CD: Your “Found Memories” project was a big change in direction for you. Tell me about the house, how the project came together and how this style of shooting evolved?
Alastair Bird: Oh boy. My wife’s late grandmother had this big mid-century modern home on like a half-acre of near-waterfront property in Vancouver. Mrs. A, as she liked to be called, worked full time well into her nineties and spent most of her time at work – which was wholesaling automotive brake parts (no joke). She herself would admit she wasn’t much interested in ‘keeping house’. She didn’t seem to mind the clutter and never really threw anything away. She grew up in the Depression, and like a lot of her contemporaries, it never really left her. I remember once looking for candles in a drawer in the dining room – I stumbled upon a roll of Kodak film that expired in 1953. The whole place was irresistible, especially when I started finding old batteries, spice jars and receipts for gas at $0.35 a gallon. This home was packed with a lifetime of knick knacks and I was like a kid in a candy shop. When we were over there I would wander through the living room, opening drawers, pulling out old glassware, ashtrays, bottle openers, spice jars, you name it – and photographing them.
She passed away a couple of years ago and the home was put up for sale. I decided I wanted to have one last shoot in the home, but this time I wanted to do something a bit more with the house, rather than just with what was in it. I hired some actors, wrote a really quick little treatment about what we were going for, hired a stylist and hair and makeup and we wandered from room to room, shooting away. It was one of those days where I just could not take a bad photograph. I managed to get almost an entire portfolio of images from one 4-hour shoot. What was even more amazing is that we didn’t change anything in the house – the entire home was dressed perfectly. Everything from the 1974 Cadillac in the garage to the broken-down green house (to the boxes of old Kodachrome slide film in the living room: the piano, the fireplace, stairwell, you get the idea) was pretty much exactly as we found it.
The house has sold and is slated for demolition and re-building, which is what we do a lot of in Vancouver. I went out and visited a little while ago, but even though the house still stands, the magic is all but gone.
CD: What was it like to work with Photo Editor Mike Davis?
Alastair Bird: Mike was fantastic to work with. I’ve always had a lot of trouble with the idea of dropping my very best work on someone else’s lap and hoping they will tell me I’m great. Well, hoping they’ll tell me I’m not awful, anyway. My biggest fear was that there might not be anything there for him to see or that me might come up with something that was contrary to how I see myself, photographically. Of course, all those fears were completely unfounded with Mike. Not only did he come up with a portfolio that I was really happy with, also in our discussions he taught me a lot about editing images. My ability to choose my own work is much better because of what he taught me. I have always been terrible at editing my work, but I’m less terrible now.
It was hard for me to trust Mike with my work – especially what I thought was my best work. What he came back to me with was very comforting – as we agreed on all the important images, I think. However, what was even more interesting was the images he found that I had never given too much thought to – ones he argued (convincingly) that should be included in the portfolio.
CD: You have a wonderful series of quiet images of your daughters as they have grown up. I love the short-focus images and moments that feel real. How have the personal images you created of your family influenced your commercial work?
Alastair Bird: My girls are my muses – both in equal measure, even though they are two completely different people. I was told, early on, to take lots of photos of the kids because they grow up entirely too fast and you’ll never have those years back, etc, etc. I guess I took it to heart – I started snapping when they were born and although I have slowed in recent years I still take as many as I can.
The short depth-of-field look is something I’ve always enjoyed, Both the 110F2 on a Hasselblad 203 as well as the 150 F2.8 Xenotar on the 4×5 really deserve to be shot wide open – I mean, really, why use such old lenses on old cameras if you could use newer, (and pardon the phrase) better, lenses on digital?
I find that many of my clients and potential clients really respond to my personal work. Invariably when I meet with art directors, they want to see what I like to shoot rather than what I have been asked to shoot. The photos of the kids have benefited me two-fold – one, the ADs like to see what I’m up to, and two, a whole new world of portraiture has been opened up to me. Before I had kids I was more of a table-top, still-life shooter; after the kids I’m more of a portraitist.
CD: Speaking of influences: who are the artists and photographers you feel have influenced you the most and are their artists today who you feel that influence you?
Alastair Bird: I’m influenced by mid-century architecture and design – Mies Van Der Rohe; Gropius and Meyer; Saarinen; Breuer. There was quite a bit of West Coast Modern architecture in Vancouver. I like the clean lines and unadorned nature of that aesthetic.
