Artist at Work: James R Page, Grasslands Photographer

by Laureen on November 7, 2012

James Page, “Sunset on Eagle Butte

The artists who exhibit with Grasslands Gallery are some of the most talented and inspiring people I know. This occasional series introduces them and their work.

Photographer James R Page specializes in incomparable photographic treatments of the vast prairie scene and the wildlife inhabiting it. In addition to his lifetime accumulation of technical knowledge, one of his gifts is his patience. He can wait for the light to turn, the clouds to roll back, the animal he is watching to forget he’s there and go about its day. Then he offers the gift to us.

James Page’s photographs are available at Grasslands Gallery. You can purchase them in person or online in the galley shop. Here, James talks about his career, his passions, and his life with his art. Having chosen Saskatchewan over British Columbia in 2010, James is a full-time Val Marie resident.

I was born on the Winter Solstice and grew up in Bois-des-Filion, Quebec, population 1,800 (in the 1950s). Everyone was French, and although my mother was French by birth, we spoke English in the home and I was never very fluent in French. Consequently I spent a lot of time alone. In my early memories, the world was either green or white, and it was entrancing. I remember childhood as a dreamlike state; I think that is true of many of us. After high school I went on to study English in university, but “study” is too serious a term and misleading in most ways. This was, after all, the Sixties; I was a product of my generation. One of my fondest memories is seeing the Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead live. In my twenties I worked mostly in so called blue collar jobs – pulp mill, grain elevator, Post Office, tree planting – after moving out to BC, and in my thirties I became a counsellor, specializing in crisis intervention with children and families

“I was lucky – I discovered my single necessity at an early age. Before I was 10 years old I wanted to be the one taking the family photos, and at 12, I asked for and received a camera at Christmas. So, in a way I have always been a photographer. I am eternally grateful to my parents for encouraging me in this – and paying for a lot of film processing. By 1964 I was ready for my first 35mm camera, a Kowa-H, that cost me $85; four years later I bought a Pentax, my first really good camera. I am pretty much self-taught, although I did take a couple of adult education courses at UBC in the 1970s. I entered a few photo contests in national magazines and when my first three entries were published I thought I was hot stuff. After that, the rejections began pouring in and I returned to earth.

 

James R Page, “Western Kingbird”

“Eventually my work did gain some recognition. I don’t know about talent; my major strength has been sticking with it. I started publishing regularly in calendars, magazines, and books, as well as writing freelance articles for magazines. This led to a 12-year gig as photo columnist for Explore magazine, and at the same time I became the “Nature & Wildlife” course instructor at the Western Academy of Photography in Victoria, BC.

“By the mid-1980s I began hearing about this new park in southwestern Saskatchewan, Grasslands National Park. In the days before the internet, very little information was available, so one summer I just got in the car and drove out from Vancouver. I camped in the park and enjoyed it, but it would be ten years before I returned.

“When I came back, something happened, the prairie sort of infiltrated me on a molecular level – I began to see its subtleties. Again it was only a brief visit, but the following year I was back again, and this time I stayed six weeks. I was struck by how few photographers seemed to be working the area, and the germ of an idea began to form. Later that year I was in Ontario when an invitation arrived to come back to Val Marie and spend the winter (as artist in residence at the Convent Country Inn), and I jumped at the chance. When I crossed into the US in Michigan to take a southerly route around the Great Lakes, the border guy asked me what I was planning to do in Saskatchewan. Off the top of my head I told him, ‘I’m going to do a book on Grasslands National Park!’

James R Page, “Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan”

“I find it odd and uncanny how expressing a commitment can lead to fortuitous happenings. I spent the winter photographing wild prairie, mostly in and around Grasslands. The following summer I participated in a group photo exhibition at the newly opened Cloakroom Gallery in Val Marie, where the Saskatoon based writer Candace Savage saw my work and asked if I would be interested in shooting her next book, Prairie: A Natural History – the eventual winner of the 2004 Saskatchewan Book of the Year award. This project led directly to my own book, Wild Prairie, with the same publisher. While working on these two projects I travelled the length and width of the North American prairies: from Texas in the south to central Saskatchewan; from the Rocky Mountain foothills to the Missouri River (almost an arbitrary boundary, because prairie does extend farther east – but you have to draw a line somewhere). And I visited some states that I never thought I would spend time in: Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota… total immersion in prairie beauty and prairie diversity. And not coincidentally, I gained a sense of how much has been lost, how little native prairie actually remains, especially tall-grass prairie in the eastern areas of the Great Plains.

“So, really, one thing led to another. The natural world has always drawn me in, whether I was backpacking in the Yukon wilderness or prowling coastal beaches on northern Vancouver Island. Prairie was an extension of these interests. I love the landscape here, the light, the dramatic storms of summer, the breathtaking stillness and beauty of hoarfrost in winter. The wildlife at Grasslands – other locations, too, but especially Grasslands – is astounding. I’m interested in the full gamut: the weather, the wildflowers, lichens, grasses, insects, ice abstracts, cracked mud, glacial erratics on a hillside. Living in Val Marie full time now, having bought a house here in 2008, I find that I am capturing increasingly nuanced images of prairie locations and constantly making new discoveries. And that is what the creative impulse is all about, isn’t it? Discovering something about the world and about ourselves.

