In conversation with Iain Cameron

Yarden Haddi

I sat down over Zoom with Professor Iain Cameron of Ryerson University’s School of Image Arts. Most students who are enrolled at IMA have at least one class with him; he is known for his knowledge of everything art history and his distinct Scottish accent. In this interview, we discussed everything from the purpose of art history, his own inspirations, what makes a great artist, how education has changed, his own work and how he’s adapted during these unusual times. Brew yourself a coffee and get comfortable.

Yarden: How are you doing?

Iain: Not too bad I’ve been OK, surviving. I was an only child so I enjoy my own company. Not doing too bad during the lockdown.

Y: Usually when I do an interview I do some research online on my subject; however when I searched your name, the only thing that came up was a bunch of thriller novels. Your lack of online presence, does it add anything to your work?

Iain: It’s not really deliberate, it’s more just a product of timing and the way I work. I’m not the sort of person that feels compelled to cultivate an image. I find that a lot of the internet is centred around that and I think that’s one of my flaws — I don’t promote myself well enough. Part of that is just my upbringing and the place I was raised. Even now when I speak to my friends in Scotland and they ask “How have you been doing?” and I’ll say “Oh great; this happened and that happened.” they’ll say “Stop showing off.” I just come from that background of being more reserved. Proving yourself through actions rather than building a career for yourself and measuring that online.

Y: Some of my most enjoyable classes I’ve had during my degree have been your art history classes. One of my big takeaways was the idea of contrapposto and I still think about that when doing studio portraiture.

Iain: I think that’s an important thing for photographers to wrestle with when working with a model. You have to try and animate them in some way — through gesture and through posture — and if you don’t know what to do, have them in a contrapposto stance and work at it from there. It’s important to suggest animation. That’s one of the things that spark a belief that the subject is alive somehow and it’s something I try to hammer home; it comes early in the course, too, so maybe it’s more memorable. I touch on that [contrapposto] in the first or second week so everyone’s alert at that time — maybe that’s why it sticks a little bit more.

Y: Well I thought I paid attention but I’m not gonna get into all that.

Iain: [Laughs] Let’s not go there.

Y: What inspires you to make art?

Iain: For me, a lot of it is the process rather than the end result. I really enjoy engaging with looking at the world. In terms of taking pictures and just getting out there and trying to wrestle, it’s a very abstract belief; but I think the way I aesthetically compose [an image] communicates something about my values of the world and how I see it and I’m fascinated by that. I can go out there and look at a subject and arrange it in such a way that it will speak to someone else and we will have this non-verbal dialogue over time. That’s what fascinates me about making images. I do enjoy the process much better than the end results. Taking pictures and making them in the darkroom, I’m very much into the process of it. I lack a lot of follow-through; once I kind of made the image, I start to lose interest and move onto the next one, which I would say is another flaw of mine. Things not to do in photography.

Y: You did a project yourself called Ambiguous City Space. What were you trying to convey here?

Iain: I did that for my Master’s thesis and funny enough, I found some of the outtakes from that the other day. I wanted to do a project on Polaroid. This was a timeframe when Polaroid was about to die. I’ve always been interested in urbanism and if you asked me about my focus, that is what I would say. I was reading a lot of things about Paris in the 19th century and how the city was created as a spectacle to show off the wealth of the glory of the [French] Empire. As an opposite to that, I started to think about the unglamorous parts of the city. Every city has these areas — I call them ambiguous spaces — that are not clear in their meaning. They don’t have a didactic meaning like a parliament building does and is much more obscure than the parts between physical spaces. I went on an investigation for that and I gave myself the restriction of Polaroid because I knew it would be difficult to make a good exposure. Most cities have an eclectic accumulation of different styles and so Ambiguous City Space was really looking at the ambiguity in the modern urban environment; these overlaps and spaces that don’t quite make sense. When I first came to Canada, I was working for an architect — a lot of my friends are architects, I find them to be intelligent people. Of all the artists out there I find the architects to be the smartest and to be the most broadly interested in art theory, so a lot of that comes from conversations with them. Things like usage of public space, that was my motivation for it.

Y: What do you believe are the key tenets of an artist?

Iain: To be quite frank I don’t know if they [artists] owe anyone anything but from my perspective, [if you are] a working professional artist making a living out of this, you become a spokesman for the people in a sense. You are being afforded the liberties to reflect on the world in a leisurely way more than most people do. Most people have to work at a job from nine to five, but you somehow found your way into a position that your job is that of an artist. If you look at it that way, you’re looking on behalf of those people, so you have to try and show them something in a relevant way — something that will enrich their life, even if it’s in a very, very small way. Even when they look at the work and they feel excited by the colour or they feel intrigued by some aspect of the work, that you’re giving people something from the images you are making. It doesn’t always have to be something profound, it could just be the pleasure of seeing the pop of red that makes them feel excited at that particular moment. You make the work with others in mind because without someone interacting with your work then it’s nothing, you may as well not be doing it.

