But Colin, you’re saying, this is a blog about street photography from Planet Brandon…it says so right up top.
Well, true enough but John Paskievich and his 4-decade plus work to document his neighbourhood was one of the biggest – easily THE biggest – influence on my work and my efforts to turn a camera on my own neighbourhood; there’s something enormously interesting and meaningful in taking a sustained look at a place. As Paskievich himself notes in the interview, a photograph becomes something else over time and I find that very interesting.
I had the opportunity to sit down with John at a used bookstore on the occasion of his new book – “The North End Revisited.” It’s a re-issue of his popular 2007 photo book “The North End” but with 80 (!) new photographs along with fascinating essays and an interview with the artist.
I never fail to marvel at not only John’s gentle wit and insight displayed in his images, but also that he’s still turning out such strong work after so long. The photos on page 143 and 189 are particularly noteworthy, on this point.
My sincere thanks to the University of Manitoba Press, not only for publishing and supporting John Paskievich’s photography but also for giving me the opportunity to talk with one of my big inspirations.
Colin Corneau interview with John Paskievich. Friday, October 27, 2017
It can be difficult to stand apart in a city known for its iconoclasts, artists and outsiders, but photographer and filmmaker John Paskievich has been doing just that with grace and good humour for over 4 decades now in Winnipeg.
A humble start in photographing the people and places he knew from growing up in the North End has become an invaluable and unique archive of a neighbourhood that’s storied but often misunderstood.
Now, after 4 decades photographing the North End, Paskievich is helping the University of Manitoba Press mark 5 decades in publishing with an update to his 2007 photo book “The North End” titled, appropriately, “The North End Revisited.” It contains 80 previously-unpublished photographs or both recent and older vintage along with essays and an interview with the artist.
John Paskievich sat down with Winnipeg photographer Colin Corneau recently for a talk on photography, shoes and being an outsider.
CC: So, I thought I’d just jump into it, with the first question: What kind of shoes do you have?
And the reason that I ask that is that one of the best pieces of advice I got about street photography was “Wear good shoes.”
JP: That’s right! That’s very excellent advice. I like K-Swiss sneakers. I’m wearing a pair of K-Swiss sneakers right now. I find that they’re the most comfortable shoes that I’ve ever worn.
CC: Any endorsement deals coming?
JP: Not that I know of! But I’d be happy to get one.
CC: We hear the term bandied around a lot: street photography– is that a legitimate term for you? How do you think about that term? How do you classify what you do?
JP: I guess it’s as good as any. Street photography happens in the street; also happens in the back alleys, happens on peoples’ porches, on the sidewalks… I like to think of it more as “urban”: urban photography, whatever catches my eye in an urban setting. I also take a lot of pictures of buildings; it’s not the best way to take pictures of buildings with a 35mm camera. I take a lot of pictures of buildings but I don’t print them…
CC: Why is that?
JP: It’s just that… I’m not sure… I don’t think they’re that strong, but they interest me. They’re not that strong because buildings require a larger negative to look at the detail, but I’ve got a 35mm camera so I take the pictures of the houses – some little houses nestled in there where the garbage cans are almost as big as the house, that kind of stuff.
CC: So, we mentioned street photography and we mentioned buildings, and the next question I want to ask is: Why are such pictures important? I do them a lot and I know you’ve had 40-plus years of taking them; why are these pictures important, of public spaces, of people living their life? Why do they matter?
JP: Well, they might not matter now, to the viewer. They matter to the viewer now who likes photography, because a photograph is a photograph. It’s like a painting: if you like it, you like it. But what happens after a time is there’s a saying which is pretty true, that after 20 years, every photograph is a good photograph, in various ways, either as historical record or as more than historic record it provides not just history but the ambiance of the time, what people wear… It’s a time capsule; it’s magic. And not only for the historical record but it brings out the emotions of people who might not have been at that time, but perhaps their grandparents were there at the time and they have a relationship with their grandparents, so: “This is how my grandparents lived.” It brings up all kinds of things.
