DOWDEN, Graham

Author Tags: Photography

Graham Dowden began taking photos in the 1950s with a Kodak Baby Brownie and two pieces of advice from his father: always put people in the shot, and get as close to the subject as you can. After retiring from teaching at the University College of the Fraser Valley, Graham Dowden has self-published a superb collection of original, contemporary photos from within a 20-mile radius of the area where has lived for 32 years, Around Mission (Gyre & Gimble Publishing, 2007). “I suppose the book could accurately be described as a regional artifact,” he says. Dowden ignores his father’s words of wisdom with an abundance of winter scenes, including abandoned items, rural mailboxes and Stave Lake. $39.95 978-0-9782328-0-1

[33644 Cherry Ave. Mission, B.C. V2V 2V6]

[BCBW 2007] "Photography"

Around Mission

from Graham Dowden
This book came out of a conversation. I was standing in an art gallery, happy enough that some of my pictures were on its walls, but telling a fellow that it was all very nice to be getting a show now and then, yet what one really wanted to do was bring out a book. I mentioned how daunting it was, when one had arrived at a certain age still without any reputation of note, to face the prospect of convincing a legitimate publisher to take on one’s very first body of work.

“Pshaw!” he said. “Publish it yourself!”

“But a book about what?” I asked.

“How long have you lived here in Mission?” he replied.

“Thirty-two years.”

“Well, then.”

It’s an interesting community, Mission, where blue-collar values stand beside but do not always mix with a fierce dedication to the arts, where an economy still dependent on farming and forestry is increasingly hooked on the juggernaut of urban growth.

It’s more interesting than Abbotsford, that’s for sure, though it isn’t always pretty. But then the last thing a photographer should want to do is make his subject pretty. Beautiful, yes. That’s another matter. The thing about beauty, as the Romantic poets always said, is that the beautiful always contains elements of the dark and the unsavory. To respond to mere prettiness is to keep one’s responses pretty much on the surface. To appreciate beauty is to respond to a wide and often discomfiting range of contrasts and possibilities.

Centennial Park in Mission is pretty. But do people actually go there? Mission as a whole, though, while it has attractive old hillside houses and stunning river views and sweeping mountain vistas and magnificent forest expanses right in its backyard, also has seedy back alleys and crapped-out shake mills and unkempt ravines where people dispose of their old tires, and a sometimes unpleasant (though hardly unique) history of dealing with non-Europeans.

The reason Stave Lake is such a beautiful place, though it is far from being always pretty, has a lot to do with the fact that for half the year it’s a shimmering expanse of pellucid and inviting blue water, but for the other half, the dark half, the interesting half of the year, the water level behind the dam is drawn down thirty or forty or fifty feet from summer recreational levels, and then all the reminders of dubious logging practices-—the snags and spars and junked machinery that nobody back then took the trouble to take away—this brown mess is all out there in plain view. Until, that is, it all gets covered up again under the next spring’s runoff. But just barely. Just enough that it will still tear the bottom out of your speedboat if you aren’t paying close attention.

I have even run up on a stump in my kayak up there, and the last thing you want to do when you’re paddling along with an expensive camera around your neck is to suddenly find yourself under water and upside down, hastily reviewing the procedure for a wet exit. This actually happened to me one day—not by tipping off a stump, and not at Stave Lake, but on the Fraser, where I believed I was clever enough and strong enough one lazy fall afternoon to muscle my way upstream past the end of what had once been a tree wedged firmly into the downstream end of a small sandbar.

Fifteen hundred dollars and a new camera later, I had learned my lesson.

But to take the pictures that you need to take, you need to take your camera with you wherever you go, certainly in your car and your boat, possibly even to bed. Most of the time when you take your camera out the door with you, nothing happens. But that one afternoon when you leave it at home because all you’re doing is a quick run down to the grocery store anyway, for heaven’s sake—that’s when a troupe of Hare Krishnas stages an impromptu parade down Main Street, or the sky suddenly darkens and you get hail and weird blue clouds and impossibly orange trees, or an eighteen-wheeler loaded with ten thousand bright yellow rubber duckies spills its load across the entire width of the Mission Bridge.

In short, you have to have your eye as open as you can, and your equipment always at the ready. In some ways, it hardly matters what the subject matter is. Landscapes, streetscapes, waterscapes, skyscapes, people, buildings, trees, mailboxes, cardboard boxes, cats, graffiti, dead fish, steaming horses, shop windows-, old tugboats—everything is grist for the mill, as long as the light is right. Reflected light, radiant light, natural light, artifical light, celestial light—the art of photography, as the etymology of the word makes clear, is really the art of drawing with light. People who take dull pictures in the flat, glaring light of the noonday sun are not necessarily dull people, nor even dull photographers; they just haven’t yet learned to trust the evidence of their own eyes. One well-known photographer was asked why he took so many pictures all the time, and his reply was that he liked to see what things looked like when they were photographed. If you snap your shutter whilst aiming down at an otherwise unprepossessing pile of malodorous salmon early on a November morning when it actually feels as if this might look interesting when you see the finished product (for outdoor photography this usually means when the sun is at least semi-obscured or is not too far from the horizon), you stand a considerably better chance of getting a good picture than if you find yourself pointing your lens at a picturesque curve of the Great Wall of China on a cloudless day at one o’clock in the afternoon just because that’s when the tour bus dropped you there.

