Interview: Wade Comer

Wade Comer presents “Time Pas­sages”, a con­tin­u­ing series of long-exposure pho­tos split into two series: “Moun­tains” and “Cities”. Taken from the decks of pas­sen­ger fer­ries in motion as they pass along their routes, Comer essen­tially paints with the cam­era. “Moun­tains” is a series com­piled from over two years of trav­el­ling aboard the var­i­ous BC Fer­ries; con­trast­ingly, “Cities” is a series that includes images from Istan­bul, New York, Toronto, and Van­cou­ver. I caught up with Comer to dis­cuss his pho­to­graphic prac­tise and how he was able to express the emo­tive qual­ity in his works.

 Cities by Wade Comer

Cities by Wade Comer

SAD Mag: How did you get involved with photography?

Wade Comer: Find­ing my ‘defin­i­tive’ cre­ative out­let was a long process, and one that I don’t think I was actu­ally look­ing for until my early twen­ties. I went to broad­cast­ing school, and had been an announcer, copy­writer, and pro­ducer at a radio sta­tion called ‘Coast 1040’ from 1990 to 1993. I spent a lot of that time work­ing with music, mak­ing huge tape loop exper­i­ments in the pro­duc­tion suite after hours. Some­where in there, I realised that my pre­ferred way of express­ing myself was via pho­tog­ra­phy. I never con­sid­ered myself a musi­cian – even though I spent a decade in the music indus­try – but from that point of recog­ni­tion onward, I have always con­sid­ered myself a pho­tog­ra­pher. I owe a debt of grat­i­tude to an old friend, Steve, who upon hear­ing about my desire to take up pho­tog­ra­phy, loaned me his dad’s Nikon ‘F’ until I could buy my own cam­era. Soon after­ward, I pur­chased a Canon ‘Ftb’, and then taught myself how to process my own film, and within a cou­ple of months I was off try­ing to get a gig as a photographer’s assis­tant. I man­aged to get a job work­ing for John Dou­glas Ken­ney, a com­mer­cial and por­trait pho­tog­ra­pher, who had worked with Irv­ing Penn, in New York. Work­ing for John I learned a lot, and had the lux­ury of lots of time to myself in the stu­dio and dark­room, which was invaluable.

SM: What inspired “Time Pas­sages” and using long-exposure?

WC: I had been work­ing with the tech­nique of long-exposure pho­tog­ra­phy for about a year, try­ing dif­fer­ent scenes and land­scapes, even tak­ing work­shops to see if there was some­thing more I could get out of the tech­nique. For all of its spon­tane­ity, pho­tog­ra­phy involves a lot of plan­ning, and I wanted to add the ele­ment of chance into the equa­tion. Ulti­mately, I found my inter­est in the long-exposure tech­nique wan­ing, as I felt that there were sev­eral good pho­tog­ra­phers out there using the process, and the sub­ject mat­ter seemed lim­ited (there are only so many old docks to shoot). It was on a ferry ride to Galiano Island that I realised I could use the long-exposure tech­nique to both ‘cap­ture time’, and insert the chance ele­ment I was look­ing for. By focus­ing on the actions of the boat – mov­ing, chang­ing course, speed­ing up and slow­ing down – I could cap­ture an image of the feel­ing of being in these places. From then on I was a walk-on pas­sen­ger onBC Fer­ries for over two years, Tsawwassen to Schwartz Bay, Duke Point to Tsawwassen, Horse­shoe Bay to Lang­dale, Bowen Island, Nanaimo… then New York ‘Cir­cle Line’ tours, and Istan­bul com­muter fer­ries, and Lon­don water taxis.

“Light and colour,
like mem­ory, 
are details often fuzzy”

SM: The effects of long-exposure cre­ate a painterly feel, it is inter­est­ing how pho­tog­ra­phy and paint­ing then become mixed in your works. Was this your intention?

WC: I wanted to cre­ate a painterly feel in the images — to use the cam­era as a paint­brush. I do not per­son­ally have the patience for paint­ing, but I found I could cre­ate the sim­u­lacra of a paint­ing using the cam­era and pho­tog­ra­phy, but would never have to spend all that time clean­ing brushes.

SM: Think­ing of a sin­gle image as film, can you expand on this concept?

WC: Film — a movie — is a series of thou­sands of frames of stills, hun­dreds of feet and min­utes long,that are then played back to give the clear impres­sion of move­ment, or tran­si­tion… and time. “An image as film”, is the oppo­site effect: a sin­gle frame that cap­tures the move­ment of a thou­sand frames of stills. Not by super­im­po­si­tion, but super­com­pres­sion. All that time in one frame.

SM: In this sense, your works make time a tan­gi­ble entity that the audi­ence can see. Do you think this qual­ity enhances the theme of loss and/or death in pho­tog­ra­phy? Why?

WC: I don’t see it as about loss or death, for me, it’s more about mem­ory. The images in ‘Time Pas­sages’ are lit­eral – they are of a place, or loca­tion – but it is that feel­ing of being there that I think is most evoca­tive. You don’t have to know exactly where an image was taken, but it brings you to that place in your mind… espe­cially if you have been there before. The blur­ring and soft­en­ing reduces the place down to its basics: Light and colour, like mem­ory, are details often fuzzy.