CC: Do you subscribe to that theory? Do you really believe that photographs change and become something different over time, and somehow matter more?
JP: Yeah, I do. I do. But anything, over time, has a different value than right now. A 2015 Chevy Equinox has a certain value, but in 30 years that 2015 Equinox will have a different value. You can put the value how? Monetary value, nostalgic value, or aesthetic value. Time has a way of surprising you, surprising people.
CC: It’s funny that you mention cars, because one thing [I noticed] looking over your book, and certainly the first edition of your book and in the re-issue it continues that trend is that one way you have to tell the passage of time is through cars. And I’m not sure if that’s because Winnipeg is such a car-centric place, or if it’s just inevitable, like peoples’ hair cuts or pants or something, that’s how you tell time. Was that something conscious or that you’ve noticed before, that cars seems to be a marker?
JP: I’ve noticed that, yeah. Especially in the North End, it’s not that fashion-conscious a place [(laughs)], so cars are the marker, yeah.
CC: You mention people in the North End being distinct; is it conscious that in your films and your photos you always seem to be drawn to people just a little bit outside, which is interesting because I think that’s how photographers are; they’re just a little bit outside.
JP: Yeah, I’ve noticed about photographers, that they’re much more observant of the passing show. Every once in a while you come across people who are really emotionally invested in social issues, like Eugene Smith; he was very much into photography as a tool to show humanity but also to better humanity.
CC: Sebastiao Salgado is another one…
JP: Yes, Salgado as well. But there’s not that many. Mostly young people do that as a form of social activism; that has its place but that isn’t something that I do.
CC: Do you consider yourself a bit of an outsider in a way?
JP: Oh yeah, on all kinds of levels, but I don’t think of it as an outsider. I just like people who don’t buy into the usual so-called “received wisdom”.
CC: You’ve certainly encountered a lot of these people over the years, and a lot of different kinds of outsiders and a lot of people with different purposes to their lives. What have you learned from these photographs you’ve been taking in the North End from wandering around. Is there something you learned about people that you didn’t know before, or maybe just reinforced what you already thought?
JP: All things pass, all of peoples’ pretensions and hopes and dreams and chicaneries, and there are a lot of people with less education that have so much more interesting things to say and experience in their life than university profs or whatever. Humans are amazing.
CC: I guess that’s why Shakespeare is still relevant 500 years later– people don’t really change all that much.
JP: No. And certainly the -ologies, political ideologies try to change human psychology and it always fails, all this kind of social engineering. Not that you shouldn’t help people when they’re in need of help; absolutely, you have to.
CC: On that note, can such pictures – still pictures of the kind you’ve taken in the North End – do the same thing as a moving picture or film documentary, both of which you’ve done? You’ve already shown that those things can intermingle, in films like Ted Barlyuk’s Grocery where you mix together documentary and sound and turn it into a movie and blur a lot of those lines between still photos and moving pictures. Do you think that a still picture on its own can do the same thing as a moving picture can?
JP: A moving picture has more propaganda or teaching value because you can add a soundtrack to a movie and you can say: “That is a rich man,” or “That is a poor man.” But a picture, you look at it, and the guy looks poor but he could be very well rich. Ed Ackerman is not a poor guy. He was raised in the Gates, and he’ll tell you himself that he isn’t poor. So some poor guy who likes to have a nice wardrobe, nice appearance, might look like he’s a well-off guy.
CC: So do pictures tell the truth, or not?
JP: No. Sometimes, but mostly not. It’s just a tiny little fraction of a second.
CC: I think it was Ansel Adams who said that there are two people in every picture: there’s the person being pictured and the person taking the picture, that they put a lot of themselves into it. Do you subscribe to that?
JP: Absolutely. The question is: Why are you drawn to this subject, and why is the other person not drawn to this subject?
