JQ: How does your background as a writer inform your work as a photographer?
TB: On the surface, I don’t think there is very much crosstalk between the two areas, and I’m not entirely convinced there’s much going on beneath the surface. However, I do remember reading an article in the Toronto Star, when I was a boy, that talked about Federico Fellini’s casting technique, which involved looking directly into the faces of hundreds of people wanting a role in one of his films. It struck me, even then, that there was something appealingly wanton about that direct, evaluating, and possibly violating, gaze. When we look at people as characters in fiction and non-fiction, or as photographic subjects, that gaze is allowed, even required. The big difference between them is that my writing uses narrative to imply meaning. The still photograph constantly poses a question of what the narrative might be.
On a different tack…I’m also a pretty avid student of furniture design and construction. Had you asked me about the relation between making half-blind dovetails and writing or photography, it wouldn’t have been hard to draw comparisons.
JQ: Your photo series, South of Buck Creek, chronicles the lives of the inhabitants of Springfield, Ohio over multiple decades. Springfield, with its “crime, ageing population, and poverty,” was designated as America’s unhappiest city. Why did you select it and its population as subjects for a photography project?
TB: Pure chance. I attended university in the States and was trying to make a few extra dollars taking passport photographs for my well-heeled, fellow students. One afternoon, I caught a ride into the nearby city of Springfield, Ohio, to buy supplies. The photo store was closed, I had to take the photographs early the next morning, and there was no way to return to my dorm. So, I spent the night walking the streets, meeting long-haul truckers and prostitutes in all-night cafes, and getting a glimpse of good, white, Protestant Springfield turned upside down. I returned with my camera (an Agfa Ambi Silette, for those interested in museum pieces) a week later and started to learn those streets, to listen to people’s stories, and to photograph.
The city was rigidly divided by race, class, and district, and my constant crossing of those borders often made the work dangerous. Inevitably, though, I made friends and became known, and people dressed in tattered hand-me-downs would pass in rattling pickups, yelling, “Hey, Canada! Picture!” It was an exhilarating acceptance into a world the middle-class residents of that city knew of, but only as an abstraction.
Not everyone accepted me, though. Some tried to run me down with their cars and threatened me with death in gruesome ways, but I always handled it. As more crack cocaine and Oxycodone entered that world, and Hispanic migrants added to the already-volatile human mix, things began to change. On my last trip there, I was canvassing a familiar street, camera in hand, when an old man approached me, and raised his hand. “You see that house?” he said, pointing. “That fellow live there, he see you on the street an’ he go’n’ pop a cap in yo’ ass.”
As grateful as I was for the warning, it was unsettling to hear him speak what sounded like lines from a Hollywood movie or a bad novel. At that moment, I realized that my sense of invulnerability had itself been a fiction and that yes, if I kept it up, someone would most likely pop a cap in my ass.
JQ: It is fascinating that broken things, and thing breaking, often represent some of the most compelling subjects of examination for artwork. Does the artist have an obligation to use his or her medium as an instrument for the betterment of society?
TB: Ah, the Whack-a-Mole question! If the answer is, “Yes, artists have a responsibility to make society better,” other questions pop up. One must quickly ask which segment of society we’re talking about. The Japanese have called Canada a “mongrel nation” for good reason. We’re not homogeneous in background or values. Then there’s the troubling question of “betterment.” One person’s notion of betterment can be another’s nightmare. And if the artist ignores that responsibility to work toward a brighter world, does it mean that the art is bad by definition?
Your question has an easy answer: No. The artist’s responsibility is to do the job creatively and well. If the work should also bring to our attention an unjust social situation that must be addressed, call it value added. If the work represents its world poorly, unfairly, or even uninterestingly, we call it bad art. Artists are not social workers.
JQ: Are you currently working on something specific?
TB: Probably too many things specific. I’m back to short stories and slowly building a new collection. And discovering, once again, that fiction-writing is a curious business. A story so often starts with an image or a feeling, not a narrative. The narrative must then be conjured from the story’s language. But there’s the baffling challenge: how to create language to carry a narrative that doesn’t yet exist?
JQ: Is there a recurring theme or intention that populates your work—is there something about your writing that is manifested in your photography, or vice-versa?
TB: I think every writer eventually discovers that, however one might experiment with topic, form, or voice, it’s still the same ventriloquist speaking through every story. I’m tempted to say that a theme like transgression surfaces again and again in much of my work, but acts of transgression are inherent in any dramatic form. I probably discover stories much more often than I invent them.
There is a parallel of sorts in photography. The shrunken, monocular world of the viewfinder or monitor is only an approximation of what winds up on the film or sensor. Which means that the process of photographic creation is often more editorial than spontaneous.
JQ: As a creative writing teacher, what might be the one governing suggestion that you would give aspiring authors?
TB: Only one? Okay. Don’t fall prey to the self-defeating idea that the work of “authorship” (awful word!) is an all-or-nothing deal. Very, very few writers sit at their desks for 6 or 8 hours every day, pound it out, and make their living from that activity. It is possible—and often necessary and helpful—to do more than one thing in life. Chekhov was a doctor, Wallace Stevens an insurance executive, Rohinton Mistry a bank clerk, Alice Munro a bookstore founder, Mavis Gallant a journalist, and on and on it goes.
Since you have limited me to “one governing suggestion” I won’t mention that wide reading in fiction and non-fiction is essential, because writing, at its heart, is writing back to what you’ve read. Nor will I say anything about the undeniably selfish component of being an artist and the need to accept that fact. Or about the inevitability of slack periods (sometimes decades) in one’s productivity. We’ll save those topics for another Q&A.
Terence Byrnes says that he began publishing poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and photography “when giant lizards roamed the earth.” Over that unlikely span, he has published three books and his work has appeared in magazines ranging from Rolling Stone to Reader’s Digest to The Walrus. His photography has been published and shown internationally. Recently, Byrnes won a National Magazine Award (Gold) for a project that combined text and image in a form that was at once a social documentary and a memoir. He has taught creative writing at Concordia University, in Montreal, since 1976. A sampler from Rock’n’Roll Criticism to Memoir:
1970 record review in Creem, one of the first rock magazines: http://www.beefheart.com/lick-my-decals-off-baby-review-by-terry-byrnes/
1971 poetry review of Richard Brautigan’s poetry in Rolling Stone: http://brautigan.cybernetic-meadows.net/tiki-index.php?page=byrnes
2006 memoir about ghostwriting in Maisonneuve, “Anatomy of a Ghost”: https://maisonneuve.org/article/2006/02/23/anatomy-ghost/
2008 interview, “The Literary Photographer”: http://literaryphotographer.com/terence-byrnes-closer-to-home-interview/
2012 memoir, “The Missing Piece” (original title “Missing War”) in The Walrus: https://thewalrus.ca/the-missing-piece/
2017, text and image, in Geist, “South of Buck Creek” (National Magazine Award Winner—Gold): https://www.geist.com/photography/south-of-buck-creek/
2017 “An Education,” published as fiction in carte blanche under the pseudonym “Gabe Marcus,” but where do memoir and fiction intersect? http://carte-blanche.org/articles/an-education/
2018 on-line interview about “The Author and the Author Photograph”: http://thebibliofile.ca/terence-byrnes-on-photography-and-the-author-photograph