SM: What is the impor­tance of water in your works? The major­ity of your works con­tain bod­ies of water, you are also  trav­el­ling across bod­ies of water in order to doc­u­ment your work.

WC: Grow­ing up on Van­cou­ver, water is just an inte­gral part of the city, whether it’s the view of Bur­rard Inlet I had from my home in Burn­aby Heights, or tor­ren­tial rain. My apart­ment looks at Lost Lagoon, and my office looks out at Bur­rard Inlet and all the ships, moored and mov­ing. I have been work­ing on another project over the sum­mer, pho­tograph­ing Vancouver’s parks, and you‘d be hard pressed not to find water nearby, or a stream, or pond. Water in Van­cou­ver is omnipresent. Our com­merce and much of our food and cul­ture come from our rela­tion­ship with the Pacific Ocean and the Fraser River. I grew up on the coast, and it has just become a part of who I am. I mean, I really love the desert too, but a desert near the ocean is even better.

 Mountains by Wade Comer

Mountains by Wade Comer

SM: What has been the your most mem­o­rable expe­ri­ence aboard a BC Ferry?

WC: As dry as it sounds, I think it has been the inter­est peo­ple have in my cam­era. Using a 4x5 cam­era is not some­thing most peo­ple are famil­iar with these days, so I get a lot of ques­tions like, “Is that a video cam­era?”, or “Seen any whales?” I’ve shown peo­ple how the cam­era works, and described what I’m try­ing to do with the pho­tos, and it has been inter­est­ing engag­ing with peo­ple rang­ing from island locals to tourists from around the world. I usu­ally let them, or their child, look through the back of the cam­era to get an idea of how the cam­era works and how its just like your eye… except your brain does a lot of pro­cess­ing to turn the image back right side up. And no, I didn’t see one whale the whole time I was out there.

SM: How does the theme of human impact on the envi­ron­ment and the con­trast of urban exis­tence with nature under­lie the works in the series?

WC: Many of my pre­vi­ous projects speak to the rela­tion­ship between nature and human­ity and our use of it. Projects like ‘Pyres’, where piles of flot­sam from the Fraser River — rem­nants of BC’s log­ging resource indus­try — are piled up to await the wood chip­per, rep­re­sent a con­ver­sa­tion about how we treat and inter­act with our world. ‘Carnage/Garages’ exam­ines, in an abstract and lit­eral way, our love of the car and how that has phys­i­cally shaped and scarred our envi­ron­ment. ‘Time Pas­sages’ is about the appli­ca­tion of a tech­nique, or process, and the inser­tion of chance. The con­cepts of mem­ory and time com­pres­sion came from within the work itself. If any­thing, “Time Pas­sages” negates the effects we have made on our envi­ron­ment by blur­ring, or obscur­ing the clearcuts and high­way over­passes, and by soft­en­ing the hard shapes of build­ings and cities. Ulti­mately, I have this Mark Rothko affin­ity, I like stri­a­tions. I just wanted to cre­ate some­thing visu­ally appealing.

SM: What’s your favourite “secret” spot in Vancouver?

WC: It’s not really secret, but my liv­ing room win­dow. I like the view. There are a cou­ple of secret spots in Stan­ley Park… soon after the big wind storm in 2006, the Parks Board com­mis­sioned artists to make works out of the wind­fall in Stan­ley Park. There is a piece, now decom­posed, that was off the South Creek Trail where an artist had cre­ated a ‘heal­ing blan­ket’, out of medal­lions of a cedar tree limb, and sewed them together using cedar bark. It was placed over top of a stump of a very old tree; a beau­ti­ful piece. The other is on Squir­rel Trail, where an artist has cut the fallen tree into sec­tions, includ­ing a sphere out of cedar. The tree/void is a neat impres­sion as you approach it from the top of the trail. On a more urban note, I like going to Iona Island and Sea Island, or roam­ing around Rail­town and along the water­front, under­neath the Shaw tower and con­ven­tion cen­tre — lots of good urban waste and curi­ous cor­ners down there.

SM: What’s next for Wade? Would you ever dab­ble in film­mak­ing? Painting?

WC: I have sev­eral film­maker friends and a few painter friends, and I think I’ll leave it all to them. I have dab­bled, as many cre­ative peo­ple do, but I keep com­ing back to pho­tog­ra­phy. I have a few mul­ti­me­dia pieces and a large sculp­ture or two in my ideas book, but my next projects are kind of long-term, involv­ing homage to Hoku­sai, and a series on Van­cou­ver parks that has been a pre­cur­sor to a larger project. I would also love to spend my days mak­ing money recy­cling beer cans I col­lect off the bot­tom of the ocean while liv­ing on a small Greek island.


For more by Comer, check out his web­site or visit his exhi­bi­tion open­ing for “Time Pas­sages” at Make Gallery on Novem­ber 5th.