffuse light — which by the way I’m kind of jealous of because it is so rare and hard to find in Australia.  Why do you choose to work in this kind of light when so many other people choose the other extreme?

I think it’s a case of working with what is available and also being inspired by certain kinds of light.  I think some qualities of light influence the feelings we derive from an image.  Hard angular shadows and tonal contrasts can impart a kind of energy that is not only appropriate but necessary for certain photographs to work well.  And softer light might induce a calmer and more reflective reaction.  Lately I’ve been using more direct sunlight but I often pull the contrast down.

Keels, Newfoundland

You hint at some of the ideas underlying your work on your wordpress blog, by the titles and text you use, for example ‘Landmarks: a series’ am I correct? Are these the main ideas behind your work or are there other ideas percolating through?

I’m primarily a landscape photographer.  I love the land in all its forms, from pristine wilderness to the built environment.  It’s what surrounds us every day.  I think the landscape shapes who we are and in many ways how we perceive ourselves in the world.  And we also shape the land in many ways: we move it, mark it with our boundaries and build our structures on it.

I like to work on self-assigned projects—groups of images that have some central organizing idea.  I often have several project themes in progress.  Most have a conceptual centre, like the “Landmarks” series which looks at landscapes marked by humans.

Root Cellars, Elliston

For the past couple of years I have been making landscape photographs on the Bonavista Peninsula.  It’s a relatively small geographic area that has about 30 coastal communities and some of the oldest permanent settlements in the province.  This area continues to inspire me every time I visit.  I recently made a small hand stitched portfolio book of 16 inkjet images from the area.  I hadn’t intended this as a commercial project but several people asked to buy it so I am now making individual copies on request.

I think rural Newfoundland is a special place in many ways.  I love the rugged beauty of the coastal landscape and the practical simplicity of the built environment.  My images are trying to convey some of that quiet beauty.

On your blog you say; “Recently I have been using digital cameras.” How important is this statement in terms of your creative output, does it mean you took a break from using cameras in particular, film ones, or is ‘digital photography’ a whole new journey for you?

At this point I’m not sure when or if I would go back to film photography.  Although I loved the slow, deliberate process of making images with large format sheet film, I’m enjoying a new kind of creative freedom with digital cameras.

I always spent a lot of time in the darkroom making and re-making prints.  Processing digital files is better and faster than what I could ever do in the darkroom.  There are some kinds of adjustments that I could never do in the darkroom but are easily accomplished with the computer.  I don’t care for heavy manipulation but I do make a lot of small adjustments to arrive at a final image.

The output quality of digital colour rivals the best that I could ever achieve with film.  The jury is still out on B&W prints though; I think a well made silver print is pretty hard to match with even the best digital processes.  My interests these days are mostly with colour, so I think I’ll stay with digital cameras for a while.

Could I label your work, lyrical, and poetic, or are there some other adjectives would you use to describe your own work?

I have a hard time labelling my own work.  I certainly see the landscape of Newfoundland as lyrical and poetic so I’m honoured that you would think of my images in that way too.

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Interview by Stuart Murdoch

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    Thanks to John and Felix for helping this see the light of day.
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