John Reeves: The Human Face as Landscape

A profile of Canada’s finest contemporary portrait photographer

26 mins read

From the stiff-looking faces portrayed in 19th-century daguerreotypes to the self-conscious and irreverent “selfies” made with today’s smartphones, the photographic portrait is one the most ubiquitous cultural artifacts in history. But photographic portraiture is one of the most challenging endeavors in the medium, for its very realism is also the source of ambiguity: it’s almost like a double-edged sword. No one understands this better than John Reeves, the dean of Canadian photojournalists, who has created over 500 portraits of cultural icons, from Marshall McLuhan to Margaret Atwood.

John Reeves was born in Burlington, Ont., and from an early age he was exposed to the visceral power of art through books that abounded in his home. He credits his maternal grandmother, Florence McCrimmon, who for a time lived with his family, with introducing him to “the glories of the Italian Renaissance and its protean creators—Leonardo, Giotto, Michelangelo.” He was inspired to go to the then-Ontario College of Art—“I was not academically inclined anyway,” he says—and it was here that he became intrigued by the possibilities of photography as a documentary art form. He discovered the work of the American photographer David Douglas Duncan, who in the 1950s had published The Private World of Pablo Picasso, a landmark photo essay that he saw as a “a major journalistic performance” and made him realise the importance of photography in documenting culture visually. He graduated in 1962, and embarked on a career documenting both the great luminaries and the rising stars of Canadian culture.

Reeves could not have started working professionally at a more auspicious time. The 1960s and the early ’70s were a period of maturity and affirmation of Canadian cultural identity. In some ways it was a golden age of documentary photography, as numerous photojournalists and documentary photographers actively documented daily life across Canada: Lutz Dille, Michel Lambeth, Pierre Gaudard, Gabor Szilasi, Claire Beaugrand-Champagne—to name a few. The Still Photography Division of the National Film Board commissioned significant amounts of work then and frequently published works of photography, both coffee table books like Call Them Canadians and Canada: A Year of the Land, as well as a 10-volume series of monographs called Image. Moreover, they were published in separate English- and French-language editions. Commercial magazines like The Star Weekly, Weekend Magazine and The Canadian were heavily illustrated with photo essays that ran to six or more pages.

It was during this period that John Reeves was invited by the Canadian Eskimo Arts Council to document Inuit artists of the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative in Cape Dorset. Not only was he utterly fascinated by artistic possibilities of the “scale-less, apparitional landscape” of the Arctic, but he recognized the opportunity to document the community of Inuit artists whose overwhelming success with printmaking was radically changing their traditional nomadic way of life. Reeves produced an extensive photo essay, exhibited in part as “Inuit Art World,” at the Canadian Centre for Photography in 1981, and published as a 30-page segment in Cape Dorset Prints, in 2007.

Aside from the empathetic documentation of Inuit artists and their families, Reeves produced unique photographs of the foreboding landscape, perhaps none more so than the cemetery in Repulse Bay in 1968. Even on a sunny day, nature in the High Arctic is fierce, as evidenced by the crosses that have been battered and knocked over by the wind and lie amidst billowy snowdrifts that evoke a brutal beauty. Reeves returned to the Arctic several times, and his unique documentation represents an invaluable artistic achievement and historical record that spans two generations.

As the 1970s wore on, opportunities for Canadian photo essays became limited as mainstream illustrated magazines started to vanish. Documentary photography moved onto the photo art gallery walls and into such memorable small photo art magazines as Impressions in Toronto and Ovo in Montreal. The photo essay was gradually replaced by the single-picture spread, which according to Reeves, became “feature portrait-making, albeit documentary.” And this is where Reeves would excel. The fact that he remained a freelance worker was significant, for he was not interested in assignments “that involved the client as the subject,” as often happens in corporate portraits or commercial studio work. He adds, “That’s why I never had a walk-in studio—you know, my little shop on Main Street. I never did that. Because most people don’t like the pictures that I take of them. The editors and art directors like them. Readers like them. But they’ll [the subjects] say, ‘You know, you made me look like…oh, shit, couldn’t you kind of make me look a little better?’”

What makes a “good” portrait? According to Reeves, it’s the “telling moment, exactly the same thing that writers look for.” Instead of the quotable quote, it is the gaze, or a gesture that happens in a fraction of a second and which conveys something unforgettable about the person represented in the photograph, that goes well beyond the physical recording and resonates emotionally with viewers. One of his early successes was a portrait of a young Margaret Atwood, in 1972, when she was having “explosive success” on the Canadian literary scene with the publication of her influential novel Surfacing. He posed the young writer sitting on a chair, her face tilted downward, left shoulder resting on the back of the chair so that her hand dangles casually in the foreground and gives the picture not only great spatial depth but also a sense of serenity. Reeves “captured” the writer as if lost in thought, at home, during a moment of contemplation or reflection. The black and white photograph is strongly graphic, as the dark curly hair of the author is contrasted against the white geometric pattern of possibly cupboard doors in the background. The author turns slightly towards the window, and as a result the left side of her face is glowing in light, while the right side of her face is veiled by a soft shadow. It is the classical look of poise and refinement, and the photograph speaks of lineage and pedigree. The lighting technique achieves a sculptural three dimensional effect, a key characteristic of Reeves’ work. Later, when he started carrying a small strobe unit (Photographers have long favoured north light, and in the 19th century, studios were specifically designed with large windows and skylights on the north side of the building.)