James R Page, “Dusty Bison”

“The artist’s state of mind is the only thing that counts. I may set off on an outing with a general idea or goal – ‘I’m going to look for coyotes in the prairie dog town’ – but the chances of finding a coyote on any given day are slim. Another day I’ll be thinking ‘wildflowers’, or I’ll have an eye on the sky, hoping the clouds morph into something interesting and special. None of this matters once I’m out there. Photographers don’t have the option of making a thumbnail sketch and working on it for the next month; we have to nail the shot in the moment, which means being in the moment. If nature gives me bison instead of coyotes, bison are my subject; if the light isn’t right for wildflowers but perfect for wide angle landscapes, that is what I have to do. One of the hardest things to teach in the photo workshops I run most years is how to recognize what the light is good for in a given situation. It is trickier than you might imagine. Takes years of looking. And then learning to look deeper, to see beyond the obvious.

“So, out in the field, I try to make my mind as blank as possible. One exercise I developed for students many years ago was called ‘the zen walk’ or ‘the art of not-trying’. I would tell them to put their cameras away and walk quietly, randomly, alone, not talking, just looking. The aim is to achieve a state of relaxed attentiveness. After ten or fifteen minutes, images start to appear unbidden, and my instructions were to let them go by and keep looking. After half an hour or so they were allowed to take their first photo. Not everyone is capable of achieving this quietude, especially in a world of increasing stimuli that comes at us from all directions, but those who are able to do it usually find it helpful. In a way, I do this one every time I go out alone with the camera, although after years of practice I can reach this state in a minute or two. This has been one of the great gifts I’ve received through the practice of photography: it has slowed me down. The slower I go, the better I see.

“When photographing wildlife, a lot of my success comes from knowledge of animal habits. I can read the body language of animals and know when they are becoming agitated and likely to run away or become aggressive; consequently, I usually manage to stay out of trouble. Seeing people behave stupidly around animals, creating dangerous situations for the animal, themselves, and bystanders, is one of the few situations in life that can make me crazy. I’m not shy, and I speak up, and on occasion have received a torrent of verbal abuse for my efforts. It makes me appreciate Grasslands all the more, because this magical place doesn’t receive the visitor traffic of Banff or Jasper. With the exception of a couple of peak summer months, I usually find myself working alone, without stress.

James R Page,”Badger”

“Because I have done a lot of teaching over the years, the question of how we arrive at an image is often in my mind. I try not to teach rules of composition, because I don’t want my students to become rule bound. As with any art form, a great photograph originates from some mysterious place deep inside, a place that can’t be reached by following a formula. You can’t think it; you have to feel it. It has to come from your gut, down low, where you live. Forget theory, just learn to open yourself up to what surrounds you. But photography is peculiar in that you also have to achieve a degree of technical mastery: you have to know ISO and exposure, depth of field and how to obtain critical sharpness. This is left brain stuff, and it’s required learning, and then you have to flip it off and get back to your right brain for the seeing part. Back and forth. Fluidly. A hundred times a day.

“With practice – lots and lots of practice – this gets easier. The camera ceases to be an impediment. I can take one look at a scene and know immediately what approach I want to take. There is a progression that goes like this: Something moves me. I articulate to myself what it is that I want to express or interpret or – although I hate the term – capture. Then, I decide what technique is required. Often it’s something simple: camera on tripod, wide angle lens, polarizing filter, small f-stop, get down low, go! I might have only moments until the light fades; I’ve learned to work fast. But those moments of quick response may be the result of looking and waiting and anticipating for hours. Someone once said that the difference between a professional and an amateur photographer is the professional knows what to do, fast, when the good light comes.

Jame R Page, “A Moving Sky”

“All that really interests me now, as a photographer, is pushing my vision as far as I possibly can over the next couple of decades or whatever time remains. I don’t seek out and rarely accept assignments anymore. Two summers ago I shot a magazine story on Val Marie, and that was fun because Val Marie is my adopted town, and I had a chance to show it to the general public. However, most of the time I am like a racehorse that has wandered off the track and may well be rolling in the daisies. The pursuit of images remains my life’s great adventure, and I’m not interested in any more compromises, nor do I care what editors want; I shoot what pleases me. After more than 50 years behind the camera, I find the world is still full of visual surprises, and I think my best work lies ahead. My knees are questionable, but my eyes are better than ever.”

James R Page, “Sandhill Cranes”

These photos and many other choices are available for purchase at Grasslands Gallery. Just click on the image. For stories about other Grasslands Gallery artists, please go here.

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 The blog is a series of posts from one artist/art gallery owner’s life in her community in one of Canada’s most beautiful and remote wilderness regions. To receive updates with beautiful images, stories about the Grasslands and its artists and inspiration every week, just put your email in the box on the right. We never share your email address.

         

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