|Written by David Brittain|
|09 Oct 2008|
Hard data may be thin on the ground, but everything suggests the 1970s witnessed a boom in photography magazines internationally. If the details finally emerge and a map can be drawn, the quality and singularity of Canadian titles will be acknowledged. One of the most enduring was Image Nation that came out of Toronto’s dynamic culture of small presses. Throughout the ’70s and into the ’80s, IN was edited by the American, David Hlynsky. Compared with many magazines in the same sector, IN was eclectic, laid back and open-minded. Over time, formats changed while its themes roamed from 3-D and children’s photography to news wires.
David Brittain: Let’s start with your background, and your history in magazines – was it journalism or photography that drew you?
David Hlynsky: I attended art school at Ohio State University. There was no photography programme within the art department as abstract expressionism still reigned... pop was just catching hold and conceptualism hadn’t caught our attention. This was also the time of the Vietnam War and the hippy generation. Our aesthetic was an odd mix of hippy romanticism, hard left politics and psychedelic surrealism. We made photo illustrations that expressed those values and also subscribed to the school of 35mm black and white documentary photography. In 1971, I moved to Toronto and began to work at Coach House Press, a small literary publisher. Image Nation had evolved from a newsletter for an alternative (free) university and had become a photo arts showcase. I took it over after three photo issues.
DB: In the 1970s the British began setting up a support system for photography of publications, grants, galleries and so on. It was to some extent modelled on the one developed in the US. Did Canada have the same mission to champion art photography?
DH: Yes, during the Trudeau era (1968–84) there were quite a few initiatives and grants aimed at cultural development. Many of these have survived and matured into bureaucracies today. A keystone in this development was a large network of regional “artist-run” galleries, production facilities and magazines. These continue to be born, evolve and flourish today.
DB: Am I right in thinking there are keen differences between regions, that geography or language have a big affect?
DH: It’s important to understand Canadian geography. Canada is the second largest country on Earth after Russia. Our population is roughly 30 million, located mostly in the south and this makes most of our closest neighbours American. US cultural influence is dynamic and relentless.
If you were to travel across Canada from Atlantic to Pacific, you’d discover smaller regional populations with distinctive characters. Atlantic fishing culture, Quebec (a fiercely defensive island of old French colonial culture). Then Ontario and the industries around the Great Lakes. Toronto and Montreal are both large metropolitan cities filled with Asian, Caribbean, Middle Eastern and European immigrants.
Then to the west we have the vast flat and empty prairie lands: cattle, wheat and oil... conservative values, very small towns. Then the great geological barrier of the Rocky Mountains – some resource industry there. And finally the Pacific coast with rich natural resources, very independent liberal-minded, hippyish communities contrasted with huge resource industry conservatives – and this all closely connected to the US West Coast and the Pacific rim, San Francisco and Tokyo. The result is that Canadian culture is a sparse and fragile necklace of diverse populations hovering just north of the American cultural machine. Our struggle has been to understand our own cultural diversity while resisting US cultural pressures.
Our greatest problem is the sparseness of our audience and market place and the ease with which American product can move north and become cheaper competition.
Now I’ve said that our population feels cultural pressure from the US. We also feel a vast natural wilderness to the north of us. Toronto is on roughly the same latitude as Rome... Canadian land mass goes clear to the North Pole. In the latitudes occupied by Europe, (and in a much larger longitudinal land mass) Canada has forests, lakes, rivers.
Two forces influence our search for cultural identity. Powerhouse Empire to the south... Sublime wilderness to the north. Canadians maintain connections with each other via long stretches of highway, a railroad and a radio network... The closest big cities are often a long day’s drive apart. Imagine this and consider the problems of book distribution!
DB: What was the impulse to found Image Nation? Who was involved?
DH: We were a bunch of left-leaning hippies, poets and artists. To think our effort was entirely conscious would be a mistake. I think that true artists are simply those members of a very small human population who simply have no other choice. We simply found ourselves scratching the same itch together... and it was gloriously productive. We had a printing press and printed 50 titles a year as well as posters, fine prints and a flood of ephemera. Great artists passed through.
DB: Was it government supported?
DH: Image Nation was supported in part by grants and in part by our own passionate stupidity about the value of our own labour. We worked for free mostly and never thought twice about it. The book was the important thing.
