Monday, January 10, 2011

An isolated wait in the mountains for the perfect shot

Victoria photographer Mike Andrew McLean checks out the scenery in the Rockies.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 10, 2011


Each summer for the past three years, Mike Andrew McLean trekked up alpine paths with heavy camera equipment in search of spectacular vistas.

Acting as his own sherpa, the Victoria photographer carried with him a 1960s-era Linhof Technika IV field camera. It has a bellows, stands on a tripod, and requires a black cloth to be draped over the shooter.

After setting up near summits, he then waited for a passerby.

Sometimes, hours passed. Winds whipped along ridges. The photographer was exposed, though not always his film.

Mr. McLean, 34, was working on a project he calls “Range: Mountain National Parks Photographs.” He returned to the Rockies he had explored as a youth, seeking to make photographic portraits of strangers against a breathtaking backdrop.

In an age when wafer-thin cellphones take snapshots, a photographer with a large-format camera is an odd sight to stumble across in so isolated a site.

“This camera is a magnet for conversation,” he said. “You set it up and people are drawn to it. It is a spectacle, a surreal image.”

Just taking a photograph under the cloth was a performance, as though a hiker had stumbled across a daguerrotypist from another century.

No one turned him down, though he once watched with great patience at Lineham Ridge in Waterton Lakes National Park as a solitary climber neared his position, then sat down to enjoy a leisurely lunch before returning the way he came. The climber never got closer than 60 metres to the camera on a day in which four hours passed without a photograph being taken.

In their isolation and in the exertion needed to hike to a mountain pass, or to climb a peak, mountain travelers share a kinship. Those who posed for images were rewarded with a Polaroid developed as they waited, a souvenir of an unexpected encounter.

Accompanied by his wife, the writer Laura Trunkey, the Victoria photographer spent three summers in the national mountain parks. He estimates he hiked 1,000 kilometres, fueled by a diet of peanuts and beef jerky, his home a tent, or, in poor weather, the rear of the couple’s Pontiac station wagon. They seemed to encounter as many bruins as bipeds.

Mr. McLean exposed 250 sheets of film, selecting 27 images for use in group and solo shows. (An exhibition of “Range” opens on Saturday at the Kamloops Art Gallery.) His series is to be featured in a full-scale solo exhibition at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery in his hometown of Lethbridge, which promises to be a happy homecoming for the sessional lecturer at the University of Victoria.

Now he needs to raise money to print and frame his oversized (31 by 40-inch) images. Fourteen still need to be completed. At $750 each, he seeks $10,500, a small fortune to an artist. A possible solution: Crowd sourcing. He has described his project and his funding dilemma on, which describes itself as the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects.

As of Sunday, 33 backers pledged $2,285. He offers modest gifts depending on the amount pledged. Even the promise of as little as $10 earns a thank-you note and a laser print of one of the photographs.

He has 33 days to gain further donors. If he doesn’t make the total, all backers are released from their pledges.

"Horses" by Mike Andrew McLean. Part of "The Whites" series.

Meanwhile, he has yet another exhibit opening in Victoria on Friday. “The Whites” features black-and-white images shot in Victoria over the past year. The series is described as an exploration of the subject of whiteness, from the spills emanating from a paint can, to a vintage wicker lampshade in a budget hotel, to the bunker-like solitude of a small building with boarded windows in a parking lot. (The latter will be familiar to Victoria residents as the law offices of Doug Christie.)

Mr. McLean remains enthralled by the traditional process of developing sheet film.

“Having the print come up in the developer, appearing before your eyes, it’s like magic,” he said.

“The Whites” opens at 7 p.m. Friday at Deluge Contemporary Arts, 636 Yates St., in Victoria. Runs until Feb. 12. “Range: Mountain National Parks Photographs” opens Saturday at the Kamloops Art Gallery.


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