CC: So why are you drawn to pictures of the North End?
JP: I feel that that’s been imprinted on me, those kinds of situations. I grew up in the North End, when I was a kid. I grew up in kind of not a continuous, secure, steady life. I was born in a displaced persons camp after the war, and then we lived in the downtown of Montreal where all the immigrants were, and then we moved to Winnipeg and I lived in Point Douglas. And when I went to school I just gravitated to those areas; I feel comfortable there.
CC: It’s interesting because your history is very similar to Fred Herzog, who was displaced by the Second World War and came from Europe to a whole new country in Canada; very blue-collar, at least the first few years or a decade, very blue collar, and then wound up portraying his neighbourhood for many years.
JP: Yes, interesting, absolutely.
CC: So, [do you have] any thoughts on continuing your portrayal of the North End, in a film, or maybe more formal studio portraits; continuing to do so in the same way or a different way?
JP: No, I’m kind of slowing down. I’m slowing down.
CC: Do you still go out shooting very often?
JP: Yeah, when I feel like it, or if there’s something interesting happening there– interesting-bad or interesting-good. I’ll go out there; I’ve just been out there when that young fellow that I mentioned before, that young guy on Main Street who was hit and run, the cops hit him (?), so I went over there to see what was happening. I took some pictures there.
CC: I don’t want to be pedantic, but in a practical way, do you follow a habit when you go out with a camera? Do you walk a certain route, or do you just look for whatever interests you?
JP: I just go wherever I feel like that day. Well, you know this, it’s like: “It’s time to go take some pictures,” because you enjoy it. That’s the only reason. I’m not doing a sociological essay on the gangs of the North End.
CC: You’re still a film shooter, like myself. What are your feelings on shooting film in 2017? Is it a conscious choice, is it something you find relaxing? What’s the reason for continuing?
JP: Well, I like the notion of a physical negative. I just like that notion. I’m not that much of a techie at all, and when a computer fails me (or whatever) it’s just so scary, and there’s all this backing-up of the back-ups and I find it just crazy. It’s the world that we live in. And I know that film outfits like the National Film Board, all the stuff that they’re shooting now –digital video, or back when it was just video tape, they have machinery to keep transferring this stuff every 20 years, and depending on the equipment that you have, you have to have the players to play that stuff. I just find that kind of crazy!
CC: I have to agree; I use computers and digital out of necessity but at the same time it just adds a whole bunch more stress, because like you said, you’re backing up, and now this is obsolete, but you only bought it a few years ago and now you have to buy something else… I sometimes feel like it’s just escaping me more and more, every day.
JP: Yeah, and these film cameramen, who work professionally, they have a whole room full of cameras, major investments that in five years they’re…
CC: Digital cameras seem now to be more computers than they are cameras, maybe even more so.
JP: A phone is not a phone; I don’t know why you can call it a phone. No one phones, they text.
CC: Have you ever tried using a phone or a digital camera?
JP: Yes, just for fun; I just find it awkward. I also find it awkward that on the phone you’re looking at a picture of the picture you’re taking, as opposed to having it in the view-finder. I just find that somehow you’re disconnected.
CC: It does create a bit of a disconnect or distance it seems. So is it fair to say that you find film a bit more intimate? What’s the appeal for you?
JP: It’s the permanence. Saying, “Here are the negatives in this sleeve”; they’re not in some little box that you can’t see, that you have to plug in, and then “Oh, I dropped my hard drive!”
CC: Or someone wields a magnet, and now it’s gone…
CC: Do you still print and develop your negatives in a dark room?
JP: I haven’t for a while.
CC: How do you handle your workflow?
JP: Well lately I’ve been sending it out to a lab in Toronto, which is expensive and the work is not as good as I can do it. But I just stopped the processing for a long time because I was involved with the film, working in film, so I stored a bunch of stuff in my darkroom.
CC: Any plans to return any time soon?