Photographically, I am drawn to fellow Canadians – Edward Burtynsky, Jeff Wall, Scott MacFarlane. There is also a Vancouver photographer from the early 20th century – John Vanderpant, who did a lot of local photos in a great pictorialist style. For others, I also love the work of Julian Calverley, who has been profiled here, as well as Tim Griffith, Troy House, Mark Tucker… I’m always interested what Nadav Kander is working on; Paolo Roversi; Frank W Ockenfels III...
CD: I’d love to hear about your trip to Cuba with your father and what you photographed?
Alastair Bird: Cuba was fantastic. My father had always wanted to see the Panama Canal, and once we started looking at Panama, Cuba was pretty close by – there are several flights a day between Havana and Panama City. For us a direct flight from Toronto to Havana clinched the deal and off we went. Canadians need no special permission to visit Cuba.
Before I went a friend of mine threw down the proverbial photographic gauntlet and challenged me to travel with one camera and one lens. My first thought was an M2 and a 35mm lens and several dozen rolls of Tri-X, but thankfully cooler (and more modern) heads prevailed and I went with a Fuji X100 instead. It was great to not have a huge black DSLR around my neck, especially in some of the more remote areas. I never feared for my safety but I just didn’t want to look any more out of place than I already did. The x100 was perfect. No one really gave it much of a second thought. Image quality was fantastic and It was tremendously liberating to only have one lens. Every situation that required a different lens turned into a situation that required me to figure out how to shoot what I wanted with what I had. The challenge was great.
In terms of what I photographed, Cuba is a feast for the eyes. For instance, I always thought that the whole 1950s-era car thing was overblown – that possibly there were still a few cars, here and there – but no, I would guess that easily a third of the vehicles you see are from the 1950s. Some are pretty obscure like a couple of Studebakers I saw. But aside from the cars, there is just so much to see – the architecture, the (unfortunate) decay, the Communist symbols… We managed to make it to La Isla de la Juventud, where there is an old panopticon prison that housed Fidel himself after his first attempt to overthrow Battista. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. My dad and myself, along with a few goats had the run of a prison that used to house 3,000 inmates. There wasn’t another soul, save for the woman who was running the very charming museum over in one side building.
The Cuban people are great, the food wasn’t nearly as bad as I had been warned about, and the photographic opportunities were overwhelming. Imagine a 17th and 18th Century urban landscape less than 100 miles from Miami where there are NO advertisements, anywhere, for anything, except, of course for Revolutionary Slogans.
I really want to return, to get to know Cuba better. Next time I might even take 2 lenses…
CD: What advice would you give to a young photographer in college who is considering entering the world of editorial or commercial photography?
Alastair Bird: Find your voice.
Today, more than ever, a photographer has to be able to show their unique viewpoint. We are awash in images, many of which are excellent. The only way to stand out is to have a clear voice and be authentic. Thankfully, everything a young photographer needs to be unique is already in their hands – it’s their way of looking at the world. But they need to work at finding their voice; at not copying every ‘look’ or ‘style’ or new visual fad that comes along.
Young photographers need to have the confidence in their own vision and they need to be comfortable with the images they create.
I think spending a lot of time in front of the computer, looking at other photographers’ work can be really disheartening to a lot of young photographers, heck, it’s sometimes disheartening to me. There is a lot of amazing work out there. The only way to counteract that is to do some amazing work of your own – work that comes from the heart.
What's in Alastair Bird's bag?
- D700 with 24-70 F2.8
- Sigma 50mm F1.4 HSM
- Nikon 85 F1.8
- Sigma 70 F2.8 Macro
- Nikon 16-35 F4
- Nikon 105 F2.8 Macro
- Mamiya 80mm F1.9 lens with Nikon adapter
- 5 D3X batteries
- 3 D700 Batteries
- 2 extra CF cards that never leave the case on the off chance I forget my CF cards – at least I have something to shoot to.
- Polarizer filters for every lens size.
- Visible Dust brushes
- Business Cards
- Cables, chargers, extra batteries, etc, etc.
- Ancient CF-39 digital back on an H1 body with 80mm F 2.8 HC lens
- 40mm CF FLE Lens
- 50mm CF FLE lens
- 120mm CF Macro lens
- 150 mm HC lens
- 50-110 HC zoom lens
- CF lens adapter
- Backup H1 body
- Extra prism
- 2 sepaprate chargers for 2 different batteries (7.2v and 9.6v)
- FW-800 cable – 25 feet
I also shoot with Profoto Acute packs and heads, and recently I have purchased the Profoto Rfi speedring for speedlites and a Chimera Collapsible beauty dish.