Updated: Feb 12
By Paul Mitchnick:
Deanna Geisheimer of Art Works submitted my work to Translink for a photo installation. Translink is responsible for all transportation in and around Vancouver: buses, trains, light rapid transit (LRT), ferries, bicycle paths.
Translink was putting up a large new head office, and they were looking for big photos to go onto walls at the end of hallways. Big photos; something that represented how Translink moved people around the greater Vancouver area.
Of course I was excited about being asked to submit photos to be considered for anything. How cool would it be to have photos that were going to be 7 feet by 5 feet exhibited anywhere? Very cool indeed. I would go every day just to look at them. But what??????
This would be the first time I hadn’t just sold a photo to someone I knew: a friend, a relative, or someone who liked a piece.
Running through Stanley Park occupied some time when I wasn’t working in film. There were always interesting things to see: always changing. I thought about the project a lot on these runs.
What would I like to see if I was walking down a hallway in this building? Was there a way to involve the people who were looking at the photographs? This was the idea that wouldn’t go away no matter how long I ran.
What does Translink do? They move people. What would be the most interesting way to tell the transit story? Maybe the point of view of someone on one of their moving devices? You are standing in the building, and you see a view from the bus, the ferry, the light rapid transit. It should feel as if you could step onto the bus from the building.
To stop motion, one usually shoots at a 1/250 of a second or faster. What about the other direction? Recently I had been doing some longer-exposure photos, putting the camera on a tripod and letting the light enter for a few seconds. But if the exposures were longer . . . like, way longer . . . and then tie the image to where I was. Include part of the train, seabus, or city bus so it’s not completely abstract. Might be cool.
So armed with my digital Canon 7D, off I went. Film would have been my usual choice, but I wanted to test this out without sending things off to the lab. Just shoot something. If it is interesting, go forward. If it stinks, don’t tell anyone.
Taking still photos has always been a release for me. What to shoot. How to shoot. Why to shoot. My choice. And if I don’t think it will be potentially interesting and therefore worthwhile, I don’t shoot. More than a few people like my work, but it has always been a selfish act. My idea of freedom. There is a breath of that every time my finger hits the shutter button.
No tripod. Someone in authority might ask me what I was doing, and did I have permission, and I am sorry but you can’t shoot photos unless you have permission, and you will have to approach Translink, and they are open Monday to Friday, and you can find their contact info on the internet, but you will have to leave right now, etc., etc., etc.
My first trip was to take the light rail subway to the airport; shoot a little inside and a little outside. Some mental math got me started exposure-wise. However, the quiet contemplation of how things were going (my usual studied way of figuring things out) wasn’t going to wash. Everything just came way too quickly. So . . . I’d shoot a bunch of stuff and then shoot a bunch of stuff and take another ride and look at it before moving on and then shoot a bunch of stuff. Digital playback is a blessing here. Make some adjustments and do it again. How do you judge what a longer exposure at 60 mph might look like? Well, try this; it might be cool.
I took the LRT to the airport and back a few times. If there was a missed opportunity, that meant another trip. Seeing, shooting, thinking, checking and in no particular order but at 60 mph.
The results were pretty interesting. Good enough to pursue the idea. Deanna at Art Works was very excited. So I got on buses, I got off buses, I got on trains, I got off trains, I got on the seabus, I got off the seabus. I watched people, and I watched movement. Followed different routes in the daytime and different routes at night. Shot film this time because it would ultimately look better.
One late afternoon and early evening, I was on the ferry back and forth for about 3 hours. No one said a word to me; neither the passengers who were on their way home, nor the people who ran the ferry. No one. Not what was I doing or who was I with. No one.
In general, smartphones have made taking photos as un-special as an event might get.
Some tidied images went to Deanna. She loved them; like, really loved them. "Send me your favourites, and I will make up a presentation for the transit people."
"Oh, draft a mission statement to go along with the presentation."
Mission Statement. Mmmmmm. A little outside my comfort zone, but I’d try an honest accounting of what inspired me and how I would like to do it.
"Imagine standing in front of any one of these pieces as gracefully large as you want to make them. At the end of the hallway, there is a sky train photo, and you are a passenger on that train looking out and moving forward. Every one of these photographs will make the viewer feel he or she is in a slightly different place but . . . always in an energetic way."
Next was the meeting. It made me nervous. There have been interviews with Film Directors, there have been interviews with Directors of Photography (some Oscar winners) early in my career, and there have been meetings with corporate clients in the past; but never has there been a meeting with anyone about my photographs.
Deanna and I took the train to their office. We were ushered into a room that would have been a small office for one junior employee. It had a round table too big for the room and four chairs. The two young women in charge of choosing a photographer entered. After the introduction, they told me why had I made the short list. They had seen two photos from something that I had done in the last century: a shot of a bridge and a shot of a ferry entrance. Very static, very classic, very staid. "Uh, oh," says me to myself. "I am doomed here."
They looked at the portfolio of my presentation. Although they were very polite, it looked like I had shown them photos of their children with stakes through their hearts.
"You mean you would do them all like this?"
"Sure, it would look great and be a real standout for the building. Imagine this, imagine that etc., etc." Drowning, drowning, drowning, drowning.
"Thank you very much for coming, we will let you know very soon."
Away we went. Deanna was very supportive on the train ride back. However, excitement from the client usually gets you further in these kinds of things than fear from the client.
It was no surprise when the results came to me. What they were interested in was not my idea. However, they are very cool images and range somewhere between abstract and energy.
This last photo has nothing to do with the Translink project except for the fact I waited a very very long time for a bus on Burrard St. one Saturday evening. I saw this perfume ad in a department store window and being in a long exposure mood. . .
Paul Mitchnick is a cinematographer living and working out of Toronto, Canada. He has spent time with many gifted filmmakers in his career—Sean Penn, Lawrence Kasdan, and John Woo as Directors, as well as many Oscar-winning cinematographers. For the last decade, Paul has been Director of Photography on award-winning Canadian Independent Features and television Movies of the Week. He shot KEIF AL-HAL, the first feature film produced by a Saudi Arabian company. Whenever on assignment, Paul travels with his still camera and has taken photographs all over the globe. "I make my living looking at things, and when I have my still camera, opportunities kind of present themselves. Whether those things are looking for me or I am looking for them, I am not sure."