JP: I don’t know. I’m not as young as I used to be, so the thing of spending 12 hours in a darkroom is…
CC: For what you enjoy shooting, what different quality would colour film or colour pictures bring to an image?
JP: I’m not sure. There’s a lot of good colour work; I’m not sure what it would bring except more colour. There was a prejudice actually; I don’t do colour but there was a prejudice, back when everybody was shooting black and white, that colour was not what “real” artists do in photography, that’s what National Geographic do. But some of those guys in National Geographic, man are they good; they are so good and they’re shooting in colour and yeah, so I never bought into that notion.
CC: Are black and white pictures viewed differently now than they would have been in the 70s or 80s? Is it almost a novelty now?
JP: It’s almost a novelty, it’s almost like lithography or etchings or something.
CC: Speaking of which, do you have any favourite artists? You’ve mentioned in the past some photographers that you really like, like Robert Frank or Garry Winogrand. Are there any other artists like painters or sculptors that you get inspiration from?
JP: I like Chagall, and some of Hopper, Degas — the ballerinas. His pictures are very photographic because parts of bodies are cut off by the frame. There are others; some abstract people I like.
CC: Your approach to working, to photographing a place, to getting to know a place with your camera, would that work in other places? For example, can you watch life unfold and people live their lives in a place that you visit, or go on holiday to? Or do you think that you have to live in a place and really get to know it over time to portray it?
JP: I think it depends what kind of antenna people have, and it depends how much you want to work in a place. You have to spend a lot of time. You know the work of Josef Koudelka? Well he’s always travelling, and wherever he goes, he can really get great work. So I think it’s a dedication, and saying, “This is a place that’s good for me,” and then you just keep exploring. Another guy is Alex Webb; he goes to Istanbul or Haiti or something and he goes to these places because of the light, and he says, “Well this is the place,” and he just perseveres.
CC: Steve McCurry would seem to be another one that fits that description.
JP: Yeah, he’s another of these National Geographic guys who took pictures in colour. The idea that colour photography’s not… I never bought into it but…
CC: It kind of goes into this tension between intimacy and detachment. We’ve talked about the photographer always being a little bit apart or separate from what’s going on around him or a bit of a loner. But at the same time your pictures have a real warmth to them; you obviously have an affection for the North End and for people. Do you feel like your pictures and your approach is an intimate approach or do you think you’re just a step removed, a little detached?
JP: It’s a step removed. There are some people in the pictures that might be nice pictures, but I don’t especially like those people.
CC: We’ve all had those pictures. Do you think it’s more necessary to be detached for a good picture or do you think that it’s more important to empathize or work with your subject or feel a closeness?
JP: Both are valued, both are good. When you do portraits you certainly have to get involved with the people; you just have to.
CC: I guess by definition urban photography needs to be a little bit removed.
JP: You have to be removed because you often take pictures of something bad happening and you’re taking a picture of that, so…
CC: Something you said before in an interview, you mentioned about the empty spaces of Winnipeg. Even Garry Winogrand photographed the empty spaces in the Western United States, or the much emptier streets of Los Angeles towards the end of his life. Are Winnipeg streets really that empty or is there just a level of subtlety there that forces you to work a bit harder?
JP: Well that was in comparison with the activity that Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris or wherever he went, and Garry Winogrand and all those New York guys. There are fewer people, and when you’re talking about Garry Winogrand in the American South West and Los Angeles, there were really open spaces. Here, in the North End there are houses, but there aren’t angles that you can play off of; they’re not huge spaces, they’re spaces in between the incidents, more or less. But it was different before: before, there were way more people on the main streets. Like Main Street was… well Portage Avenue and Main Street when I was in high school were packed with people. It’s like a dream. But Main Street, talking about that area: from about City Hall, to just up Selkirk Avenue to Salter there were 7 movie theatres. So people were going places, going to the movies, leaving the movies…
CC: Street life.
JP: Street life, yeah!
