Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Writing and Photography

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I've been a photographer almost as long as I've been a writer. Although I've put more effort into marketing my words than images, I find both pursuits satisfying and challenging. They're not entirely different, both offering a way to represent a unique view of the world to others. The Greek terms that were cobbled together to label the art (now about 180 years old) originally mean "light" plus "drawing" or "writing"; take your pick.
Photographs are an important tool for writers, especially when working in nonfiction and trying to describe a scene or person. Snapshots can also kick-start memories or inspire one to more creative responses, which probably explains why there are so many poetry books with photographs included. Looking for a little writing exercise? Find a photograph of an interesting-looking older person whom you don't know. Now describe what in that person's life caused the expression, posture, facial lines, etc,. that you see. Staring at a real person for this purpose can have unintended consequences; photos rarely complain.
To me, the camera, as an extension of the eye, allows me to explore and record the kaleidoscopic images that form my visual world. I'm convinced that most of the time, people mentally don blinders when they are out and about. They are so preoccupied or intent on a specific goal or detail, that they don't really look at what's around them, or stop to consider the remarkable effects of shadows, reflections, lighting, colour in their visual field. Good photographers are not necessarily those with better equipment; they are those who can see something unique and capture it in an interesting form.
I believe that writers and photographers (hell, artists of all kinds) need first of all to pay attention. All around us are phenomena that are mysterious, evanescent, tricky, suprising, or simply beautiful. Sometimes we don't need to exercise our imagination if we simply see what is already there. Here are a few of my recent photographs, with notes about what they say to me.


I found this wooden "bird" on a Lake Ontario beach. I'm not sure whether someone carved it (maybe just the head) but it struck me that it is initially bird-like until you notice the surfaces and somewhat ragged outlines. It didn't contrast well with the beach sand and stones where I found it, so I propped in on a shed door to add some colour and contrast.

I did nothing to alter this image. The rich tones and the contrast of the organic (blade of grass) against the rusting inorganic (fence) and stained post drew my eye, suggesting an abstract painting when cropped tightly enough. The small layer of snow conveys the season; to me, this image works as a kind of visual haiku.

This is a simple image, in that all I had to do was point the camera straight down; but the perspective and the shadow in the puddle make it mysterious, a little disorienting. Look at it more closely, and you'll notice that the leaves under the surface of the puddle appear only where there are shadows; they are "blanked out" by the reflection of the sky. Also, one of the raindrops exactly circles the peak of the central shadow, which is in fact cast by my body. Here's an example of what you can find when you don't always look straight ahead.

One of my favourite photo tricks is to move the camera when shooting lights at night. This changes the image from a literal one to a kind of visual poem composed in time (the exposure for these is typically a few seconds long, due to the dim lighting). Steady lights make solid lines; flashing ones create dotted, or dashed lines. This shot was of the lights on the side of a midway booth at a small-town fair. A lucky accident here was the moire patterns created when some light streaks overlap. This is drawing with light.
All photos created by a Sony digital camera and copyright 2010 John Oughton.

1 comment

These are amazing photographs, John. The one of the 'wooden beach bird'
would make a great book cover. I love the gnarly 'wing feathers' and
the way the bird is perched between the two ends of the spectrum--
mauve/violet and red.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

John Oughton

John Oughton is the author of several books, including Time Slip: New and Selected Poems, published by Guernica Editions.

Go to John Oughton’s Author Page