Press. New photographic series by Brian Howell at Winsor Gallery until April 7. For more information go to winsorgallery.com.
THE photographer approaches the lumbering industrial monolith.
A printing press that's gone out of print is crammed into the Edmonton warehouse like the ghost of newspapers past.
The printing press will soon be sold for scrap.
The photographer aims and shoots, freezing a singular moment in journalism that evokes the ascent of new technology and the instability of the traditional fourth estate.
Brian Howell, a former B.C. community newspaper photojournalist, photographed a series of printing presses in a bid to illuminate the ramifications of trading ink for electrons.
While chasing stories with the Surrey Now, Howell says he witnessed the restructuring of an entire industry that forsook journalism and placed its faith in technology.
For Howell, the printing presses represent the skeleton of journalism, an industry he's worked in for more than 20 years.
"One of the first big photojournalism projects I did was on the cod fishery in Newfoundland in 1992 when it was going under. As a student I hopped a bus and had to go to Newfoundland and photograph small outport villages before they disappeared. I think it's the same kind of compulsion to look at presses and consider them right now, where there's a sense they're disappearing, and they are. The Edmonton Journal, the plant is closing. I got an email two days ago from the plant manager: there's 107 people losing their jobs there."
Much like the printing press uncomfortably straddles the industrial and digital ages, Howell is equal parts photojournalist and artist, using his camera to reflect the possibility of social change.
"The presses as an idea symbolically represent a lot of old industry that is being cast aside without a lot of consideration or reflection," he says. "I'm not an anti-technology guy; I have an iPad which I use a lot. I shoot with a digital camera. But I also think the tectonic shift in journalism is really worthy of consideration."
Having spent decades in the industry, Howell can recount professional heartbreak, such as when more than a year of work following the life of a deaf blind man was ripped from the pages of the National Post in favour of a photo essay on celebrity styles at the Oscars.
"The press work for me became my most personal project. Researching about it and reading about it helped me discover where my angst came from for all these years," he says.
Howell saw editors lose their jobs, and he says he was mindful from his first day on the job that photographers were replaceable.
"Investigating my own industry was fascinating," he says. "Reading facts like the PR people outnumber reporters three to one in the United States. A reporter becomes almost like an air traffic control."
With his most recent series of photos, Howell seems to be echoing words written by Arthur Miller in Death of a Salesman: "Attention must be paid."
"Instead of going towards the technology to solve everything, journalism really has to be considered," he says. "I have a passion for journalism that is a big part of our democracy and I just think that it's sad that it's so easily dismissed."
Shooting the photos in cramped conditions presented a challenge.
While photographing a Chicago Sun-Times printing press bound for Venezuela, Howell was forced to photograph the press in sections, framing it in three individual pieces.
While many artists focus on their work in itself, Howell appears more concerned with the issues addressed in his work as he speaks in slow, considered sentences about journalism as a whole and the ripple effects of editorial cutbacks.
"One guy characterizes it by saying: 'It's like if you go to Starbucks every day and your coffee cups keeps shrinking. You're probably not going to go back,'" he notes. "It's tough to make a good product without the resource."
Despite the strong potential of digital newspapers, Howell praises ink and pulp newspapers for keeping a contract with their readers.
"You're accountable," he says. "Your newspaper, the people you work for, the chain, you're accountable for what you guys print and I think that that's something that doesn't exist in the blogosphere."
As search engines become more adept at anticipating the interests of their searchers, accidental encounters with informative stories are becoming scarce, according to Howell.
"I think that sort of the randomness of a news story that you don't expect, where you could learn something, is quite compelling," he says.
Howell has photographed pro wrestlers who risk their physical health to be heroes and heels before a crowd of two dozen or so. Surrey's abandoned homes, Vancouver's shopping carts, and fame-hungry celebrity impersonators have also filled the iris of his camera.
"They have to be about something," Howell says of his pictures. "I wouldn't want them to be self-indulgent or navel gazing. As an artist, I think like a journalist."
When searching for ideas, Howell is likely to be triggered by something as simple as the truckloads of presents that accompany a child's birthday.
"The shopping carts that I did before were in contemplation of consumption and waste," he says. "One day I'm doing, doing photography. I see a shopping cart and I don't see the remnants of a life and a homeless person, I see somebody scavenging items to repurpose."
Prior to the carts, Howell captured portraits of pro wrestlers.
"The wonder of being able to escape your daily life and become a bona fide superstar for 27 fans on a Friday night in Surrey," he says "The beauty of that is amazing."
The study of the alter ego of the pro wrestler bled into his study of fame seen through the hopeful eyes of celebrity impersonators.
Howell still takes regular assignments for Canadian publications, but working on photographs as art has enabled him to express a singular point of view, which is often not possible as a photojournalist.
"I think that I have more of my own voice now doing my artwork," he says. "The irony is that my work now gets published in more publications than it did when I was doing stories for print. . . . I would do a story and I would sell it once to a magazine and then it would end. The art seems to endure, and the big ideas behind the art seem to endure."
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