In addition to subject matter and quality of light, there are also formal considerations, of course. Structure, composition, balance, all that. The best way to tell whether a photograph is formally pleasing, which means divesting it of as much content-related baggage as possible (does the bride really look as if she likes the groom; is aunt Vera actually smiling?) is to turn the picture upside down, or at least sideways. It’s a bit like what the old eighteenth-century landscape painters did when they were sizing up a scene for its purely aesthetic possibilities: they turned around, bent over double, and looked at everything backwards and upside down through the framing device of their own two legs.

A word about the equipment used in the preparation of this book. Until recently, I shot everything with a 35 mm Canon EOS A2 single lens reflex camera on Fujichrome Velvia slide film (wonderfully fine grain, highly saturated colours). I used a 28 mm wide angle lens exclusively. To make digital files I scanned these slides (mostly on an Epson V750 scanner), then processed them in Adobe Photoshop (meaning, in this case, little more than getting the size right, removing dust spots and odd little smudges and worms, and tweaking brightness and contrast and sharpness a bit). Some of the most recent pictures were shot on a Canon 30D digital SLR with a 17-85 mm zoom. The book was laid out in Adobe InDesign.

Some of the book’s images (and many more from other locales and on other topics) can also be viewed on my website, Anyone interested in purchasing additional copies of the book, or archival-quality inkjet prints in a variety of sizes and formats, should contact me, either via the website or at the Gyre & Gimble Publishers address listed on the copyright page.

An undertaking like this would have been utterly impossible without a huge amount of support. Over a hundred institutions and individuals had enough blind faith to contribute substantially to the project’s costs. Friends (see the list at the back) are those who purchased at least one copy of the book well in advance of the publication date. Patrons (also listed at the back) contributed at a higher level, and Angels (see over) at a higher level yet. I must single out for its especially generous support my old employer and home away from home for 25 years, the University College of the Fraser Valley.

I am especially indebted to a few individuals without whom I would still be floundering around in the woulda shoulda coulda stages of all this: Jorge Rocha at Friesens; Kim Isaac and Rachele Oriente, who helped me with copyright; Bob McGregor and Geoff Fraser, who taught the software courses at UCFV and bailed me out on numerous occasions; Lynne Smith for her constant encouragement and marketing smarts; and above all my wife Judy Hill, whose technical wizardry and fearless criticism and inexhaustible fund of moral support still leave me at a loss for ... further ... words.

—Graham Dowden

The Widening Gyre
Personal Essay (2007)

The Widening Gyre: Cautionary Adventures in Self-Publishing

There are many reasons why self-publishing may be the wave of the future, but for me it was a matter of necessity. Not long after I turned sixty-five, I had one of those ‘senior moments’. My own future, I suddenly saw, lay spread out before me less spaciously than my past lay spread out behind. If I was ever going to fulfill a decades-old dream of producing a book, I had better do it now. And what’s more, I had better do it myself. The alternative—since I had spent thirty years working with words but what I wanted to make now was a book of pictures—was to spend a further decade or two building up enough of a reputation as a photographer that it wouldn’t be completely absurd for me to start knocking on the doors of legitimate publishers.

So I did it myself. Or rather, we did it ourselves. You need lots of help from your friends. And you need lots of friends.

True friends, especially, though even a false friend can serve a project that has been lying dormant for years. I was chatting with a fellow one day in a Mission art gallery, tall chap, business suit, smiled a lot, never seen him before in my life, said he was running for office, shook my hand, told me he liked my stuff, I told him I’d always wanted to do a book, he said I’ll help you, you do the art end and I’ll do the business end, we shook hands again, he polled one point three per cent of the vote, I phoned him, I emailed him, I wrote him, I never heard from him again. But the die was cast.

Lesson #1: (a) take your inspiration from anywhere you can get it; (b) have a fallback plan if your gift horse turns out to have bad teeth. I was now going to be responsible for both ends of the project—the art end and the business end—myself.

Well, not all by myself. Lynne, who is also in business, is a true friend. I said, “Lynne, how does self-publishing work? Do I pay for it all myself?” She said, “There’s an article on Bob Bossin’s website: How to Raise $25,000 for Your CD.” Bob said, “If you don’t ask, you won’t get. Start with your relatives and friends.”

I came up with a title: Around Mission. I whipped up a snazzy fundraising brochure. I explained in the brochure the various levels of support, all turning on the basic idea of prepurchase: I get your money now, you get the book later. You get your name in it.

I sent these out to everyone I know. Support started coming in. Some people I never expected to hear from came into the project big. Some people I thought would come on board didn’t. Eventually, I raised enough money to cover the entire print run.

Lesson #2: (a) don’t be shy; (b) keep meticulous accounts and send out receipts promptly; (c) be grateful; (d) don’t hold grudges.

