Keen and Quirky Observations


My December 3, 2014 Enchanté column

A woman sits on a metal bench in a courtyard, talking on a cell phone. Her legs are crossed and turned toward a wall behind her, like she’s positioning herself away from the world. It looks like she’s also biting her nails.

It’s a private moment. But not really. She’s being watched. Observed.

She’s the subject in a photograph. There’s also a security camera in the photograph recording everything she does. It’s an iconic comment on our security-obsessed world. It’s also an ironic image, a moment on the street that many people wouldn’t notice. Wayne Hiebert notices. He records. The photographic specialty of this retired photojournalist is candid street photography. He’s one of the best at it.

As he looked through a window on a walkway above the street, Hiebert saw the woman who became the subject of his photograph.

“There’s sort of a decorative pattern on the glass I’m shooting through,” said Hiebert. “You see her sitting there. There’s a pattern on the glass with holes you can see through. It looks like the woman is the focus. You can also see the security camera above. You don’t put it together in your head immediately at the time, but it’s an interesting comment on how everybody’s looking in a voyeuristic way and everybody’s being watched. Cameras are everywhere. Then there’s me looking, and there’s the security camera in the foreground of the photo. This woman has no idea she’s being watched by anyone.”

That’s the kind of thought that goes into Hiebert’s work. Not at the moment of image capture, but on his own subliminal level. A great deal of what we call intuition is simply a vast storehouse of experiential knowledge that our mind draws from. Hiebert’s heart and intuitive mind are like parts of his camera equipment.

You can see some of Wayne Hiebert’s photographic works of art at the Central Branch of the Kingston Frontenac Public Library.

What you will see in this show are a number of images of day-to-day life on the streets, on buses and in water. To the normal eye, these images pass by unnoticed. Hiebert catches the artistic in everyday moments, unguarded moments. He has four decades of work to choose from.

I detest the staged shots that are so common today. You’ll see them in magazines, newspapers and everywhere on social media sites. We confuse the real with the staged.

Everything in Hiebert’s work is real. There are no facades.

Hiebert grew up in British Columbia and remembers always taking photographs, even when he went to school in San Diego. After returning to Canada, he took on freelance work with a British Columbia newspaper. He’s been a photojournalist and street photographer ever since.

When his wife got into a PhD program at the University of Toronto, the couple moved east. Hiebert took on freelance work for the Toronto Star, Canadian Press and other organizations. He ended up with the Ottawa Citizen as a staff photographer. As the newspaper publishing business took a nose dive, Hiebert took early retirement. He’d been commuting to Kingston on weekends for about ten years as his wife had a teaching position at Queen’s University. Kingston became his home. He’s continued with freelance work and street photography.

There’s nothing setup in his photographic art. They are pure guerrilla images, taken stealthily as he goes about his walks. Hiebert’s work is radically different from what you see in many shots from today’s journalistic world. In his exhibition, no photo is staged.

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908 – 2004), the father of modern photojournalism and street photography, once said: “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment when the photographer is creative. The Moment. Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

People generally don’t even know that Hiebert is taking their photo. He’s good at his work. Very good. Hiebert attended an opening of an exhibition of my photographs last winter. He had his camera, and I suspected he took a photograph of me, although I never saw him doing it. He later gave me a CD with the images he’d taken.

I seriously avoid having my photo taken. I hate posing and do not like seeing myself in images. I prefer to be hidden in the background. If a Potter-like cloak of invisibility ever goes on sale, I’ll be first in line to purchase one. But in one hour, Hiebert captured more photos of me than have probably been taken in the past ten years. And I didn’t see him doing it. He’s that good.

“Generally, people don’t know I’m taking their photo,” he said. “I haven’t asked anyone to pose. Cartier-Bresson was the father of the street. He was just a man who wandered the streets with a Leica shooting black and white photos. I really enjoy the spontaneity of the street. I like the tradition of capturing real moments as opposed to setup moments.”

The oldest photo in Hiebert’s current exhibition goes back to the late 1960s. He took it while he had his first newspaper reporter job in British Columbia. It features three white dogs in the rear window of a Volkswagen.

“I don’t usually do cute,” he said. And that photo is cute, but with the magical Hiebert touch. One can imagine the shot being on the front page cover of a fashion magazine. It’s quirky in its cuteness. It’s one of many everyday moments that Hiebert has transformed into art.

There’s a certain humor to his work, too. There’s an abstract image of a Canadian flag in his exhibition. It’s a reflection of the flag in rippling water.

“I shot that at the harbor when I saw a boat with a big flag on the back.”

The photograph’s title? Eau Canada.

One of the most unique photographs in the collection is an abstract London, England street scene. It’s shot as the reflection Hiebert saw looking into a Salvation Army musician’s tuba. It looks like some genetically modified combination of Dickens and Tim Burton or Dr. Seuss world views.

In short, another brilliant image.

In addition to a few such abstracts in the exhibition there are many realistic images, including several of Hiebert’s works of people on public transportation, everyday moments turned into decisive artistic moments in the hands of this photographer.

Hiebert calls his photograph of a man with a bicycle, taken across some train tracks in Melbourne, Australia, the “only formal portrait in the collection.” Still, it’s obviously a Hiebert image. He calls this a formal portrait, because the man who is the subject of the photograph saw Hiebert and looked at him. That’s a comment on the purity of Hiebert’s work. In a world that is so full of setup and posed shots, where this image would qualify as street photography, Hiebert refers to the image as a formal portrait.

It’s been two years since a previous Hiebert exhibition, Stolen Moments, was held at Verb Gallery.

“I’m at this point now where I have been amassing a body of work,” he said. “It’s time to start getting things out there. It doesn’t do any good to go out with my camera and look at the photos and file them away for nothing. If you consider yourself an artist, you owe it to yourself to get it out there.”

I consider it an honor to call this unassuming and brilliant artist a colleague. Check out his work in an exhibition—appropriately called Observations—in the foyer of the Wilson Room at the Central Branch (top floor) of the Kingston Frontenac Public Library at 130 Johnson Street. The show runs until January 3, 2015.

About Mark Aidan Bergin

Writer, editor, photographic artist specializing in dance, theater, concert, fashion and street photography....sometimes musician. Explorer of arts, culture and world, and all things Celtic and Gotham. On a good day, or perhaps a bad day, simply a mad (FOOBAR, not angry) scientist.
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