Through the Looking Glass of 12×12

Posted by on August 18, 2012 at 3:04 pm.

What goes through a participants mind, as they peer through their camera, lining up for the perfect shot, a single shot, a vital shot, a shot permanently captured on film? Seemingly a hundred different ideas flash by, as the minutes tick down on 12×12’s hourly theme. “Do I go literal? Do I think abstract? Do I venture to find the exact setting for my ideal idea? Or do I wander and observe and let the shot come to me?”

This is what I see, as I tag along with three of this year’s 12×12 Photo Marathon participants. If you’ve ever wondered what the process has been for participants in this rather epic photo competition, well I’m here to give you the down low and dirty of it all.

It’s noon, 2 hours into the marathon on a perfect sunny day in Gastown as Shannon Leonard takes to the streets to brainstorm ideas for the hourly theme, Nude. It’s a simple one it seems, but rather difficult to interpret at the same time given 12×12’s rule of no explicit nudity.

At first thought, Shannon admits she’s thinking literal. She mentions costuming but quickly moves to thoughts of bare faces, baring it all, to be emotionally bare. Given our proximity to Pidgeon Park, her ideas wander towards those around the area, the many homeless perhaps and the bareness of their lives, stripped from the world, an emotional nudity. She decides this may be worth pursuing, so we head towards the park.

Shannon at 12x12 Vancouver Photo Marathon 2012I ask her what she thinks of the black and white theme this year. “I love colour”, she says, but black and white poses an interesting challenge for her. She particularly likes portraits in black and white where the structure and features of a person are exposed and emotion is captured more honestly. We stop and chat, all the while her eyes wander behind me. An idea has come into view. She points to a discarded tan couch in the alleyway. I can see the theme unravelling at the sight of this sad yellow couch. She is compelled to take a closer look.

The couch is definitely exposed, she explains, weathered and “nude”, forgotten and discarded. I ask her whether this is it, and I see knowing in her eyes. She sets up the shot, crouching low to get the best angle that captures the reflection in the puddle, the gritty pavement, graffiti’d walls and the narrow lane of dumpsters. A quick click of her camera and the photo is taken. She turns to me with a grin and tells me she’s captured a gem. Someone had surprisingly poked their head out of the doorway with their tongue sticking out, and she captured it all on film! Fantastic, I agree.

If there ever was a place more laid bare, this alleyway would probably be it. A fine find, and one she wasn’t necessarily looking for, but that seemingly found her instead. It appears there are many ways to find the perfect shot, but sometimes it’s the ones you’re not looking for that turn out to be the most compelling.

Bob and Ayoe at 12x12 Vancouver Photo MarathonReturning to the 12×12 headquarters at The Coffee Bar, I meet up with Bob and Ayoe, participants #2. Somewhat behind in their photos, they had two themes to capture in the next hour, but the duo appeared confident and focused. I found myself in front of Gastown’s famous Gassy Jack statue. There, the couple set up for their second thematic shot, “Looking Through the Looking Glass”. Unlike Shannon, Bob and Ayoe appeared to take a more literal approach to the theme, taking a photo literally through another camera lense aimed at Gassy Jack.

Bob and Ayoe come well prepared with a digital camera in one hand and their film camera in another. Taking multiple test shots with their digital camera before committing to film, the couple are meticulous with their shot. Are they metering correctly? Wait, Jack’s head is not in view! “Get his head into the picture!” says Ayoe. Several focused minutes later and the film camera comes out. Ayoe holds her breath to steady the lens in her hand. This is it, shoot and commit!

Asked what they thought about black and white film, Bob tells me that film is different. Unlike colour photos, one needs to consider how colour translates into black and white. Red and green, for example, appears the same in black and white. Focus must be placed more on contrast, structure, patterns, texture, shade and light. But I can tell, this duo is not intimidated by this year’s challenge. They’ve been practicing at home, they tell me, so that their digital tests will translate well on film. Clearly, 12×12 participants mean business and this duo have their process down.

Bob and Ayoe at 12x12 Vancouver Photo MarathonEvery year there are 60 stories to be told, one for each participant. Each have a different approach, a different point of view, and a different story that speaks as much about the 12 themes as the photographer’s own philosophy, narrative, and voice. Looking over the shoulders of these participants, I have come to realize that this event is more than a competition. It’s an opportunity to create a story in a medium that has to many been forgotten. And perhaps the use of black and white film is more apt than any this time around, as it strips away the noise of colour, leaving us with the core of the photo and the heart of the photographer.

Blogged by Vanessa Chu.

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