Energized Landscapes: Robert Bourdeau’s art of looking and seeing

Big Alien fallen rotator: Lorraine, France 1998.

Robert Bourdeau: Big Alien fallen rotator: Lorraine, France, 1998. Images courtesy the artist.

By Bill Clarke

Since 1959, veteran Canadian photographer Robert Bourdeau has produced a body of work that emphasizes exacting craftsmanship in the production of the final print, and extensive looking and seeing before the exposure of the film. Influenced by photographers such as Minor White and Paul Strand, Bourdeau’s subject matter has ranged from grand architectural interiors to landscapes to still lives. He has produced photographs in Mexico, Costa Rica, England, France and the U.S., and his work can be found in museum collections all over North America, including the National Gallery of Canada, the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art. In May, the Magenta Foundation published The Station Point, a monograph of Bourdeau’s work that captures the essence of Bourdeau’s contemplative and detailed work. By phone from his home in Ottawa, the photographer talked to Magenta editor Bill Clarke about his favourite places to shoot and how to capture the energy of the landscape in a photograph.

The Station Point by Robert Bourdeau
Texts by Bill Ewing, Sophie Hackett & Ann Thomas
Design by The Office of Gilbert Li
Hardcover, 12 1/2" × 10", 240 pages
100+ full-colour & duotone photographs
ISBN 978-0-9739739-8-3
Published by The Magenta Foundation
Purchase online

Bill Clarke (BC): Do you remember the first time you picked up a camera and what you took pictures of?

Robert Bourdeau (RB): Not really. I was interested in photography like most other people, and I took photographs of my relatives and other such things, but it wasn’t serious.  

BC: When did it become serious?

RB: When I first saw an issue of Aperture magazine, which was and still is one of the best pure photography publications. The photographer Minor White was the editor at the time, and I wrote to him. This was in the late-50s. He invited me to Rochester, where he lived and the magazine was based, and we became friends over several conversations. He opened up a whole new world for me.

BC: I imagine that a photographer of White’s stature got a lot of letters. Why do you think he responded to you?

Color Hallway: Paris, France 2007.Color Hallway: Paris, France, 2007.RB: I think he recognized that I was serious. He had an intuition about things and people.

BC: I’ve read that White was a significant influence on you. Can you explain how?

RB: What I got from White was an approach related to feeling and seeing, which encompassed the quality of the print and the quality of seeing at the same time. You can’t separate the two. This is the idea of the meditative image. Paul Strand is another major influence. I get something from both of them; perhaps, I derive even more of a sense of craftsmanship from Strand who insisted on a classical approach to printing. But, he wasn’t into the psychological approach - the idea that the viewer could read what they wanted into the image - that White was. White delved into the psychology of seeing, but I went in another direction. I feel that the print has to ‘sing’ - a meaning has to be there. You can’t read into it. The seeing and vision has to come out in the print.

BC: A lot of photographers seem to find it boring to talk about their “process”, but your process seems integral to your photographs. You spend a lot of time scoping out the locations you shoot, and you use very long exposures. Can you talk a bit more about that?

RB: Yes, I do a lot of looking before photographing whenever possible and I like to work in low light - just before sunrise or just before the sun sets. And, I like to use long exposures because it is like the light is being painted onto the film. I will always use film. This is a major thing for me. It is all about looking and penetrating layers, so they all take time. I only take one exposure of what I want, not several shots.

Tree: Costa Rica 1987.Tree: Costa Rica, 1987.BC: How do your photographs of industrial structures differ from photographers like Bernd and Hilla Becher? I get the sense from your photographs that you want to go beyond the strictly documentary.

RB: Yes, more people are into the document, but I feel there is an emotional aspect to such sites. It is more of an inner thing for me. Obviously, the site being photographed becomes a document as most of these places are in the process of disappearing, or have already disappeared. But, that’s not really my reason for photographing them. There is a spiritual aspect to it. It is an emotional thing, where there is a rhythm that flows through everything whether it is a landscape or a structure. I’m trying to discover the inner depth of something and trying to get to the energy of something whether it be a tree or a factory.

In other words, I feel that industrial sites, once inactive, take on a different meaning and become transformed into other things - they become sculptures or something else. It is about working with the energy that is emanating from the subject. That is why the print is so important to me, in order to capture this energy in the print and convey it to the viewer.

BC: In some of your photographs, we get the sense that people were just recently present. Is that part of the energy you’re trying to capture?

RB: Yes, exactly. We know that people were once in these structures and that they gave their lives to them. There is a mystery, and a tension between presence and absence.

Color Stairs: Paris, France 2007.Color Stairs: Paris, France, 2007.BC: What prompted your move from the ornate architecture of the Interiors series to the outdoors? Do you approach shooting in one setting differently than the other?

RB: I wanted a change of pace. Sometimes I shoot in colour, but I prefer black and white because it automatically separates the image from reality. It is not that different as far as energy; it is more about the difference in the spatial qualities. With the interiors, it is more about capturing the volume and space.

BC: When did you first start making photographs in Europe?

RB: The first time I went to Europe was the early 70s. The main reason was to find different landscapes than those in America. You are dealing with a different geology. I went back to Germany and France in the 1990s, and fell in love with it.

BC: Where are some of your favourite places to take pictures?

RB: As far as landscapes, it would be Cumbria in England and the highlands - the far north - of Scotland, the more isolated areas. There seems to be a lot happening in these landscapes; the sense of light is incredible in those areas. I’ve done a lot of work in the west coast of Ireland, as well, mainly with medieval architecture.

BC: Do American and European landscapes have different energies?

RB: Oh, yes. The landscape in Ireland and northern England feels…I want to say Wordsworthian, but it’s more than that. It feels ancient, more brooding. You are dealing with different geologies. For example, the hills in north England are rounded but, in America, they are more pointed.

Broken Windows: Pennsylvania, USA 1996.Broken Windows: Pennsylvania, USA, 1996.BC: Does organizing and preparing your work for publication in a book make you think differently about your work? What criteria did you use for selecting the images for the book?

RB: I didn’t actually choose the images in the book; they were chosen by MaryAnn [Camilleri], Stephen [Bulger] and Sophie Hackett, the curator of photography at the Art Gallery of Ontario. They made a good selection and did an excellent job of editing the images.

BC: Sometimes artists don’t like identifying favourite images among their work, but do you have any?

RB: Oh, yes. I can answer that. The image selected for the cover of the book, and the large umbrella tree in Costa Rica are favourites. At the exhibition at Stephen Bulger, there is a photograph of a French village that you first see when you walk in. I think there are some photographs that have become ‘signature images’. But, I’ve done so much work that it hard to say.

BC: Do you know how many images you made?

RB: (Laughs) Oh, no. I don’t know…quite a few! I’ve never sat down and counted them. When I look at an image, I can remember the year and circumstances of its making, though. My life has been chronicled by photographs of certain places at certain times.