Portraiture and time

“Lisa” (Ian Garrick Mason, 2015)

It took me a long time to come to portraiture as an art form.

I began taking photographs systematically only five years ago or so; equipped with a Blackberry provided by the consulting firm that employed me, I began snapping pictures of interesting things that happened to be on my way between the office and my commuter train. These things were entirely inanimate: buildings, alleyways, clouds, trees, windows. Little by little – and smartphone by smartphone – I followed my growing interest in the physical environment, and in the aspects that fascinated me most. I began to look at textures differently, at materials, at patterns; I began to see how buildings related to each other, and to the natural world they rested within; I began to notice infrastructure and its interlocking parts. There is beauty in rust and concrete, and in the unexpected discoveries waiting to be found in structures built to someone’s rational plan, long ago. Indeed, in the aging of buildings I came to feel a kinship with them. Their barnacles made them fellows to me, all of us travellers in time, all of us heading slowly towards our various ends.

Throughout this development I photographed only a few human faces, and these just casually. I didn’t come to portraiture as a natural next step in my photographic journey; rather, we met obliquely, the idea of it swinging in from a separate direction entirely. Or, perhaps, two directions.

The first, an artistic one – although even this one arising from a non-artistic impulse. Roughly in the same period that I began photographing objects, I decided to teach myself to draw. I had reached 40 (again, I say roughly), and my life so far had been dominated by symbols and symbolic logic: reading, writing, editing, researching, strategic thinking, business analytics, speaking. I am good at these things, so I decided to try something I was not good at: drawing – which seemed to me, in its total refusal to be symbolic about anything, the perfect and attractive opposite to all I had done before.

In my drawing practice – which primarily involved working through downloaded instructional books by mid-century illustrator Andrew Loomis – I found that faces were the things that interested me almost completely. Bodies were important, and rather thrilling when drawing them went well, but they also felt like a bit of a chore to a beginner: all those relative proportions to remember, and, usually, to get frustratingly wrong. But faces were different. They demanded attention to proportion too, but when they came together properly an entire person emerged: a character, a personality, a rogue with a hard glint in his eye, a beautiful woman with gentleness in hers. This felt like creation itself.

The second direction was professional and personal at the same time. As a consultant, it had always been a large part of my job to meet a range of new people, both client employees and fellow consultants from my own office or from other cities, and to quickly learn how to work with them. In time I had to sell work to new clients, and so business development (the modern word for “sales”) became part of my daily life – which meant regular networking over coffees and at events. Eventually I took on roles as a recruiter and mentor too. Meeting people – finding them, talking with them, understanding them, becoming friends with the ones who clicked – became a large source of pleasure in my life, as well as a professional imperative.

Portraiture, for me, emerges from the confluence of these two forces: from my fascination with the human face and its power to convey personality and uniqueness, and from my pleasure in getting to know people in real life. And as these forces merged with my interest in built-environment photography – a merger which, I think, partly accounted for my shift from drawn portraiture to photographed portraiture – they picked up some of its attributes, including an attentiveness to structure over cladding, to the relationship of elements to each other, and to the subtle, beautiful details of texture and colour and shape.

Perhaps it’s about mortality too. We all drift through time on a river we have no choice but to travel down. A portrait captures one moment in this journey. In its realness, it connects us to each other though we’re in separate vessels. In its stillness and permanence, it gives us – for as long as we hang onto it and as many times as we wish to look at it – a glimpse of forever.

The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

Ian Garrick Mason’s portraits and architectural photography can be seen here www.iangarrickmason.com

The Problems with Patterson’s Heinlein Biography

Robert A. Heinlein
Robert A. Heinlein



I reviewed the late William Patterson’s new biography of the writer Robert Heinlein for the New Republic. Because the New Republic is a general interest magazine, I focused my review on only one of major complaints against Patterson (that he lacked critical distance from Heinlein). But I had many more problems with Patterson which I thought wouldn’t be of interest to a New Republic readership but should be noted for the record. In general, these complaints grow from the initial problem noted in the New Republic article (lack of critical distance) but are more detailed.

In no particular order, the problems with the book are:

1. Lack of curiosity about Heinlein’s ties to the far right. Heinlein wrote an article for the October 1960 issue of The American Mercury titled “’Pravada’ Means ‘Truth’”. The interesting thing about this anti-communist article is the venue: by 1960 the American Mercury, once edited by H.L. Mencken but fallen on hard times, was an anti-Semitic far right journal. People who were otherwise very conservative – notably William F. Buckley and William Rusher, both of National Review – warned their fellow right-wingers not to publish in it. In fact, National Review had a policy that anyone who published in the American Mercury could not publish in the National Review. When you consider how racist National Review was in the 1950s, the embargo on the American Mercury is astonishing.  Heinlein had a very good record on anti-Semitism, having denounced it since the 1930s and even breaking friendships with anti-Semites. So what was he doing writing for the American Mercury (which had a jibe against Jews in the very issue Heinlein published in)? Patterson doesn’t ask.