When you’re making your work you have to take some responsibility that you are trying to make something productive; creating a work that someone’s going to look at and connect with in some way, shape or form. Is it being intellectual, formal — be it purely aesthetically? You are creating something you feel is unique, that’s your viewpoint of the world and you’re trying to say to people “This is how I see things, do you share my view?” “How do you see the world?” Provoke them to take up a camera and take pictures; that’s probably the greatest compliment you can get as a photographer, I think. To show your work and have someone come up to you at your opening and say “I think this is really interesting and I want to do this myself”; that’s much more complimentary than someone saying “Your work is wonderful, I want to pay you $1000 for one of your prints.” Inspiring someone to do the same is really rewarding — that’s intellectually satisfying, emotionally satisfying and it tops any financial reward or pat-on-the-back could ever do.

Y: How should new photographers respond to the changes in technology?

Iain: They will have to adapt, but there will always be a use for photography. I think you’re probably sitting there right now wondering “Where am I going? What have I learned?” You’ve probably learned a lot more than you think you have and this will become clear to you as you move out of Ryerson; you’ll understand what exactly you’ve just learned. Part of that will be how you talk about the photograph — that’s something the many millions [of people] on Instagram don’t have. They can’t explain to you what they did, why it works, its success. They just know that it’s happening; because you understand these things, it gives you a distinct advantage. Because we are living in a world that is becoming more and more image-saturated.

Y: It was difficult finding your projects online but I was able to find one you did on the September 11 Attacks. Could you speak on it?

Iain: That’s probably the most conceptual work I’ve ever done. It was done on the first anniversary of 9/11. For me, it was a critique of the media and the way they responded to 9/11. I wrote a paper on that as well; basically, the thrust of the article was video captured that day better than photography and where photography really came into it was people making posters on the inkjet printers of their loved ones. And that was by far the most photography produced on that day, but [ I ] also analyzed photographs produced on that day. One of the things that came up to me was on the day after the attacks, something like 80% of U.S. newspapers carried a photograph of the second plane hitting the tower in this big orange explosion. No one wanted to show a picture of someone falling from the building.

For me, they had dehumanized the whole attack and they aestheticized it into this explosion. My thinking was “If you don’t show the actual death and destruction, you make it easier for people to respond in a similar way,” and you never see the human cost of that. I did a show where two of the walls were a repetition of a plane hitting the tower and one of the jumpers — very abstract in how the image was done. I basically took them from the media and stylized them very heavily in photoshop. One wall had this whole repetition of the plane hitting and the jumper, then a large poster of the plane coming in, a large image of a destroyed building and an image of Bin Laden and the anthrax letter to show the story is not over.

Y: Showing that letter garnered some controversy.

Iain: One of the things that I did with that show was that I didn’t put up my name. I didn’t leave a comments book, I really wanted people to deal with it. Students were writing little notes and sticking them onto the prints, which I found fascinating. I denied any possibility to comment on it yet they were trying to find ways. I think it was a first-year student that read that [anthrax letter] as an attack on Israel, which it was never intended to be. The dean at that time, a Jewish gentleman, stood up for me quite solidly saying “This is free speech being misinterpreted.”

That show would never fly today. I would probably be out of a job today; that complaint would have been taken a lot more seriously today than it was back then. I was fortunate that the Dean clued into the context of the show and understood that this was a misinterpretation of the show, but I’m not quite sure that would happen so easily today. It would have been a lot more controversial, held up to a lot more scrutiny and my motivations would have been questioned.

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Y: How has COVID-19 changed you and your life? And what will come of all this?

Iain: I think this will make us colder to each other. Social distancing has taken its toll. We will get a whole generation of young people who have been taught “don’t get too close to people.” It will ultimately have an impact unless we swing back to normal really quickly. Personally, it has reinforced where my life is going. I’ve become older now and a little more conservative about life and more of a homebody. Teaching is obviously different. I put the same amount of effort into lectures, but it’s not quite the same as having a face to see when you’re in class and you see a student falling asleep — you know when to wrap it up. Or you can see when a student needs a little bit of encouragement to speak like, “Yarden, what do you think about this?” so I still feel the same intensity in class. I feel if I had a couple more years working like this I could be quite more effective. I am starting to learn things that were working better online. I think one of the problems is that we are too tied to the old model and rather than understand that we are in a different environment, we try to take the old model fit in the new environment. Once we let go of the old model, there will be new classes that we can fit in.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.