Biography turns lens on famed photojournalist

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October 29, 2013

Photo credit: Kevin Doyle

Review by Liz Snell

“They say real men don’t cry – that’s crap.” Photographer Ted Grant, 84, wasn’t afraid to get emotional in front of a packed auditorium during the launch of his life’s biography.

Grant’s biographer, UVic graduate Thelma Fayle, met Grant as his student at Camosun College. Years later, she hesitantly emailed him to ask his help in photographing someone for an article. Since then Fayle has conducted over 50 interviews with Grant. She saw the necessity in honouring his legacy: “Everyone knew his work but nobody knew his name,” she said. “My goal in writing this book was to honour a hardworking Canadian artist.”

Recognized by many as “the father of Canadian photojournalism,” Grant’s contribution to Canadian culture was a particular emphasis during the launch. Whether through his story about his famous photograph of Pierre Trudeau sliding down a l banister in the Chateau Laurier, or his experience organizing photographers at Victoria’s 1994 Commonwealth Games, Grant’s connection to national history was evident. Grant had intimate access to famous lives and was even on a first-name basis with prime ministers.

Yet Grant’s presence conveys humility. He called much of modern concern with technique “garbage” and downplayed his own skill by emphasizing timing: “I’m a photographer, not a technician.” He advised photographers to “shoot someone when they’re listening” to capture the intense focus in their eyes, and to be “first to arrive and last to leave” to capture candid moments. His work exhibits a striking ability to portray someone’s unguarded essence.

His vibrant, wry sense of humour had the crowd laughing through most of the presentation, but he was also moved to tears multiple times during his talk, particularly when discussing a photo of his wife, who passed away last year. He noted, “I’ve shot over 100 babies being born, and I’ve cried at every one.”

His passion for photography was evident when, during a question period, a young photography student asked him for advice. At first he joked, “Go over to the medical building and become a doctor.” Then he said, “If it’s totally consuming and you love it, it doesn’t matter what you do, what hours you put in.”

He described photography as a “magical career” in which he’s been “constantly alive.”

Many recounted Grant’s popularity as a photography instructor. One of Grant’s former students told how Grant had staged his own in-classroom arrest, to test whether students would respond by pulling out their cameras, as a photographer should.

For Grant’s 76th birthday he photographed himself flying upside down in a fighter plane. He discussed plans for his 100th birthday, and joked that he’ll have the undertakers present so that when the news person announces his birthday, he can “drop dead” and the party will start.

While his photographs may be more recognized than his name, Grant emphasized the photographer’s duty take a backstage role. “If you’re unseen but you’re in the same room, that’s when you get to be appreciated.”

Fayle’s biography (published by Heritage Group in Victoria) finally turns the lens on Ted Grant to capture his own light.

Liz Snell is a freelance writer in Victoria

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Heather MacAndrew November 1, 2013 at 4:03 pm

Very nice article Liz. It was a lovely event – if only Irene Grant could have been there to share in it. She was a resilient and remarkable woman.
If I could put a plug in for our documentary on Ted, “The Art of Observation”, it’s available for sale in the UVIC bookstore.
ps Be nice if you could add a photo credit: Kevin Doyle – a huge Ted fan.

grutter November 2, 2013 at 5:59 pm

Consider it done, Heather! Thanks for the comment.

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