Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Beverley Abramson

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Ten Questions with Beverley Abramson

Beverley Abramson talks to Open Book about photography, "the relationship between motion, emotion and sound" and her latest book, Off We Go! (Tundra Books).

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about your book, Off We Go!

Beverley Abramson:

Off We Go! arose out of collaboration between me and the former publisher of Tundra Books. Off We Go! is a photographic book of children based on the theme of motion. This book is an expansion of my long-term study translating body language through dance.

Off We Go! illustrates, through 21 single-subject, active images, the ways in which children play, move and imagine. Children revel in identifying with and mimicking other children at play and enjoy connecting the images with the rhythmic text. Short, action-oriented statements describing the movement accompany every photograph.

This book engaged my work as a photographer with my long-standing love of observing and making photographs while children are in free play. Children in motion, lost in a fantasy world, accomplishing physical feats that we adults can only admire, but rarely replicate, have always captivated me.

Off We Go! is distinguished by its absence of props, which were avoided in favour of emphasizing the children’s expressions, physicality and the natural environment in which they moved. I also emphasized diversity of experience, location and culture. For example, two side-by-side pictures show children at play, but one is tossing snow in freezing Canadian temperatures while the other is tossing water under a burning Mexican sun.

Off We Go! has earned many accolades internationally. Most recently, it was chosen by Toronto Public Library as one of the top ten Canadian Children’s books for reading readiness for 2009.

A second edition of Off We Go!, published in February 2010 by Tundra Books, is in “board book” format, suitable for little hands exploring words and pictures on their own.

OBT:

What was your first publication?

BA:

Bawdy Language: Exotic Dance

Bawdy Language is a black and white photographic book that offers a visual expression of the erotic fantasies, ambiguities and carnal pleasures of exotic dance in Toronto’s world of adult entertainment. Bawdy Language is published as a soft cover book as well as in a limited edition (hand crafted hardcover book) in association with gallery exhibitions of my photography. Both books and the series of photographs received numerous awards.

This work grew out of a study of performing artists that I had already begun in Cuba on the universality of music and the relationship between motion, emotion and sound. As I delved deeper into the world of dance and motion, I chose to push the boundaries of this art form and my own abilities by choosing a gritty, naughty marginalized culture that bares all. My fascination only grew as I recognized the complexity of this world and how the people differed depending on when women were dancing for men, men dancing for women, men dancing for men and women dancing for women.

My photographs reveal images of raw seduction and sexuality that convey enigmatic messages between performer and observer. This work was a constant challenge due to restricted access, unpredictable stage lighting, and the ever-present psychological barriers of dancers, observers, and increasingly me, as photographer.

OBT:

Who are your influences?

BA:

The photographers who initially influenced my early education and decision to pursue photography as a new career path were the early masters of photography. Eugène Atget, Andre Kertez, Jacques Henri Lartigue, Henri Cartier-Bresson Eadweard Muybridge and Charles Marville – these are some of the artists whose prints I actually held during my first and most significant photography workshop in Paris and Provence - in museums, photography collections and archives not open to the general public. It was so inspiring to study these works of art with the curators and specialists in photography but intimidating then to have to try to find my own creativity after these lectures and presentations.

During this program, my first teacher, the late Rob Gooblar, encouraged me, and patiently taught me, while we stood in the streets of Paris. In fact, it was his constructive reviews of my work that provided the catalyst to pursue photography and abandon my profession in university career education.

As I reflect on my influences, my mind turns to several noted photographers - Mary Ellen Mark, Graciela Iturbide, Bob Krist, Larry Fink, Arno Minkkinen, and Alex Webb - with whom I participated in workshops in Tuscany and Mexico, and all of whom provided individualized, frank and thoughtful critiques of my photographs. They also demonstrated techniques in the field that I still implement in my work.

I continue to benefit from the mentorship and brilliance of Don Snyder, at Ryerson University. He selflessly shared many hours advising me and teaching me about editing my photographs, which was one of the most valuable tools I learned as I began to publish and show my work.

The Buena Vista Social Club, a legendary aging musical sensation from Cuba was my inspiration to pursue a long-term project on bodies in motion. I was captivated and inspired not only by their music but by their remarkable renewed rise to fame. In Cuba, I had the privilege of meeting some of these musicians and gained access to make photographs during and after their performances. It was while witnessing the wild abandon and spontaneous dancing of their audiences that I became immersed in my ongoing study of the universality of music and the relationship between sound, motion and emotion.