But this is only half of the story, for the emotional resonance of the portrait is due to much more than the technical prowess of the photographer. A photographic portrait is also the result of a collaborative relationship between the photographer and the subject. One has the impression that Atwood also had a determining role in the way she was to be portrayed, in the way that she presented herself to the camera. Reeves is a raconteur, and he likes “to engage people. I would say that there’s social skills of a sort which are a little bit part of your photographic equipment…there’s not many things I can’t talk about.” All of which helps to create an atmosphere of trust that invites the subject to reveal themselves to the camera. The camera merely captures that “telling” moment. Reeves long ago stated that “in photography a great portrait is given, not taken.” A portrait is anything but an objective documentation of a performance. He adds, “Usually, there’s a kind of epiphany that lasts for a minute. They sort of hit whatever they’re going to hit, as good as they’re gonna do, and then that’s that. There’s no point spending three hours burning film.” What is the least amount of film that he’s “burned?” “Probably half a roll.”

Reeves’ friend Barry Callaghan, founding publisher of Exile Editions, which has published a lot of Reeves’ work, puts the “moment of epiphany” in somewhat more down-to-earth terms: “You can give until the cows come home. But if you’re not ready to receive, it don’t mean a thing. John is always ready to receive.”

When the United Nations declared 1975 as the International Year of the Woman to recognise the rise of feminism as a cultural and political force globally, the Stills Photography Division of the NFB, directed by Lorraine Monk, commissioned John Reeves to photograph Canadian women of achievement in various fields including the arts, business, and science. The result was an extensive series known as Portraits of Women, 1974-77, a portion of which was exhibited at the Déjà Vu Gallery in Toronto, and eventually found a permanent home at the University of Saskatchewan Archives. The archive contains almost 100 portraits, and it reads like a who’s who of Canadian women, weighted heavily in the arts: from Celia Franca to Buffy Sainte-Marie to Gabrielle Roy, to name a few. Unlike his earlier portraits, this series is in colour, and in most of the portraits the women are sitting, facing the camera squarely, looking right into the lens, which always includes their hands and the context of their home or place of work.

They are environmental portraits, and there is an almost formulaic approach to the entire series, which, Reeves explains, was intentional. He had by now “created a kind of an attack—the one big right-hand page” that was quickly replacing the multi-page essay with a single, “the feature” picture. With the portraits of women, he “wanted them wearing their clothes and in an environment of their choice. It wasn’t like when I used to shoot for Chatelaine and they had to do their hair…[sometimes] they would wear a red jacket—‘our readers love red’—you know, just dreadful stuff.” Although the approach was formal, with his moveable “north light,” the portraits have an overall feeling of levity, of casualness.

Colour was becoming more prevalent, in part because it became easier to print it in magazines, but in this case, Reeves used it to achieve the desired candid look called for by the assignment. But the work does seem to follow a kind of convention of magazine photography, which made the background as important as the person being photographed. The “magazine convention” of the right-hand page featuring a graphic moody black and white was replaced by the more realistic but commercially-oriented colour in these photos.

One of the most unforgettable portraits in the series is of 99-year-old Louise Tandy-Murch, a music teacher and vocal coach. Reeves photographed her sitting regally in front of her piano, wearing a formal silky dress with a crimped top, pearl necklace and earrings, hands neatly folded on her lap. The floral curtains in the background complement the floral wallpaper, and both resonate with the ornate cover of the music book that rests upright on the piano. In contrast with many of the other portraits, this is not a lighthearted moment, but rather, a ritualistic moment of photography that evokes the solemnity of a portrait session in the early days of photography. The subject is doing the gifting for a photographer who knows how to receive: with matching graciousness.

But it’s not always a case of giving and receiving, as shown by his 1979 portrait of Robertson Davies, a major literary figure who had published the Deptford Trilogy, and which, according to Reeves, is “all full of weird, Jungian fantasy.” As a master of lighting effects, he decided to use a technique known as “cross lighting” to make Davies—whose trademark visual trait was an incredibly long but perfectly coiffed white beard—look a little “spooky and theatrical.” He was consciously emulating the work of one his favourite photographers, the American Arnold Newman (1918–2006) and his portrait of Alfred Krupp, but it was the perfect staged portrait, since Davies himself “was such a kind of theatrical guy. In a sense his appearance was a costume. The clothing, the beard, the whole kind of scene. He was a self art-factual kind of person.” The master portraitist at his best.

