Friday, February 19, 2010

Larry Towell article in "Calgary Herald"

Photographer puts crises in perspective
Festival speaker Larry Towell hopes pictures affect people

By Nancy Tousley, Calgary Herald
February 18, 2010

Artist Presentation: Friday, February 19th at Canmore Collegiate at 7:30 p.m.
Book Signing: Saturday, February 20th at Vistek, 1231 10th Ave. S.W., 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. and 5 to 6 p.m.

"Larry Towell, the one Canadian member of the famed agency, Magnum Photos, leaves his bucolic farm in southern Ontario, near the village of Bothwell, to work in the world's hot spots where conflicts rage and disasters have occurred, most recently Afghanistan and Haiti. He is just back from his first trip to Haiti since the earthquake, but this week he will go to Windsor to record an acoustiguide script for Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography since the Sixties, a group show he'll be in at The Getty Museum in June, and he'll fly to Calgary on Friday to give the special presentation of Exposure 2010, the annual photography festival in Calgary, Banff and Canmore, at Canmore Collegiate High School. On Saturday, he will sign copies of his photo books in Calgary.

The 10-day trip to Haiti was wrenching. "That really shook me up," the 53-year-old photographer said in a telephone interview from his farm. "I've been in pretty rough places, but I was affected, you know? Just the amount of human suffering, the concentration of suffering in such a concentrated place and period, and the graciousness of the people. Unbelievable.

"It affects you as a human being. And I hope it affects people who look at the pictures, because if it doesn't I have failed."

Towell is drawn to human crises and what happens to the displaced and dispossessed, who lose not only their land and everything they have, whether from war or disaster, but also their identity. His first book was a document of the Contra War in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

"This is how I started taking pictures," he says. "I went to Nicaragua as part of a human rights delegation; it was my first time in a war zone. I saw what was going on and I said, 'I feel I should say something about this, whatever I can.'

"So I went back with a cheap RadioShack tape recorder, and I was still teaching guitar and folk music, and I would go down in the summer or at Christmas break. I started hitchhiking around the war zone collecting interviews and put them together as a book. In the meantime, I was also photographing.

"Then I went to Guatemala because there were a lot of refugees coming to Canada. We had a Central America solidarity group in Sarnia and so I started meeting these people, made friends with some of them. I went to Guatemala, through connections, to interview mothers of the disappeared there. I started photographing and did all these interviews in a couple of days.

"It was an intense meeting where I just stayed up all night and worked with interpreters, both in Spanish and various Indian languages. In the meantime, I had done two books of poetry with photographs."

Towell sent this work to Magnum because he thought the celebrated photographers' co-operative, founded in 1947 by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, was a picture archive that sold photographs and might be able to sell some of his. He was not applying for membership, but he was made a nominee anyway on the strength of his work. Even then, it took him a year to fully realize where he had landed, as he says, by fluke.

After five years, the length of time it takes to become a member, Towell bought shares in the company and is an owner. He is considered a New York photographer because he works out of that office, where he was vice-president for three years. Magnum has offices in New York, London, Paris and Tokyo. Had he known what Magnum was at the start, he says he probably would have been too intimidated to apply.

Towell works as a freelancer, dislikes assignments, and does his own work to his own disciplined standards. He says the digital revolution has cheapened photography and he still shoots film. More than the single photograph, he believes in the efficacy of the photo book which can contain several great single shots framed by the context of a photo essay.

"The book is the statement," Towell says. The Getty show he is in, along with such photographers as W. Eugene Smith, Leonard Freed and Lauren Greenfield, explores the direction of the published photo essay in the last half of the 20th century. According to the museum website, it focuses on the work of "independent photojournalists who have sought to develop their work beyond traditional media outlets, pursuing book-length projects of artistic proportions."

This well describes Towell, who believes in independence. He has published 12 books. The earliest four are texts (field interviews Or His Poetry) With Photographs; beginning with his book on El Salvador, the rest are photo-driven essays in large format books. The places he has worked in also include Vietnam, a Mennonite colony in Mexico, Israel and the U.S. Gulf Coast (Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana) devastated by hurricane Katrina.

He just happened to be in New York for a monthly photographers' meeting at Magnum on Sept. 11, 2001. He was staying with his friend and Magnum colleague Susan Meiselas, when she woke him up with the news that a plane had run into one of the World Trade Center towers. "I said 'Where is the World Trade Center?' She said, 'Follow the smoke.'

"So I started running and I realized I didn't have any film and I didn't have my camera. I had a point and shoot, a decent point and shoot, but not a camera I would normally use. I grabbed some film as I was going down, fortunately there was some in a store. I started shooting as I ran and I stayed there all day.

"I didn't know what was happening until the end of the day."

His striking 9/11 photographs are published in a book with others by Magnum photographers who were New York that day. They all had picked up cameras and rushed downtown toward no one knew what.

When Towell is not off somewhere working, he is in southern Ontario on his farm. He also takes photographs there, where his most recent and most personal book begins. Called The World from My Front Porch, it takes the form of a photo album and situates Towell in a place near where he grew up, whose history he relates. From his place and family, the scope widens to evidence of crisis in places he has been, both his photographs and photos of artifacts he has picked up, like the locks and keys of destroyed Palestinian houses.

If the book is the statement, Towell's metaphorical front porch would seem to be his anchor and the book a testament to the importance of a safe home and security in everybody's lives." - Nancy Tousley


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