Finally yet importantly, my grandchildren always have and continue to influence my work. They season my ability to work spontaneously as they move quickly and often never repeat the same action. Through my grandchildren, I learned to cultivate patience, perseverance and sensitivity to my subjects and fine-tune my approach technically, physically and psychologically, as children are rarely motionless or emotionless. They have also helped me to refresh my understanding and learn more about the development of language skills, which influenced my creating the text of Off We Go! into rhyming short phrases.

OBT:

Describe your ideal work environment.

BA:

My preference is working on location where my subjects are responding spontaneously and perhaps in motion rather than in staged studio lit environments. I prefer to work in unfamiliar and at times restricted access locations. Documenting dancers in their dressing rooms is the perfect example – the atmosphere backstage gave me a personal and at times, vulnerable, window into my subjects.

My preference for natural or ambient light requires much technical experimentation to create the effects that I am seeking. For example, I have journeyed into the Judean Desert in Israel to wait for dawn to arrive for that special moment. In contrast, darkly lit clubs present their own set of lighting challenges that must be overcome to capture what I am seeking.

My habit is to return to the same places several times in order to build rapport and learn about the people involved. For example, my determination in Texas to learn about the life of a cowboy and cowgirl and their two-stepping required several trips to the same places and concerted efforts to see the dancers in a variety of locales, so that both my subjects and I were comfortable in the process of picture making.

The mysteries of nightlife and night-light have always intrigued me with its elements of sensuality and ambiguity. The play between light and shadow, animated and pensive, distinct and obscure presents a dichotomy where the images become visual metaphors for life itself.

OBT:

Describe a recent Canadian cultural experience that influenced your work.

BA:

I recently attended the Yousuf Karsh exhibit at the McMichael Gallery. Seeing his work on display, and viewing the documentary about his work and life, caused me to reflect on how to fine-tune the collaborative process that is so integral to my photography.

OBT:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

BA:

1. A children book, Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang, Mordecai Richler
2. A fiction book, In The Skin of A Lion by Michael Ondaatje
3. A photography book, Karsh : A Sixty-Year Retrospective, by Yousuf Karsh

OBT:

What are you reading right now?

BA:

The Book of Negroes, Lawrence Hill

OBT:

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer and photographer?

BA:

Edit, edit, edit and then edit some more!

OBT:

What advice do you have for writers who are trying to get published?

BA:

Follow you dreams, believe in your project and take risks. Pursue and respect constructive commentary from others while remaining focused on what you think is important.

Self-publishing your work is a way of gaining recognition and may provide introductions to other publishers. My inaugural book, Bawdy Language, for example, was self-published, as an investment in myself. I viewed it as a stepping-stone toward other publications and an introduction for new work. It became the conduit for a second and third book, and may lead to a fourth.

Submitting your work to publications targeted toward your specialty and competing in competitions to gain recognition may assist in cementing your reputation in the field.

Creating a storyboard, a visual maquette with sequenced images (for visual artists), a draft and brief synopsis can be useful tools to illustrate the concept of the project.

Do not be discouraged by rejection. Rejection is an inevitable and integral part of the process.

OBT:

What is your next project?

BA:

I am still expanding my study on dance and working toward culminating this evolving project with a book of black and white photography entitled Gotta Dance: The Exotic Language of the Body.

I am also interested in creating a sequel to Off We Go!

Risqué Business, my most recent work, is one of the many series in Gotta Dance: the Exotic Language of the Body, showcasing bodies in motion, an evolving study of disparate dance cultures.

Risqué Business more than tickles the imagination by exposing the untamed interpretation of Burlesque. Previously dominated by female dancers performing mainly for male audiences, the resurgence of this dance form has created a forum, offering comic relief and sexual titillation with retro qualities for mainstream audiences. Performers who are practically naked on stage may appear vulnerable yet I believe are emotionally powerful.



Beverley Abramson is an award-winning photographer and author known for her distinctive style, marked by empathy and wit. Her photo essays and accompanying personal narratives have been published extensively, and her photography has been exhibited, published and collected internationally. Beverley Abramson is based in Toronto and welcomes visits to her website at www.beverleyabramson.com.

For more information on Off We Go! please visit the Tundra website at www.tundrabooks.com

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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