When photographers Barry Peterson and Blaise Enright moved west from Toronto, they wanted to dedicate a photo project to their new province.
“What we tried to do was examine what was unique about B.C. that we hadn’t experienced in other provinces,” Peterson said on the phone from Comox. “After talking to quite a few people and doing some research, we found there was both a large quantity and quality of writers who lived here.”
Nearly 15 years since they began photographing B.C.’s authors, poets and other writers, Saltspring Island’s Mother Tongue Publishing has released a photo book of their work. 111 West Coast Literary Portraits is available for $48 at most Victoria bookstores. In conjunction with the book launch, galleries and community centres are hosting photo exhibitions around the province.
In Victoria, 25 portraits are on display at the Community Arts Council of Greater Victoria’s gallery at the Arts Centre at Cedar Hill. Several writers will be in attendance at the closing on Sunday. Portraits go on display at the Artists’ Corner in the Greater Victoria Public Library’s Central branch from Feb. 22 to April 5.
It didn’t always look like the photo project would come together at all. When Peterson and Enright first reached out to about 50 writers through publishers in 1997, they received no responses.
“Contacting people was the hardest thing. Writers usually aren’t in the phone book,” he said.
Referral proved a much more successful strategy, and after friends and acquaintances put them in touch with a few willing writers, momentum grew. But shooting writers posed a particular challenge, said Peterson.
“I think writers are probably a little more difficult. They just want to write — they don’t want to do anything else,” he said. “In many cases, when I came, it was almost a process at the beginning to convince them that the half hour or hour that I’d be there would not be wasted time.”
His most successful strategy was presenting his portfolio of work, so subjects could see the other writers he’d photographed — once they knew that Al Purdy or George Bowering had participated, they were more confident.
In planning the shots, Peterson took a different approach from his commercial work, shooting only in black and white. He also chose to shoot writers in their homes, rather than in front of studio backdrops.
“What we wanted to do was actually go to their houses and photograph them in their own elements. We thought we would get much more relaxed, interesting shots and that’s exactly what happened,” Peterson said.
While one writer’s bedroom had space for only her bed, others lived in luxury — usually thanks to a spouse’s income. Bill Bissett lived on an outdoor porch when they photographed him.
“We came during the winter and there was no heat. I think his [porch] was about eight by 10, and that included a kitchen and everything else. The plumbing didn’t work because it was winter,” Peterson said.
“Sometimes you have to exist in things, just to do what you want to do.”
The resulting book includes 111 portraits from the 130-plus that Peterson and Enright shot (Peterson continued the project after the couple divorced in 2003).
They include Alice Munro, W.P. Kinsella, Joy Kogawa, Peter C. Newman, Morris Panych, Ronald Wright, Susan Musgrave and poet Linda Rogers.
A piece of writing accompanies each of the portraits — either an excerpt from the writer’s work or a new piece. Barry Broadfoot, for example, wrote about getting his start at the Vancouver Sun.
Mother Tongue publisher Mona Fertig said she wanted to turn Peterson and Enright’s project into a book from the moment they photographed her.
“I became a trade publisher five years ago and I always thought I’d love to do this,” she said.
The process has been a long one, including tracking down each writer for permission, as well as hiring a scanographer to copy the negatives onto archival paper. But Fertig said she’s pleased with the outcome. “The book is beautiful.”
Where: Arts Centre at Cedar Hill
When: Closing reception Sunday, 5 to 7 p.m.
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