James Wilson (John England/The East)

The Portraiture of James Wilson

“Left, left, left, left, last right before gravel and you’re there.” These were photographer James Wilson’s minimalist directions to his Hampton studio traveling from the highway. I’m running late, as usual, and coming at it backwards, taking the scenic route through the Kingston Peninsula. “Right, right, right, right, left, oops, there it is”, and whoosh —straight past his studio and into the weeds. Cursing, I course correct and pull up a steep drive to a rambling century home where Mr. Wilson appears from within — self-possessed and welcoming.

James Wilson (John England/The East)
James Wilson (John England/The East)
Stephen Scott (Courtesy of James Wilson)
Stephen Scott (Courtesy of James Wilson)

Though compact in stature, James Wilson is a commanding presence as he gives me the rundown on his studio’s past, present, and future. He is distinctly reminiscent of Jean-Luc Picard conducting a tour of the starship Enterprise, and, if such a thing were possible, it would be no more impressive an experience.

James is a second generation photographer by blood, and the fourth owner of a family business that began 138 years ago when Isaac Erb set up a Charlotte Street studio centered on a beautiful north-light window. In 1924, Isaac’s son, John inherited the business, and in 1939 James’ father, Lewis Wilson borrowed and scraped to pay the then princely sum of $200 to assume the title. As a boy, James assisted his father, keenly observant of the process of capturing a moment in time and transforming it through chemistry to a physical form that could be treasured and preserved for future generations.

Musician Richard Kidd (Courtesy of James Wilson)
Musician Richard Kidd (Courtesy of James Wilson)

In 1981, James Wilson assumed the mantle from his father and has extended it’s reach into the halls of government; the walls of discerning collectors; and the permanent collections of museums. These days, Mr. Wilson has largely traded the physicality of film for the immediacy of digital, but has maintained his love of natural light portraiture, a love that results in works of distinctive beauty.

After talking shop for a while I am introduced to James’ charming wife, Cathy, who spoils us with wine and locally smoked trout as we get down to the business of discussing his work. I am shown to their lovingly restored 1830 living room — paintings and sculpture and wood-turnings jam every inch of wall space and spill out onto the chairs and floor. “My friends”, James says, referring to them. “And they’re constantly being rotated in and out with my mood and the seasons.”

The Studio (John England/The East)
The Studio (John England/The East)
Artist - Herzl Kashetsky (Courtesy of James Wilson)
Artist – Herzl Kashetsky (Courtesy of James Wilson)

We seat ourselves on a Victorian-era couch and peer into a laptop at Mr. Wilson’s labors of love, ‘Social Studies’, a collection of truly inspired black and white portraiture taken over two decades, documenting the soldiers and the street people; the builders and the bakers; the tapestry of faces that make up our fair province. These portraits will be the subject of a Beaverbrook exhibition next year, and a coffee table book; beyond that, Mr. Wilson intends to keep adding to the collection: “It’s what I’m going to leave behind as a document of who we are.”

The compositions are impeccable and the moments captured speak of a patient and purposeful eye. The subjects are stripped to their essence — all window-lit, with the same black background, “The same stage, but different actors,” James explains. “There is something interesting to me about separating people from their environment, keeping the focus just on the individual.”

His inspirations are some of the greats: Avedon, Penn, Karsh, “But primarily my father, though he shot A-roll. That was his responsibility as a commercial photographer to glamorize his subjects. I’m a B-roll shooter. I’m taking pictures for me — if someone is a little edgy or nervous, I love it for that reason.”

“Come here, I want to show you something.” Mr. Wilson leads me to a massive wooden storage case. Opening one of the drawers he takes out an image of the late-great Acadian boxer, Yvon Durelle. “This was the last picture I took of him. I had one sheet of film left. it took a long time to get his shirt off; his glasses off. I grabbed my camera and moved in close and quickly focussed and then, bam, that’s the one — that’s the one that says it all because you see the killer in him, and that face is a road map, and you would not want to meet this man in the ring — he was massive — he took his ring off and dropped it over two of my fingers!”

Boxer, Yvon Durelle (Courtesy of James Wilson)
Boxer, Yvon Durelle (Courtesy of James Wilson)

The image itself is massive — massive dynamic range, bitingly sharp, brutally revealing of a man’s lost prime. After staring at a computer screen for the last hour and marveling at composition, I am now reminded how important it is to see a master’s work in it’s intended form — like 180 gram virgin vinyl through Altec’s pushing real air. I am moved. This is art.

I ask about the state of photography as an art form: “We’re better off than we’ve ever been before. When I was trying to sell photography in the 80’s I couldn’t get into a gallery because they didn’t view photography as an art form — it was viewed as too mechanical — it had baggage that (regional) galleries took a long time to warm up to. You had to go to New York or Paris to find success. Now, most art galleries have their photographer. It’s highly studied as an art form and we have great contemporary practitioners such as Ed Burtynsky.”

I arrived to Mr. Wilson’s flustered and sweaty. Two hours later I leave calm and refreshed — well-fed in body and spirit. On the drive home I contemplate a statement he made concerning composition — “That woman’s top is not red, it’s medium grey!”— I pre-visualize my portraits in shades of grey, purely tonal, without the crutch of color to compensate for a weak composition.”

The work of James Wilson (John England/The East)
The work of James Wilson (John England/The East)

This speaks to me regarding my own tentative forays into portrait photography for this magazine. In the realm of portraiture, an unspoken game of chicken plays out between subject and photographer to see who will blink first — the subject, dropping their public face and revealing their sensitive underbelly, or the photographer, buying into the artifice of a forced smile and settling for another banal decoration. I’m batting about .125 right now. James Wilson persists, which is why his art will endure.

For more information of James Wilson’s photography visit his webpage.

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