John Douglas is known for many things in the Alberni Valley: as a paramedic, proponent of Canal Waterfront Park, mayor of Port Alberni and lately with the Port Alberni Shelter Society. A new exhibit at the Rollin Art Centre is putting another facet of Douglas’s life into focus: that of photographer.
Before Douglas moved to Port Alberni, before he entered the health care field, he dabbled in photography while living in Vancouver.
“I got interested in black and white photography when I was going to UBC in the early 1970s,” he said.
He travelled around Canada and lived in London, England for nine months. He would take photographs wherever he went.
“Most large cities would have camera clubs that would let you go and use their darkroom equipment,” he said. He studied the works of famous photographers like Ansel Adams, Ralph Gibson, 20th century American photographer Edward Weston, British war photographer Bill Brandt. When he landed back in Vancouver he took some darkroom technology and lighting classes at a place called Focal Point. He photographed models to bulk up his portfolio, and he had a studio background and darkroom in his apartment.
One of his model collaborations was with Amorelli’s shoe store, where he created some product photos for magazine advertisements. It was the first time he took colour photos, and it led him to part-time magazine work for the next four years.
Original Photographs, a joint exhibit with Courtney Naesgaard, depicts the progression of Douglas’s personal photography journey. He started out in the 1970s developing his own black and white film and printing photos in a makeshift darkroom in his apartment bathroom on Vancouver’s west side. When film’s popularity began to wane in the 1990s and 2000s he put away his film cameras, donated his enlarger and developing equipment to the Alberni Valley Photography Club and dove into his job as a paramedic, with a few years’ sojourn into civic politics as first a city councillor and then mayor of Port Alberni.
“The world of film collided with the world of digital photography and I kind of dropped out.”
Two years ago Douglas decided to learn more about digital photography. He bought a Nikon digital camera and asked his kids to wrap it up as a Christmas gift. Since then, he has slowly added lenses and some lighting equipment to his camera bag. He has learned how to create photos in a digital darkroom, giving up chemicals and photo paper for computers and Photoshop.
Douglas’s photo exhibit at the Rollin Art Centre is the culmination of this recent learning experience.
“It was a germ of an idea that just grew,” he explained.
The exhibit features more than a dozen portraits, mostly of people from Port Alberni, with a photo from Douglas’s time in London and a portrait of a couple he calls “Texada Gothic” also included.
He has approached more than two dozen people in the Alberni Valley to take their portraits, and said his exhibit is part of a larger project. He would like to compile everything into a coffee table book one day. Portraits range from people in business, the political field, administration, people he has encountered on the street in his role with the Port Alberni Shelter Society—“characters we all see walking around town. Some of the people who grew up here,” he said.
“I enjoy creating pictures once I get them on the computer screen,” he said of the new process. “The part I enjoy the most is the portrait session; getting to know the people, getting a glimpse into their personality.”
He prefers to use harsher lighting because it brings out a person’s character. “It’s more interesting visually,” he said. “The pictures I like the most are generally the pictures the subjects dislike.”
Douglas hopes people come away with an appreciation for black and white photography. “It’s a particular art form that can be attractive. You can get more of a depth and feeling of a person, the individuality of the person having their portrait taken,” he said.
“Black and white seems to be more revealing.”
The end game for Douglas is a coffee table book of portraits as well as stories behind the characters. “Part of this is preserving a part of our current history so it’s available for people years down the road,” he said.
Douglas’ exhibit is being held in concert with colour photography from Courtney Naesgaard. Many of her framed pieces, featuring landscapes and Alberni Valley wildlife, are mounted on metal.
Naesgaard was born and raised in Port Alberni, but moved temporarily to Vancouver in order to earn a Diploma of Photography from Langara College.
Naesgaard favours landscapes and nature photography. She said she has a “close connection” with the land through farming as well as photography. Her mission with her photography “is to spark people to conserve the surrounding environment and animals through an appreciation for our beautiful home.”
While the two photographers’ styles may seem disparate, Melissa Martin of the Rollin Art Centre said they worked well together. Neither photographer had quite enough pieces to fill the gallery space, and pairing Naesgaard’s colourful pieces to Douglas’s black and white pieces show the range of photography from one end of the spectrum to another.
Douglas’s photos are hanging along one main wall, and Naesgaard’s framed photos are placed around the rest of the gallery walls.
The gallery will host a meet and greet with photographers Naesgaard and Douglas on Saturday, Jan. 18 from 1-3 p.m.
The joint exhibit will be at the Rollin Art Centre gallery until Feb. 8. The gallery is located at 3061 Eighth Avenue at Argyle Street and is open Tuesday through Saturday.