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Hilton Kramer: A Dissenting Obituary

Hilton Kramer: cover photo for The Revenge of the Philistines

Hilton Kramer, the art critic and founding editor of The New Criterion who died at age 84 earlier this week, rather enjoyed his own reputation for being fearsome and formidable. Take a look at the back cover of his essay collection The Revenge of the Philistines (1985) where Kramer presents himself to the world as a very severe killjoy, almost like a caricature of the critic as hanging judge. “Would it kill him to crack a smile?” a friend asked when he saw that photo. (The photo is pasted above).

Yet as off-putting as he could seem from afar, Kramer enjoyed many close collaborators and admirers, who are already bearing witness to his virtues. Since others writers are making the case on behalf of Kramer,  I want to enter a few dissenting notes about his writing and public presence.

Back in his salad days in the early 1950s, Kramer’s big break came from publishing in Partisan Review and he saw himself as heir to that magazine’s stance of being both politically and aesthetically engaged. Unfortunately, his politics were absurd. He started off as a cold war liberal (with perhaps a few social democratic sympathies). In the early 1960s even served as art critic for The Nation, an alliance that both he and the magazine would later regard with bemused puzzlement.  In reaction to the turmoil of the late 1960s Kramer became a very fierce and unbending neo-conservative, of the sort that prefers ideological purity to any acknowledgement of reality.

In a 1987 essay on Sidney Hook, Kramer with his characteristic obtuse overconfidence argued that Mikhail Gorbachev was a far bigger threat to the free world than Joseph Stalin had ever been. “Under Stalin, both the military power of the Soviet Union and its vast espionage apparatus were seen to constitute a danger to every non-Communist society in the world – yet Gorbachev commands a far greater war machine than any Stalin ever had at his disposal, and if recent revelations are any guide, a no less effective espionage network,” Kramer asserted. “By every significant measure, the Soviet Union is a far more formidable adversary today than it was forty years ago, and one of the things that makes it more formidable is its unbroken record of conquest in the intervening years. It already enjoys an unchallenged hegemony in more parts of the world than it did forty years ago, and the momentum of its drive to seek further conquests shows no sign of abatement.” Equally in keeping with his impervious intellectual manner was the fact that when Kramer reprinted this essay in his 1999 collection The Twilight of the Intellectuals he carefully excised this passage, displaying an appropriately Soviet willingness to re-write history.

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Van Gogh and Weimar Democracy


Over at the National Post, I have a review of Modris Eksteins’ Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age, which makes a provocative but not wholly convincing case linking the Van Gogh cult with the failure of Weimar democrcacy. You can read the review here.

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Guy Davenport: Learning How to Die

Guy Davenport, 1964, as recorded by Jonathan Williams.


In his last letter to his sister Gloria Williamson, written shortly before he succumbed to cancer, Guy Davenport wrote, “”I hope you’re as happy as I am.”

In an essay on Gerard Manly Hopkins, Davenport quoted the poet’s last words: “I am so happy.” Another Davenport essay about Ludwig Wittgenstein gives the philosopher’s last words: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” Elsewhere Davenport quoted the ancient Egyptian adage “A man’s paradise is his own good nature.”

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Denis Dutton, RIP (Part I)

Denis Dutton

The late Denis Dutton, who created the website Arts and Letters Daily and who died at the end of last year, was a someone who I had fairly complicated feelings towards. In the early years of ALD (especially from 2000 to 2004) he used to link to my articles fairly frequently, and this gave a huge boost to my career, giving me a much larger and more international audience. Still I had issues with Dutton’s worldview and also the impact of some of his intellectual activism. Below is an essay I wrote for the Globe and Mail earlier this year which tries to sort out Dutton’s legacy (I’ll have a follow-up post soon).

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Canada Reads: Life Raft and Lottery

Reading on the Life Raft
Over at the Walrus I have a think-piece about the meaning of the CBC Radio program Canada Reads, which I use as a jumping off point for a larger discussion of the difficulties facing Canadian literature. The article can be found here.
An excerpt:
As an inciter of excitement about our literature, Canada Reads is inarguably a phenomenon. The show’s triumph has come during a difficult decade in which both CBC and the Canadian publishing industry need all the success stories they can find. In a time of rising flood waters, Canada Reads has been a life raft for both public broadcasting and literature. Given how necessary Canada Reads has become to writers and publishers, it seems churlish to question the show. But the very power of Canada Reads, now a national public institution on many levels, demands that we give it greater scrutiny