John England (Photo courtesy of Alex Cook)

John England Swears He’s Not a Photographer

John England is lying on my living room sofa with his feet up. He is not wearing socks, which isn’t unusual for John; I’ve only ever seen him wearing socks once, on a day I had bought him a pair. He tells me it’s a ‘Californian thing’, but I suspect it’s a ‘John thing’. The occasion, for which I’ve forewarned him is intended to be an interview, feels much more like a therapy session, but he responds to it well.

John grew up in California, and I suppose it shows; his hair is unkempt, he is nearly always sporting a five o’clock shadow, not only has he disavowed his socks, but nearly done away with shoes entirely (I have regularly seen him wearing sandals in sub-zero temperatures), he takes a laissez-faire approach to business, and not that these are in anyway a stereotype of all Californians, but it would be no stretch of the imagination to see him living in some beach-side commune. For all that his talent and skill are undeniable.

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John started the long journey towards his career working in the Los Angeles film industry, doing CGI for big name films such as Back to the Future II, and Batman & Robin. He can also be seen playing keyboard as one of The Jammers in the 1988 film Mad About You. Eventually he landed in Halifax, working with Salter Street Productions, before settling into family life and photography.

His work as a photographer seem to reflect the strong contrasts between busy LA and the comparative solitude of the Maritimes. The results are remarkable; capturing the natural beauty of quintessential rural scenery, and rugged coastline that often leaves one with a feeling akin to forlornness. Great open expanses stretch across long canvases with almost never a soul to be found, “I’m so awkward at even watching people. That’s why I generally don’t have people in my landscapes. The great street photographers that can stick a camera in people’s face and then develop a rapport with that person? I can’t do that. I could never do that; I’m too shy, too self-conscious, too heavily bearded, too scary. It’s really funny, for a brief period of time in Vancouver I really felt a strong bond with people. I wonder what precipitated that. I was out constantly. It’s a muscle; I could develop it if I really set my mind to it, but I’d have to change so much about myself that it’d be hard to do.”

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His photographs often include, if not real live human beings, then at least the signs of human existence: an old farmhouse here, a moored fishing boat there, even the evidence of a past shipwreck, and no doubt if you were to wait long enough somebody would be along eventually to tend to them. In all that isolation it seems as though there is a hope, a strong desire, to find someone in that shared happenstance of loneliness. It’s a sentiment easily discovered when John discusses some of his heroes and inspirations, predominantly portrait photographers,  “The reason why I don’t consider myself a photographer is that I don’t have the eye to see in the way a skilled photographer sees. When I think of photography I’m always thinking of street photography, or portrait photography. Like Henri Bresson Cartier, he was the godfather of portrait photography and to me his work is not what I think of when I think of Art photography. The photographers that are able to capture that moment in a person’s face or a situation, that one split second sooner or one second too late would not convey the same story. That is the genius of the art form of photography; capturing that instant and to be able to look into people in a way that you see the profoundness in what otherwise would be a very mundane scene. […] If you look at Annie Liebovitz’s portrait of Robert Penn Warren, it’s a painting. It’s just gorgeous. And that was back in the day when it was staged, they got it that way in the camera. It’s gorgeous framing, the face, just wow, it’s art.”

John’s insistence that he’s not a photographer also stems from his current tech. A long time fan of Sigma products, he currently shoots with a Sigma DP2M, which he lauds for the way it captures both light and colour but its 45mm focal length requires meticulous stitching and manipulation when producing landscapes. The final product is often the result of a dozen or more shots, and John’s process of carefully editing out anachronistic elements effect an estrangement from pure photography, “I love Norman Rockwell’s work. What’s ironic about that is Norman Rockwell photographed most of his scenes. He had a camera obscura and literally traced his photographs. Of course he didn’t advertise that at all, but he took it to the next level. He used it as a tool but he was afraid people would see it as a crutch, or as a gimmick, or a cheat, so he didn’t advertise it in his lifetime. […] But those guys are like any artist in any art form where there’s a couple geniuses, and then a lot of competent work, and then it falls off a cliff. I’m definitely in the competent category. I’d love to be a genius, because you want to be remembered, I want to be remembered.”

John’s work may currently be found in Fog Forrest Gallery, in Sackville, NB.

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