TECHNOLOGY, PRINT, AND THE CHANGING ARENA OF JOURNALISM, ACCORDING TO BRIAN HOWELL
There’s something uniquely special about sitting down and reading a newspaper. Perhaps it’s the childhood memories of reading over your parents’ shoulders; perhaps it’s the moment of solitude existing between you and the paper; perhaps it’s the smell of ink residue on your fingers. Whatever it is, the experience of learning through print feels poignant and important, and is an integral part of life we’ve been used to for years. As technology develops, however, all of that is changing. We no longer get the majority of our information from a morning session with the Times—we get it by scrolling through our Twitter feeds on our smartphones on the way to work. It’s a bite-sized and hyperactive way of interacting with information; although it’s too early to tell if this change is for the better or for the worse, photographer Brian Howell has something to say about it in his new work.
“I can remember what it was like to have my first photograph published in a newspaper. It was very exciting,” Brian reminisces over a coffee. Brian has been a photojournalist for over 30 years. He has worked extensively for publications like the UK’s The Guardian, has shot for the National Film Board, and regularly contributes to Geist, Maclean’s, and Vancouver Magazine. As the market for print started to shift in response to technology, Brian found himself doing less and less of “reportage, documentary-style” photojournalism – the photojournalism he loves most – and more editorial pieces. In a way, the shift to editorial encouraged his art practice. Take Impersonators, a recent photo series he did of celebrity impersonators. “That project was a comment on the individuals. I found the individuals weren’t as interesting as the characters they portrayed,” Brian describes. “The project became conceptual: looking at the notion of celebrity and how far people are willing to go and replace themselves.”
Brian’s camera almost traps the impersonators, unflinchingly exposing the vulnerabilities and weaknesses inherent in their lifestyles. Yet it doesn’t allow for the vulnerabilities to be unique. Each impersonator reinforces the same repulsive aspects of North American culture that inspired their ‘practice’ in the first place. That similarity is no accident. “Impersonators was my first step away from photojournalism about the individual,” Brian explains. “I am now making work about people in a general sense, not just the subject of the particular photograph.”
Brian worked under this new direction in Carts, a photo series exhibited by Winsor Gallery in 2011 and recently shown at the Toronto Art Fair. He photographed the carts that are a staple of our urban landscape, especially in Vancouver—the ones that rattle down the street housing an assortment of hoarded things, from microwaves to frames to pop cans to armchairs. “With Carts, I was thinking about consumption and waste and the economy”, Brian says. “The people pushing those carts were using the contents for recycling and re-purposing, like a micro-economy. I was thinking of how one level of society casts something off that another level will re-purpose.”
Despite the change of focus to a different topic, Brian’s latest work, Presses, is very much a further exploration of this theme of societal abandonment. In Presses, Brian turns his lens to printing machinery, hauntingly documenting those massive structures that are so majestic, grand—and rapidly disappearing. By photographing this machinery, Brian is challenging our immediate willingness to consume information online and our ill-considered abandonment of print. “I’m not coming from a bitter place, nor am I taking an anti-technology stance. I’m looking at how my industry of photography and journalism has transformed in the last decade,” Brian explains. “As we move into the blogosphere, there isn’t support for journalists. What’s happening right now points to joblessness. I want to understand why we so quickly and easily reject something and replace it with a technological device, not considering the ramifications.”
Brian might sound a little bitter, but who can blame him? The rapid speed of technological advancement has created new jobs, but it’s also discredited and threatened those that had previously been thriving for decades. However, Brian still has hope. After all, that’s why he’s exhibiting his work: he wants the viewer to understand just how important it is to consider these changes. “I would love for the viewer to look at these pictures of hulking presses which look like skeletons and consider where their information comes from,” Brian says. “That’s key. It would be great if people started supporting free press in some way. I’m questioning the current trend towards the answer of technology because I think that human beings are left out of the equation.”
Only time will tell if Brian is right.
‘Presses’ is showing at Winsor Gallery (258 East 1st Avenue) February 28 – April 7. www.brianhowellphotography.com
By Polina Bachlakova, presented by The Cheaper Show. The Cheaper Show is an annual art show showcasing emerging talent and selling affordable art.Art, BC, British Columbia