Reeves’ greatest love after photography is jazz, which he began listening to as a teenager in the 1950s. Jazz became the music of “my life, and the men and women who played jazz became my idols. I’ve had a great life being John Reeves the photographer, but in an absolutely perfect world I would have chosen to be Zoot Sims or Mel Lewis or McCoy Tyner.” In the late 1980s he was invited to photograph 100 jazz musicians for a book with jazz writer Gene Lees, Jazz Lives. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, “the greatest experience of my life as a photographer,” as he travelled over four years seeking the idols of his childhood in the United States, England, Europe, Japan, Canada and Russia. But how do you confront your idols with a camera, especially when most of them had already been photographed numerous times by famed jazz photographers like Milt Hinton, Herman Leonard or William Claxton? Reeves came up with what he terms the “big face” portrait, intimate looks of musicians as people, with no instruments and completely decontextualized from the background. He reasoned, astutely, that jazz musicians are usually photographed during the drama of performance, and most of the wind players had not been seen without a trumpet or sax or clarinet in front of their faces. For their utter simplicity, his pictures of Dizzy Gillespie, Henry (Hank) Jones and Oscar Peterson rank as signature images in the history of jazz, so laden are they with emotion. Of his encounter with Gillespie, he said, “I had five minutes with him in a hotel room in New York. Available light from a nearby window. It just worked. The one thing I wanted with him was not the ‘goofy’ shot. I didn’t want the bulging cheeks…all that bullshit. I wanted the genius, the great man…”

It is inevitable that John Reeves would be compared to Yousuf Karsh (1908–2002), the famous Canadian photographer who is considered one of the great masters of portraiture. But the two couldn’t be more different, not only in style but also in approach. According to Callaghan, Reeves is the exact opposite of Karsh, whose subjects “must always be looking into the distance in search of their greatness.” By contrast, Callaghan says, “John has always had this very particular relationship with the face as landscape. I think that’s genuine in his work and moving in his work. He does not come imposing—God help us—a view of life nor theory. He concentrates on the face, and renders them for all their brutal reality into abstracts. They have no clutter. If there’s a convention it’s one that Reeves has created himself, for himself.”

Reeves used the same technique of exploring the “landscape of the face” to photograph Leonard Cohen in 2012, after the poet, novelist and singer-songwriter won the Glenn Gould Prize. He wanted to capture the intimate way that Leonard Cohen looks at you—the viewer—with a penetrating gaze that cuts across the “gnarled, tortured songs,” as Reeves puts it, and goes straight to the heart. He didn’t want to photograph the songs, but the man. Reeves only had 15 minutes to create a portrait so compelling in its emotional resonance and graphic appeal—diagonally positioned face, with eyes that seem to peer out at the top of the frame from underneath the brim of his black fedora that conceals his forehead—that it is destined to become an iconic portrait of the beloved poet of love.

Callaghan provides an important clue to Reeves’ way of relating to the people whom he photographs. “John is [an] amiable man. But there’s a paradox here. I sense in John this sense of rectitude, even a sense of propriety, while at the same time he is prepared to engage the person he is photographing and look at them right into their eyes.” Reeves does not elaborately stage his portrait sessions—often there just isn’t the time because he “catches” his subjects in between gigs or appointments. There is an unmistakable sense of spontaneity and intimacy in that human landscape that opens up to his lens.

At 76 years of age, the photographer who has been published in every major Canadian magazine extant since the beginning of his career keeps busy administering his vast archive and managing his copyrights. Always outspoken about photography, he laments that there are fewer and fewer documentary opportunities. He recalls pointedly how photographers used to be hired for “honest work” by the NFB, an institution which “understood how the public sector should interact with the private sector in something like photography,” how they were paid proper rates, and how they retained copyright ownership of their creative work. In his view, replacing a government-based funding source for documentary work with an arts council system is counterproductive because it does not foster production.

Reeves adds, caustically, “the arts council thing makes me want to throw up… I mean, you’re 45 years old, you’ve got to apply for a fucking grant like a kid! You get a grant when you come out of art school…and subsequently you are supported by people who like your work. Or by institutions, which the Harperites have destroyed. What little funding culture we still had has disappeared.” And it’s even worse than that, because today’s magazines “are not magazines in the editorial sense. They are a print marketing thing. You give them a page, they buy an ad… In documentary, there isn’t really that much going on.”

Despite his stellar reputation in the world of Canadian art, Reeves is as much a victim as anyone else to the peripheral role that documentary photography finds itself in. The success of one artist over another seems difficult to explain sometimes. Callaghan agrees, and says that if Reeves is on the periphery, it’s because the art world moves in cyclical patterns. He recalled that T. S. Eliot observed that “a generation goes by and you discover that the writers who seem to be at the very centre of things are now on the periphery…and the peripheral ones are now at the centre.” Eliot could have just as easily been talking about photographers, for the history of the medium is replete with great photographers, who once were on the margins of the cultural map (such as Eugène Atget and Lewis Hine). Like these stalwart scions of the medium, John Reeves’ work will endure—not only because of its significance as a historical documentary archive of Canadian and international artists, but also because the originality of his vision, which lies in a rendition of the human face that has been completely stripped of the artifices inherent in the photographic process, thus conveying a sense of spontaneity and honesty that will forever connect emotionally with viewers.

Vincenzo Pietropaolo has published over a dozen books on social justice issues, in which he often combines photographs with his own original writing. Toronto in Photographs: Fifty Years of People, a retrospective journey in words and images, will be released in May 2022 by Cormorant Books. His next project is a collaborative exploration of queer spaces.

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