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Become a Cultural Navigator

Become a Cultural Navigator

Legendary photographer Alex Waterhouse-Hayward reveals how art can inspire anyone with a camera

Waterhouse-Hayward
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward with Niña the cat. On the left is his youngest daughter at two years old.

When Alex Waterhouse-Hayward received a lifetime achievement award from the Western Magazine Awards Foundation several years ago, he called it “an honorary golden rocking chair award”. But this energetic octogenarian isn’t just sitting on his laurels as Vancouver’s most significant magazine photographer of the 20th century. Far from it.

In an era when digital images have largely replaced photographic processing, the clever Waterhouse-Hayward continues pumping out blog posts on his many cultural interests. They include—but are most certainly not limited to—the art of capturing images.

Just last October, he was at a major conference in Mexico City, where he spoke to a crowd of 1,000 people. Waterhouse-Hayward notes that 27 of his photos were in the plaza. He was interviewed by three radio stations.

It helped, of course, that the Buenos Aires-born Waterhouse-Hayward speaks fluent Spanish.

On Saturday (March 2), Vancouverites with a keen interest in photography will have an opportunity to learn from the master. That’s because Waterhouse-Hayward will deliver a PowerPoint presentation on photography from 6 to 8 p.m. at C41 Coffee Shop (2948 West 4th Avenue) in Kitsilano.

Pancouver paid a visit to Waterhouse-Hayward’s home for a preview.

“The advantage of a PowerPoint is you can put more than one picture on-screen,” he says.

Waterhouse-Hayward then explains how art can inspire a person to take photographs. As an example, he shows a famous self-portrait by an aging Leonardo da Vinci.

“When I was eight years old, I was a great admirer of Leonardo da Vinci and of this particular self-portrait,” he reveals. “I would copy it with red pencils. So, when I photographed [author] Robertson Davies, I did a version that inspired me.”

A Barcelona publisher later used a contact sheet of Waterhouse-Hayward’s images for the cover of a Catalán-language version of The Deptford Trilogy.

Waterhouse-Hayward
Leonardo Da Vinci’s self-portrait beside images of Robertson Davies by Alex Waterhouse-Hayward.

Waterhouse-Hayward inspired by the greats

Waterhouse-Hayward then shares some of the things he’s learned over the years. He points out that the half-tone process, which is still used in newspapers, was invented in 1873.

“The first picture of half-tone process was the Steinway building in New York City,” he says. “And from 1873 until recently, photographs always went with copy. A photograph by itself means nothing. It has to have at least a title or copy. Sunsets with no information are boring.”

Over the years, Waterhouse-Hayward has taken photographs inspired by the work of visual artists Edward Hopper, Man Ray, and Agnolo Bronzino, among others. At C41 Coffee Shop, Waterhouse-Hayward plans to discuss how many famous photographers—including August Sander, Mathew Brady, and George Hurrel—have influenced his work.

Julia Margaret Cameron taught me never to photograph children smiling,” Waterhouse-Hayward says with a chuckle.

Alex Waterhouse-Hayward
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward selfie.

Making Leonard Cohen smile

Then, he points to a large photo of his granddaughter hanging in his living room. She has a serious expression on her face.

But the photographer himself isn’t always serious. In fact, Waterhouse-Hayward still has a riotous sense of humour. Once, it came in handy when he was assigned to photograph American musician Iggy Pop.

“When I faced Iggy Pop, I had a problem. Mr. Pop? Or Ig? Or Iggy?”

Then he told Iggy Pop that he reminded him of a photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt. Much to Waterhouse-Hayward’s surprise, the musician understood the reference—it was an image of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, which was taken in Geneva in 1931. Because of this shared knowledge, Waterhouse-Hayward formed a rapport with Iggy Pop that led to a memorable photo shoot.

On another occasion, Waterhouse-Hayward employed negative psychology on poet and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. He instructed Cohen that under no circumstances was he to smile or laugh.

Naturally, Cohen broke into a huge smile, which Waterhouse-Hayward captured for the magazine.

[Henri] Cartier-Bresson always said you have to wait for the decisive moment,” Waterhouse-Hayward says. “But sometimes, you can create a decisive moment.”

Alex Waterhouse-Hayward will offer a PowerPoint presentation on photography from 6 to 8 p.m. on Saturday (March 2) at C41 Coffee Shop (2948 West 4th Avenue, Vancouver).

Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.