Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Turning the camera on a man whose photographs live in our collective memory

Photograph by Deddeda Stemler

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 5, 2008


Ted Grant has shot bullfights and cowboys sleeping in a bunkhouse; an Olympic runner at a moment of triumph and an upside-down equestrian rider bucked from a horse; John Diefenbaker chortling and Pierre Trudeau sliding down a banister.

He has covered a war that lasted a week and another that seemed would never end.

For a half-century, his photographs have been part of our collective memory. The images appeared in the likes of Star Weekly and Weekend Magazine, the newspaper supplements that once offered the nation's readers a shared experience.

His most reproduced work – admired by some, defaced by others – has been found on election campaign posters.

After years of showing us to ourselves, Mr. Grant finds himself in the uncomfortable position of having the camera turned on him. He is the subject of a documentary – Ted Grant: The Art of Observation – produced for the Bravo! network in which he is portrayed as Canada's most famous unknown photographer.

Many know the work; few know the name. A photographer who admits to shyness likes it that way.

“I'm just a shooter like anybody else,” he insists.

In his day, he was a Yousuf Karsh of the newsroom, an old-fashioned lensman whose perseverance, hard work and killer eye produced such memorable images as a playful prime minister descending a staircase by riding the handrail on his rump, a naughty boy with his arms flung heavenward.

The National Archives of Canada in Ottawa maintains a collection of Mr. Grant's work. Back in 1999, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Association of Photographers and Artists in Communication (CAPIC). The other recipient that year was Mr. Karsh, the land's most famous photographer.

Where Mr. Karsh created his icons in a studio setting, Mr. Grant has preferred to shoot in a natural habitat (even if that was an office) using available light. Like Mr. Karsh, he sees the world in black and white. Colour photography is for shooting clothes, he says. Black and white captures souls.

A lean, wiry man, Mr. Grant looks happiest when holding a camera. While staring through the viewfinder with his left eye, his lazy right eye gazes up and away from the action. He has limited vision in the right, which has been unhelpful on assignment. He was once struck by a loose tire while photographing a road race. Another time, he was on the sidelines of a football game when Ron Stewart of the Ottawa Rough Riders ran an end sweep. So intent was the photographer on capturing the moment that he failed to notice the two hulking defenders about to drive the runner out of bounds. Mr. Grant became the meat in a hero sandwich.

“I didn't know where I was,” he said. “They all got up and I was left lying there.

“I said, ‘How's my camera?' ”

The basement walls of Mr. Grant's home are covered with a lifetime's work, family snapshots mixing with portraits of John Travolta and others. A room that once served as a darkroom has been transformed into a light room, as the 78-year-old photographer has kept up with technological advances. He has come a long way since the day when he ruined his wife's baking tins with the chemicals he was using to develop his first batch of film.

Born in Toronto a few months before the stock-market crash of 1929, he became enraptured with photography after his father allowed him to take a few shots with the family's Box Brownie, a cardboard contraption. The family did not have enough money on a beer-truck driver's salary to get Ted one of his own.

His wife, the former Irene Irons, presented him with his first camera on his 21st birthday. She had saved $30 from her job as a secretary to buy a little Argus A2. He has it still.

He took the camera with him to car races on a dirt track. The drivers liked his work and were soon paying a princely $1 per print. A shot of a tire popping off a racing car was bought by the Ottawa Citizen, which gave him a photo credit and a modest payment. A young man who had been making a living by repairing restaurant equipment soon after launched a new career.

Journalistic assignments have taken him to the Middle East for the Six-Day War of 1967, to Vietnam for the battle of Khe Sanh, to Ukraine to cover the aftermath of Chernobyl.

“If you're going to war, go with the Israelis,” he said. “It starts on Monday and you're heading home on Saturday.”

Mr. Grant trained for the 1988 Seoul Olympics by standing alongside the Pat Bay Highway with his cameras, honing his timing by trying to focus on the licence plates of the cars speeding past.

On the day of the 100-metre race, he avoided the finish line for a spot farther down the track that he had scouted during the preliminaries. After Canada's Ben Johnson crossed the line, he thrust a finger in the air in triumph before looking back at his heartsick rival.

A single colour frame – perfectly composed, the runners in mid-stride looking like statues – captured the moment. It was the image of a lifetime, at least until the gold medal was rescinded when Mr. Johnson failed a drug test. It was as if someone told Mr. Karsh he had photographed Winston Churchill's double and not the great man himself.

Mr. Grant has the uncanny ability of finding art in adversity. After undergoing nearly six hours of neurosurgery in 1980 to repair nerve damage in his good eye, the grateful photographer decided to turn his lens on doctors and nurses. His seventh book, now in the planning, will be a study of medical students at the University of Victoria.

In the past, he has been an official photographer for the Progressive Conservatives, handling six federal campaigns as well as chronicling the lives of federal and provincial party leaders. Those photos of a Smilin' Brian Mulroney on 1984 and 1988 campaign posters? Take out the darts and gaze on the work of Ted Grant.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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