Last week I saw Dale M. Reid’s fabulous photos of oyster mushrooms (review in a separate post below) at the National Association of Women Artists gallery. The photographer, who was in town for a few days from her home base in Toronto, graciously sat with me for an interview about her work. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
Could you talk about how you got into photography? You mentioned you had been a banker for 25 years – that’s an interesting shift.
I’m an accountant by training – accountants have to be precise, and I have to be precise when I print, so there are some common elements in these two professions. Also, I think my business background brings a lot of depth and understanding to the art world and how to approach it. The art business can be more business than art.
I have always enjoyed photography – I would shoot when traveling to the Canadian East Coast. However, I think it became more of an outlet after my partner was diagnosed with MS. Then in 1999, I started looking at photography differently, more as an art form. When it’s a hobby, you don’t think about that, you’re out having fun. I took Introductory Photography at Ryerson University (Toronto), and people said I had the eye for it. The class gave me presentation skills, and I got into the darkroom. For the next five years, I started putting an exit plan in place, working on my eye, and developing my skills. In downtown Toronto there was a darkroom that you could rent, so I started stealing time for photography; a couple of nights a week I’d come home from work, have dinner, and turn around, go back downtown, and use the dark room for three hours.
My exit strategy looked at financing as well as developing my photography, so it wasn’t until after I hit my “magic number” that I left banking.
That was in 2004. I rented a gallery for the month of May for the Toronto photography festival. I had about 20 pictures in the show. I had never printed in a wet darkroom before – the space I had previously rented only used processors – but the framer I was working with knew a photographer who had a darkroom, and he coached me. When he backed out of the scene, I rented time and space with another photographer, who later got kicked out of that building when it was sold. Then I came across this spot not too far from where I live. They were charging $1/sq. ft., and I found one open space on the 2nd floor, with no walls, so I could design what I wanted from the floor up. I’ve been there eight years now.
Have you always done black and white photography?
When it was a hobby, I did color, but when I started looking at photography as an art form, I switched to black and white. I like it. Often people will ask me, especially with my floral photos, “Why don’t you shoot in color?” I say, “Why?” With black and white you see so much more. Color’s a distraction. A photographer friend used to say: “With color, you are moved by the color; with black and white, it’s spiritual.” When developing black and white, you’ve got to be dead on – you can’t be close.
What has been your favorite subject to shoot?
It’s hard to say – initially I was doing a lot of maritime themes, and landscapes, because we were visiting the East Coast. In 2006 I got into a group show called Urban Optics at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto. I had no idea what I was going to come up with, but Toronto is known for its tree cover, so I went out and started shooting trees from the beginning of January until the end of March. We had very little snow in Toronto that year, which is why you don’t see any snow in the pictures. I did most of the shooting in High Park in Toronto, which is similar to Central Park but not as big. I would go out at random; some days I’d go out and get nothing; some days I’d get more.
The trees were like models – without the leaves you see the structure, the character, and that’s what I was focusing on. I saw a tree stripped down to stubs – and wanted to get that picture. The cloud cover was facing west; I walked on the other side, and the sky was crystal blue. So within half an hour I got two pictures of the same subject, each looking totally different.
Now I’m doing primarily studio work with mushrooms, pears and floral studies.
I think with photography, patience is important.
Yes, patience and a bit of luck at the same time.
Do you know before you go into the darkroom what you want your image to look like?
Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. For example, in the florist’s shop one day, there was a bunch of deep dark purple flowers just sitting in a cooler, and it immediately struck me that I could do something with them. Because the stems were very fluid, I called the picture Purple Tango – it’s as if there was a dance going on with the flowers. I shot the picture the day I got the flowers, and I shot it again about a week later – then I had to throw them out – I really pushed it ‘til the end.
It’s funny you should talk about movement, because in all of these photographs of oyster mushrooms, there’s a lot of movement. Before we talk about your current exhibit, could you tell us about the series of photographs of pears that you made?
I’ve done two series of pears dancing in the rain; one was Jiving in the Rain – it took me about a month and five shoots to get the right images. Up until the fourth shoot, I was getting glare, because I had the water coming straight down on the pears. On the fifth shoot, I came up with the idea of doing a double exposure: on the first shot, I had the water going behind the pears, and on the second one it was in front of them. The pears stayed still, but this technique created so much life, and eliminated much of the glare.
Last year I had some zebra-print material with a lot of texture, so I set up two pears on it; one, of two pears hugging I called Cuddle Time. If you look at my logo, it is based on one of my first still life images taken in 2004, two hugging pears. The other picture had three pears – two together and one off to the side a bit, and I called it Can I Join You? My pear images tend to have a whimsical feel to them.
Let’s talk about your current exhibition here at NAWA of these mushroom oysters. You started the series in 2011. How did the idea come to you?
A friend mentioned seeing oyster mushrooms at a farmers’ market. So when I went to the one near me, I started looking at them. They caught my attention, with their shapes, forms and textures. Working with film, I can bring all those things out.
There’s a certain energy in your work, but what really struck me was the depth and especially the composition, which is not so easy; it’s almost like you’ve shot portraits of each of them.
Last year, I submitted to a competition that provided me with a critique – which is very unusual. They also brought out the strength of the composition. In addition with my images with two mushrooms, they found it a distraction. Because of that comment, when I decided which images to bring for this exhibit, I left out the ones with two mushrooms. But it worked out, because I still had enough images (27) for this show.
Do you ever shoot people or animals?
I haven’t done those. Although, for one of my first shows, after leaving the bank, I did what I call my Mystery Girl Series in which the shots are all below the neck, and it was me – I was the Mystery Girl. I guess it was a way for me to come out without anyone knowing. A year or two later there was a show with a mermaid theme, and I did Queen of the Sea/Queen of the Deck (like a deck of cards) – I was the mermaid and it was all self-shot. I’ve been thinking I want to do something figuratively, but I don’t know yet what I want to do.
Do you know what your next series will be?
I’m not sure; I will continue with my floral studies and I’m going to play with the mushrooms more; a reviewer suggested I put some oil on parts of the mushroom, so I’ll try that and see what happens.