CC: One term I had a friend who was a social worker and she was talking about Winnipeg and Brandon. She mentioned that there’s almost a parallel city, that there’s a certain class of people who go on the main streets about their business, and then there’s another group that have their own map, their own streets, but they use back alleys. And they go about their business in completely different, parallel, but separate ways. So it’s almost like there are two cities laid on top of each other. Do you feel like the North End was like that, like a separate city within a city?
JP: Well it was, and it is separate. Portage Avenue was a big divider, and still is, between the people who live there and on this side of Portage. And nowadays, everything South of Portage is moving further South. All the construction: the football stadium, the Ikea stores, the Cabella stores, everything’s moving south, condos moving south, so it’s very interesting.
CC: What do you think the North End is evolving into? You mentioned that when you returned in 1974 from Ryerson, the North End had changed from a place of Slavic and Jewish immigrants into a place where there’s more Aboriginal people. Do you think the North End is shifting again, right now?
JP: No I think it’s becoming more and more Aboriginal. It was always a poor area, but now it’s a poor area but it’s got that reserve culture. And that reserve culture, when it hits the urban city, things happen. The reserves have a lot of unemployment, a lot of violence, and that comes into the city, so the urban reserve culture is in the North End. So what you’re dealing with in the North End are the same problems that people are endlessly talking about on reserves: housing, violence, abuse of kids. So there’s a big connection between the reserves and the urban thing, but nobody seems to be intercepting that. And then, my experience from just observing and talking to people, is that they come to Winnipeg to make things better, but because they don’t have money they wind up among all this bad stuff happening. So a lot of people move back, and there’s a back and forth movement. It’s a different situation than other immigrants.
CC: Has that changed how you work? When you go out there to photograph, has that continuing change in the demographics of the North End changed how you photograph or how you’re received?
JP: Oh yeah. I’m not received as well at all. To some people, I’m the white guy, and they make me aware of that in various ways. But some other people are totally fine. It all depends which part of the North End. Outside the Northern Hotel, if you’re walking with a camera, they ask you if you want to buy some Percocets.
CC: Have you tried photographing other neighbourhoods? Have you tried to take a similar approach to other parts of Winnipeg?
JP: No I haven’t. When I was in Ryerson I spent a lot of time in Chinatown and Cabbagetown.
CC: Why was that? Why were you drawn to those particular neighbourhoods, because they’re pretty immigrant-flavoured…
JP: I lived there! I lived there, so.
CC: Are there any new projects in the works? Are you looking at any new projects, films, photographs or exhibits?
JP: Films; I’m busy with films now. I’m doing a sponsored film on the coming of age of the Ukrainian Canadians in the Second World War. So I’m working with that, using all archival material. And I just finished a little experimental film with Neil McInnes. And I’ve got a few other things. But in photography: I was up in the Arctic in the 80s, about 6 or 7 times, and I took a lot of pictures and I’m going to see if I can compile them in a book, so I’m involved with that as well.
CC: Speaking of the future, do you plan to continue photographing the North End?
JP: I’ll take pictures there, but how much I don’t know. If I feel like going for a walk or a bicycle ride, or something’s happening there, I’ll go there.
CC: Let me know if you need any company, I’d be happy to go. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
JP: If you want to bring your camera, I’m going to be doing a presentation at Under the Bell Tower, on November 10th at 6 o’clock on Selkirk Avenue. It’s a very interesting thing; they’ve been meeting there for about four or five years, every Friday at six o’clock and it’s young people and it’s all in an effort to encourage young people to do good things and to stop the violence in the North End. So there’s a bell tower there where people gather and talk, and then they ring the bell and go across the street into a community club, and that’s where I’m going to do my presentation. But it’s very nice. It’s important to know that’s going on there, because there are some people in the North End who are really great, and these people are all young.
CC: John Paskievich, thank you very much.
JP: I thank you Colin; it’s a pleasure talking about photography.