The Fine Print
Profile by Jane Ledwell
"Photography is a vast subject," says Lionel Stevenson. "There is no discipline, from medicine to astronomy, that doesn't use photography. But fine art photography is not concerned about the things that are recorded so much as the expression."
Though he grew up in New Brunswick, Lionel Stevenson's beginnings as a photographer were here. In 1947, at eight years old, he found $5 on a Charlottetown sidewalk in Charlottetown and knew precisely what he wanted: a camera. He also knew precisely what he wanted to photograph and from what vantage point: his family farm from the hayfields.
A major retrospective of his work at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery retraces Lionel's development from 1962, 15 years after that first photo, with an emphasis on the preoccupation that emerged for him not long after that first photograph: the perfecting the print itself and the expressive art of photographic printmaking.
Ten years after capturing that first photographic image, a second turning point for Lionel was his first experience in a darkroom developing silver prints. Diverted from studying architecture, he took up work in a commercial darkroom in Ottawa, and in 1968 the opportunity came to make prints for legendary American photographer Berenice Abbot, who was limited from the darkroom by emphysema.
"Some described her as the best silver printer of the 20th century, which I didn't realize at the time," Lionel recalls. "She was such a fine printer, at first I had a hard time pleasing her," he says. "She would doanything to get the prints she wanted. We would work for days to get the first print from one negative. My whole method of printing changed. I saw what the possibilities were."
Lionel says, "I was incredibly lucky." In addition to her own accomplishments, Abbott was instrumental in bringing the work of Eugène Atget to North America. "She met him a week before he died and did a portrait," Lionel says. "Atget was the father of modern photography, and some think he was the greatest photographer who lived."
With access to the prints of two of the finest photographers of the 20th century, Lionel says, "The down side of the whole thing was only that I wasn't in a place [in my artistic development] to ask what I should be looking for."
Lionel returned to Ottawa and turned to street photography as well as fine art and documentary projects. In 1970, another turning point: a print he made called "Gatineau." "It was the first [print] in which everything worked out exactly as I visualized it," he says. This is the lead picture in the Confederation Centre retrospective. Having made the photograph, Lionel remembers thinking, "I know I can do this. I can get what I want. The question then becomes what do I photograph?"
"When photography started, a number of people took up photography and these photographers used large cameras. They were concerned with selecting what would be in the picture. They controlled everything and processed and printed their own plates," he says.
Kodak introduced cameras that told the photographers "you push the button, we'll do the rest." Lionel says, "This was a good thing in a way. It put photography in the hands of the public. But it took control away from the photographers. Pointing the camera at things became more about the things than with the art." Lionel's search was for subject matter that would result in art.
"After a while," Lionel says, "I wanted to come back to the Island," where he had summered with his family in his youth. "I had never really lived here - and yet I missed it. As soon as I got back to the Island, I realized I missed the salt air. I missed being near the sea." At the time, there was a need for a commercial studio. And Lionel was still photographing on his own 8x10" film - architecture, landscape.
"The landscape is very quiet here," he says. He recalls a Newfoundland-based friend of his partner, painter Terry Dunton Stevenson, commenting that the PEI landscape is "so horizontal, it's like getting seasick" to look at it.
Subject matter is a challenge here on the Island as anywhere. "Another thing with photography is that people have wanted to make things look nice," Lionel says. "Tourism photography has an ulterior motive of selling that has affected everyone." On the other hand, "There's a tendency to do the opposite in fine art photography - to photograph the banal. To photograph the pile of garbage, which is just as bad, in a way."
Despite - or perhaps because of - Lionel's exacting training in making photographic prints, the whole retrospective, except two prints, is entirely digital. Lionel does not romanticize the darkroom.
"The digital process is far superior," he says with certainty, "because it is more flexible. The printing process was a struggle to get what I wanted. I would work for weeks to get the print I wanted." A close examination of digital art photographs prints during a trip to Amsterdam marked another latter-day turning point and convinced him to sell everything analog, from camera to darkroom equipment.
"It's only a change of medium," he says. "All the problems are still there with what's in front of the camera. You have to deal with it just the same."
One interesting problem is the problem of colour, which Lionel describes as "overamped" by much film. As he digitizes from film, he is able to "digitize the colour as I saw it."
Still, Lionel says, "I work mostly with black and white: most things don't need colour. Black and white is more abstractŠ It's easier to get distracted and not see the photograph in colour. It's easy to get lost in the image, or get lost in the subject. I was falling into that too, until I clued into it." He prints in colour "when the image demands it."
In Lionel's view, digital photography actually helps give primacy to the print. "Every device" - every individual camera, tablet, or phone - "has it own colour rendition." Colour looks slightly different on your computer and mine. "The only thing that doesn't change," Lionel says, "is the print."
Lionel quotes Ansel Adams's famous quotation that "The negative is comparable to the composer's score and the print to its performance," and always looks forward towards the performance.
"I studied a program developed by Ansel Adams to train myself, through a series of steps, to see in black and white," Lionel says. The systematic process allows him to memorize the tones of greys. He has learned to see in a new way. "After doing this for years, you see the values in the greys and are able to adjust the processes to get what you want," he says.
"Nobody does this," Lionel admits. "Ninety-five percent of photographer accept what they get in a print."
Lionel's sensibility is now fine-tuned to creating the final piece of art he envisions. The beginning point, now, is always to see something that would make a beautiful print. "If you don't photograph it, if you just look at it, you dull your sensibilities," he says. "You dull your sensibilities if you don't go towards it, to make the new thing - to make the print," he observes.
When people visit the retrospective, they will see fifty years of photographs and prints that have taken a year to make. "I'm hoping people will make the leap to seeing the art: to seeing the print," Lionel says. When you look at a photograph, "you always see the subject." And "when photos are technically excellent it's harder to see the photograph as an object," he says, "but I want people to see the print: the new thing that has been created."