Wade Comer presents “Time Passages”, a continuing series of long-exposure photos split into two series: “Mountains” and “Cities”. Taken from the decks of passenger ferries in motion as they pass along their routes, Comer essentially paints with the camera. “Mountains” is a series compiled from over two years of travelling aboard the various BC Ferries; contrastingly, “Cities” is a series that includes images from Istanbul, New York, Toronto, and Vancouver. I caught up with Comer to discuss his photographic practise and how he was able to express the emotive quality in his works.
How did you get involved with photography?
Finding my ‘definitive’ creative outlet was a long process, and one that I don’t think I was actually looking for until my early twenties. I went to broadcasting school, and had been an announcer, copywriter, and producer at a radio station called ‘Coast 1040’ from 1990 to 1993. I spent a lot of that time working with music, making huge tape loop experiments in the production suite after hours. Somewhere in there, I realised that my preferred way of expressing myself was via photography. I never considered myself a musician – even though I spent a decade in the music industry – but from that point of recognition onward, I have always considered myself a photographer. I owe a debt of gratitude to an old friend, Steve, who upon hearing about my desire to take up photography, loaned me his dad’s Nikon ‘F’ until I could buy my own camera. Soon afterward, I purchased a Canon ‘Ftb’, and then taught myself how to process my own film, and within a couple of months I was off trying to get a gig as a photographer’s assistant. I managed to get a job working for John Douglas Kenney, a commercial and portrait photographer, who had worked with Irving Penn, in New York. Working for John I learned a lot, and had the luxury of lots of time to myself in the studio and darkroom, which was invaluable.
What inspired “Time Passages” and using long-exposure?
I had been working with the technique of long-exposure photography for about a year, trying different scenes and landscapes, even taking workshops to see if there was something more I could get out of the technique. For all of its spontaneity, photography involves a lot of planning, and I wanted to add the element of chance into the equation. Ultimately, I found my interest in the long-exposure technique waning, as I felt that there were several good photographers out there using the process, and the subject matter seemed limited (there are only so many old docks to shoot). It was on a ferry ride to Galiano Island that I realised I could use the long-exposure technique to both ‘capture time’, and insert the chance element I was looking for. By focusing on the actions of the boat – moving, changing course, speeding up and slowing down – I could capture an image of the feeling of being in these places. From then on I was a walk-on passenger on BC Ferries for over two years, Tsawwassen to Schwartz Bay, Duke Point to Tsawwassen, Horseshoe Bay to Langdale, Bowen Island, Nanaimo… then New York ‘Circle Line’ tours, and Istanbul commuter ferries, and London water taxis.
“Light and colour,
are details often fuzzy”
The effects of long-exposure create a painterly feel, it is interesting how photography and painting then become mixed in your works. Was this your intention?
I wanted to create a painterly feel in the images – to use the camera as a paintbrush. I do not personally have the patience for painting, but I found I could create the simulacra of a painting using the camera and photography, but would never have to spend all that time cleaning brushes.
Thinking of a single image as film, can you expand on this concept?
Film – a movie – is a series of thousands of frames of stills, hundreds of feet and minutes long,that are then played back to give the clear impression of movement, or transition… and time. “An image as film”, is the opposite effect: a single frame that captures the movement of a thousand frames of stills. Not by superimposition, but supercompression. All that time in one frame.
In this sense, your works make time a tangible entity that the audience can see. Do you think this quality enhances the theme of loss and/or death in photography? Why?
I don’t see it as about loss or death, for me, it’s more about memory. The images in ‘Time Passages’ are literal – they are of a place, or location – but it is that feeling of being there that I think is most evocative. You don’t have to know exactly where an image was taken, but it brings you to that place in your mind… especially if you have been there before. The blurring and softening reduces the place down to its basics: Light and colour, like memory, are details often fuzzy.
What is the importance of water in your works? The majority of your works contain bodies of water, you are also travelling across bodies of water in order to document your work.
Growing up on Vancouver, water is just an integral part of the city, whether it’s the view of Burrard Inlet I had from my home in Burnaby Heights, or torrential rain. My apartment looks at Lost Lagoon, and my office looks out at Burrard Inlet and all the ships, moored and moving. I have been working on another project over the summer, photographing Vancouver’s parks, and you‘d be hard pressed not to find water nearby, or a stream, or pond. Water in Vancouver is omnipresent. Our commerce and much of our food and culture come from our relationship with the Pacific Ocean and the Fraser River. I grew up on the coast, and it has just become a part of who I am. I mean, I really love the desert too, but a desert near the ocean is even better.
What has been the your most memorable experience aboard a BC Ferry?
As dry as it sounds, I think it has been the interest people have in my camera. Using a 4×5 camera is not something most people are familiar with these days, so I get a lot of questions like, “Is that a video camera?”, or “Seen any whales?” I’ve shown people how the camera works, and described what I’m trying to do with the photos, and it has been interesting engaging with people ranging from island locals to tourists from around the world. I usually let them, or their child, look through the back of the camera to get an idea of how the camera works and how its just like your eye… except your brain does a lot of processing to turn the image back right side up. And no, I didn’t see one whale the whole time I was out there.
How does the theme of human impact on the environment and the contrast of urban existence with nature underlie the works in the series?
Many of my previous projects speak to the relationship between nature and humanity and our use of it. Projects like ‘Pyres’, where piles of flotsam from the Fraser River – remnants of BC’s logging resource industry – are piled up to await the wood chipper, represent a conversation about how we treat and interact with our world. ‘Carnage/Garages’ examines, in an abstract and literal way, our love of the car and how that has physically shaped and scarred our environment. ‘Time Passages’ is about the application of a technique, or process, and the insertion of chance. The concepts of memory and time compression came from within the work itself. If anything, “Time Passages” negates the effects we have made on our environment by blurring, or obscuring the clearcuts and highway overpasses, and by softening the hard shapes of buildings and cities. Ultimately, I have this Mark Rothko affinity, I like striations. I just wanted to create something visually appealing.
What’s your favourite “secret” spot in Vancouver?
It’s not really secret, but my living room window. I like the view. There are a couple of secret spots in Stanley Park… soon after the big wind storm in 2006, the Parks Board commissioned artists to make works out of the windfall in Stanley Park. There is a piece, now decomposed, that was off the South Creek Trail where an artist had created a ‘healing blanket’, out of medallions of a cedar tree limb, and sewed them together using cedar bark. It was placed over top of a stump of a very old tree; a beautiful piece. The other is on Squirrel Trail, where an artist has cut the fallen tree into sections, including a sphere out of cedar. The tree/void is a neat impression as you approach it from the top of the trail. On a more urban note, I like going to Iona Island and Sea Island, or roaming around Railtown and along the waterfront, underneath the Shaw tower and convention centre – lots of good urban waste and curious corners down there.
What’s next for Wade? Would you ever dabble in filmmaking? Painting?
I have several filmmaker friends and a few painter friends, and I think I’ll leave it all to them. I have dabbled, as many creative people do, but I keep coming back to photography. I have a few multimedia pieces and a large sculpture or two in my ideas book, but my next projects are kind of long-term, involving homage to Hokusai, and a series on Vancouver parks that has been a precursor to a larger project. I would also love to spend my days making money recycling beer cans I collect off the bottom of the ocean while living on a small Greek island.