I met with photographer Steve Kean and SG Curator Olex Wlasenko about the exhibition Moving Landscapes. Aptly featured along the passageway that connects the boxcar to the gallery and overlooks the historic station, Steve’s photo series was captured on the move with an iPhone while travelling by train.
On the table before us there was a box containing small-scale prints of all the images in this large, ongoing body of work. As I shuffled through the stack of Moving Landscapes, each as interesting as the next, curious details emerged like floating twigs, crackly roads, disjointed cable lines, wavering horizons and fiery skies. I imagined the experience of these vast, fleeting scenes viewed from the window of a moving train. I was eager to know more about Steve’s process, how he came to these images and the decision to print them onto canvas.
SK: …In this age when everybody’s looking at screens, when I’m editing my work, I print it. I don’t care if it’s 4 by 6s, whatever, I print my work. If I’m really impressed with something, I’ll get out a big expensive piece of 17 inch paper and print it. Just ’cause I want to see it, to hold it in my hand. It’s funny – I have no problem reading a book on my iPhone or iPad but my prints, my pictures, I need to print them; I need to touch them…
OW: We came up with some good ideas on how to display them… It’s so hard to choose from all of these because they all have their own merits, and are all such beautiful pieces… How do you choose?
SK: …I find it so hard to edit.
OW: It is, yeah, especially if you’re as prolific as you’ve been.
SK: Yeah, that’s the downside of digital; it’s easy to be prolific. I’m not spending money on film so I’m not thinking about those 36 pictures as carefully… When I first transitioned to digital photography, I bought memory cards that were just the right size that with whatever camera I was using, I got 36 images or thereabout so the rhythm of shooting was the same and the thought was the same – I have 36 images to play with, the same as a roll of film. It might be an interesting exercise to go back to that, to limit myself to 36 exposures in a set amount of time…
AH: What scale are you thinking of presenting these in the exhibition?
SK: It’s going to vary a little bit…This work to me is really all about man’s intrusion on nature, our feeling of supremacy over nature, and nature saying, “No, no, no, we’re going to take it back”. It’s that sort of push and pull between man and nature that’s in literature, in art, and it’s always been around.
…There are those images that really show what I’m trying to say clearly and I’m going to blow them up larger and put them on canvas.
AH: How long have you been taking photos in this style, with this sense of movement?
SK: Three years. I stumbled on in quite by mistake. I was going to the Formula One Race in Montreal…I always wanted to go…I brought my Nikon and my fancy lenses, and I was at the races on the Friday, the practice runs, and my Nikon just gave up. So I said, “Okay, I’m here for the whole weekend. I’m in Montreal; I’ve got to do something.” So I pulled out my iPhone and I started playing around with the different modes, and I found a really cool effect and played with it.
AH: So it was kind of by chance and through experimentation?
SK: Yeah, and it was a rainy day on the way home from Montreal and I got some really cool images, and I thought, “I can really do something with this.”
AH: Were these all taken while on the train?
SK: These are from trains and intercity buses… It’s been an entree for me. I’ve loved landscape photography for as long as I’ve loved photography, but my wheelchair has really made it difficult for me to get to be a landscape photographer and to approach and find those images because I can’t go hiking for 10 miles back into the bush very easily like some others that I really admire. And I’m looking out the window on the train…and there it is in front of me, so I thought, “Get snapping!”.
Steve even took a trip from Toronto to Montreal, there and back in the same day over 10 hours to capture the fleeting scenes in autumn. Other shots were taken on bus route between Toronto and Sudbury. He says, “Those are the trips I take most often, so there are different seasons.” Also interesting to note, because Steve took the photos on his iPhone, the photos are geo-tagged so he can tell you exactly where he took each of them.
AH: Some of these seem like such intimate photos that I wouldn’t have guessed they were taken from behind a glass window and the train car itself. A few photos hint at this mediation of the window with a few droplets of rain…
I love that these images are so painterly. The blur creates a brush-like effect.
SK: …The painterly look gave me the idea of putting them on canvas. And they really work on canvas. They’re abstract to begin with. It pulls away some of the detail where you might see some of the digital artefacting. The movement smooths that out a bit and makes it look a little more natural…
AH: As you were talking about our relationship with nature, ideas about the sublime came to mind – this sense of awe, power and grandness. By capturing the images, we get the impression of containment, of capturing the expansive within the palm of our hand.
SK: We cover things over with asphalt, and you see what happens to asphalt if it’s left unattended.
AH: You get cracks, holes…
SK: A little dandelion comes up through the asphalt….
OW: If you think about landscape tradition, there’s a reason that Steve’s exhibition is happening now. It’s going to be on at the same time as the 100th anniversary of Tom Thompson’s death.
SK: As a kid, The Group of Seven inspired me like crazy…
OW: And it’s going to be Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus awareness month.
Through an SG initiative, the Town of Whitby issued a Proclamation declaring June 2017 as Spina Bifida & Hydrocephalus Awareness Month. Pictured above are SG CEO Kerri King, Regional Councillor Liz Roy, Artist Steve Kean, and SG Curator Olex Wlasenko among Moving Landscapes.
AH: Have you always been a photographer? Did you ever try any other artistic media?
SK: No, I landed on photography when I was about to give up on art completely…Something you don’t notice about my disability unless you see my signature or my handwriting is that I’ve got serious issues with fine motor control. And so all through high school I had to go to art class…and I was failing it, I couldn’t make my hands do what the teacher wanted me to do, and so I wasn’t doing well in art. I was so frustrated, and that’s when I discovered photography.
OW: Steve’s piece was in our High School Confidential show last year. It was an early piece, a lovely nude.
SK: A friend of mine modelled for college art classes. She said to me that she’d model for me sometime if I wanted…and it was the most challenging photo shoot that I had ever done, until I did the Spina Bifida – Front to Back work (that was exhibited at SG last year). I couldn’t believe how hard it was to make her look the way I wanted her to look and get that lighting right.
Photography saved me because I would ask my mom to buy me charcoal, pencils, brushes and I would try and recreate a landscape or comic book page, and I’d just get frustrated and heave it across the room. I just got so fed up, until a friend of mine brought over a camera, and I thought, “Oh, that’s kind of interesting.” I started to fall in love with it as a gadget first; the camera and how it works, and then I came to the image after. I found what I needed to create. I can draw a picture without needing to draw.
Through Steve’s Moving Landscapes, we see how photography doesn’t just capture the world outside; it becomes a means of creating an image and personal expression, materializing the images in the artist’s mind’s eye and reflecting their point of view.
by Anastasia Hare, Communications and Development Manager