Meanwhile: I might be able to publish this thing myself, but publishing a book is not the same as printing one. I went into bookstores, looked at books of Canadian photography, saw that 85% of the good ones were printed by Friesens. I went to see the Friesens rep in Vancouver. Jorge spent hours leading me through the minutiae of a job like this. My head swam. Jorge went over things again. Lynne had come with me. Lynne asked questions. Lynne took notes. We went home. Jorge answered emails promptly. Promised to have a detailed quote ready in ten days. It arrived in ten days.

Lynne cautioned: shop and compare! I got a quote from one other printer, also Canadian and much nearer home. Their estimate came in at exactly double Friesens’.

Jorge made a suggestion about marketing: come up with a publisher’s name that isn’t just your own. It’s a transparent gimmick, but for reviewers and potential retailers this takes some of the stigma off ‘self-published’. I love the magic of spirals, especially when the energy flows toward the centre, so I googled Spiral Publishing. Taken. Vortex Publishing. Taken. Helix Publishing. Coil, Whorl, Spinorama, Curlicue, Screw Publishing. All taken. But finally I got lucky. I submitted my name request to the appropriate authorities, got it approved and registered, and lo! seventy-five dollars later, Gyre & Gimble Publishing was born!

It was time to roll my sleeves up. I had questions. Am I good enough to get my image files ready for publication? Am I good enough to actually design this thing? Am I willing to pay somebody else to perform these functions for me? I found answers: not yet, not yet, and not at all. I took night courses in Photoshop and InDesign. My friend (and wife) Judy took them with me. Together, we’d be good enough. Together we were more than good enough.

Did I mention an editor? You can only edit your own stuff up to a point. Luckily, Judy is not only a computer wizard—she also has an eye. She said, “You’re actually thinking of putting that one in, are you?” She said, “What? You’re considering not putting this one in?”

Lesson #3: (a) some of your editor’s advice you take; (b) some of it you don’t; (c) none of it, especially if your editor is your wife, you ignore.

Months went by, and between what I remembered from those classes and what Judy remembered and what my instructors provided by way of email support long after both courses had ended and I was in the throes of deadline angst, I clambered over the last of the technical hurdles and … the job was done. I sent the files off, Friesens told me the books would be delivered to a certain Fraser Valley loading dock on a certain date, and they were there on that date. I arrived, box-cutter in hand, slit open the first carton, pulled out the first book, and almost fainted dead away, I was so pleased.

This was the climax of the whole thing. Up to here the project had been hard work but it had been fun. There had already been too much of the business end, but the business end was tolerable because the art end lay ahead. From here on in, though, it was all business. Self-publishing doesn’t end with the arrival of a pallet of books at a loading dock. No, now you’ve got to move them. First you have to move them from the loading dock to your bedroom. Then you have to move them out. What had been a thousand copies of one’s pride and joy had become inventory.

I had morphed from photographer to fundraiser to publisher to book designer with my joie pretty much intact, but now I had arrived at a place where the gyre had reversed directions and its energy was spiralling rapidly outward. My father was a salesman all his life. I vowed never to follow suit, and yet here I was, newly minted as publicist and marketing guy. The book’s images are of the Mission area. Getting copies into Mission-area retail outlets was not hard, and the local media were hugely supportive. But I was also hoping the book would have a wider appeal. I began sending out review copies to Vancouver and beyond. With covering letters, of course. I considered cranking out a page of all-purpose boilerplate and letting it go at that. But I am an unknown, and so each letter had to be carefully tailored to fit.

B.C. Bookworld was the first to bite. Followed, mirabile dictu, by the Vancouver Sun, and then a nice piece in The Georgia Straight? The National Post? The Globe & Mail? Quill & Quire? Still, I counted my blessings.

Then I started hitting Lower Mainland bookstores. Duthie’s took three copies right away. 32 Books in North Van took a couple. The Vancouver Art Gallery passed. Hager’s passed. Others passed also. Thanks but no thanks. Not our cup of tea. Both Vancouver Chapters stores eventually agreed to take some books on consignment, but by now the road to market had begun tilting sharply uphill, just as my interest in all this was falling into steep decline. People didn’t answer emails, didn’t return phone calls, and while some booksellers (independents, on the whole) had a cheque ready for me the same day I come in, others (notably, the Black Bond chain) seemed to have a policy of paying their suppliers no earlier than three months after the invoice date, if then.

It’s easy to get disheartened at this point, and I did. And I’m content to end this tale less with a bang than a whimper. There are plenty of additional sales and promotion options, of course—wholesalers, distributors, the internet, even taking out ads, God knows, even hiring an agent—but when you’re stalled between your first burst of enthusiasm and your second wind and your project seems to have begun riding madly off in all directions, the temptation is to lie back a bit and mope. So beware.

Lesson #4? There are people who do for a living things you don’t always have the experience or the stomach to do for yourself. Maybe . you . don’t . have . to . control . every . single . solitary . aspect . of . this . precious . project . of . yours . after . all.

Further advice? None. In fact, I could use some. On the other hand, I would do it all again in a minute.

--Graham Dowden