DB: Did the funders demand that you to keep Image Nation “Canadian”?
DH: If there was pressure to stay Canadian, I didn’t mind it... I didn’t call it pressure. I saw it as an exuberant celebration of Canadian liberalism. I loved every moment of it... it was so refreshing after the redneck values of pro-war, anti-hippy, America. It just seemed smarter and there was really a lot of material to choose from. As the 1970s evolved, arts groups like the Western Front and General Idea began to promote the concept of a borderless international culture. I was always surprised by how much young Canadians travelled abroad – and this was in stark contrast to my more myopic American friends.
I actually felt that Canadian artists were very willing to embrace multiculturalism and international cultural networks. If there was a thread of Canadian nationalism in it all, I saw it as a modest defence against American mass media.
I still feel that, although I now see that nationalist habits may have also spawned a mild isolationism. We are not very good at trumpeting our successes to the US, Europe and Pacific Rim. The internet will change that but it may take another generation.
DB: Which critical/artistic currents informed your tenure? Also, where did you look for inspiration as editor – any other photography magazines, other cultural titles?
DH: Nothing that academic. But there was a strong neo-Dada current in Canadian culture then. We were close to a group of artists in Vancouver called The Western Front (they still thrive) and they were connected with FLUXUS, and a larger international network of artists.
DB: And who were the big Canadian talents then?
DH: Michael Snow, Western Front, General Idea, the artists in the Isaacs and Lamanna Galleries [in Toronto]. American pop artists. Some photographers like Ralph Gibson, Diane Arbus, Friedlander, Winogrand, Les Krims. The Visual Studies Workshop stable... If you look at these you can see that multiple streams existed even then.
DB: It seems to me to be very unlike most photo magazines of the time because it seems heedless of the sorts of debates that polarised the sector in the UK (eg, “documentary” versus “constructed”; black and white versus colour; conceptual versus “art” and so on). Does that ring true? And if so what does that suggest – that your constituency was pluralistic or at least more tolerant?
DH: I have never believed in one photography. Rather I experience a multiplicity of photographies, each a dialect of a larger language. No photograph is really “truthful” – all are editorial opinions. The degree of construction may vary – and the degree to which construction is self-evident will change from one photo to another. But every photograph is made during a similar momentary impulse to record some visual sensation with hopes that it will become a visual message. Ansel Adams, Garry Winogrand and Cindy Sherman all choose to twitch their shutter finger exactly when the contents of the frame pleased their political and aesthetic agendas.
I have shot both ways myself. I once spent five years making frequent trips to Communist Europe (http://davidhlynsky.com); I made 8,000 Hasselblad negatives, each at roughly 1/125 of a second. All together my work represents about 90 seconds worth of random moments in the lives of a vast and long-lived population. Out of that series, I have shown perhaps only three or four hundred images. How could this be anything more than a constructed reality?
The differences between documentary, constructed, conceptual, fine art, colour, black and white, snapshot, scientific, big format, small format and the like are nothing more than reflections of differences in the personalities of the photographers. I didn’t want to live in just one small community of practitioners. Rather I wanted to relish the linguistic differences between one person’s photography and another.
DB: The magazine manifested itself in different forms – the “Murder Research” issue seems so different from the “3-D” issue and so on. Can you explain the philosophy behind that?
DH: Well, as with the previous question, I see many different impulses to the act of making pictures and many resultant differences. Photography is made of impulse and light and exists easily in the many media of the information age: television, film, video, slide shows, internet. It is the natural visual language of the Information Age: quicker than painting, less inherently physical as well as more naturally ephemeral. [In the ’70s] the information age was about to dawn. So we made a magazine that celebrated the diversity of photography.
DB: Looking back, how would you say that era was distinct from the present day?
DH: I left the magazine in 1984, just before the personal computer began to become widely available. Production then was physical, costly and time consuming. Design was difficult to accomplish on a tight budget and good production was beyond our reach. Distribution was also done by hand; inventory control, mailing lists, invoices and accounts were very labour intensive. We could not reach a distribution plateau that could pay good people a good wage. We produced a magazine that sold retail for $6.00 but cost $6.00 to make. We lost money on every wholesale sale. We were gloriously blind to business realities.
Today computers would solve distribution, accounting, design and production problems. Ironically, of course, the internet and CD-ROM have made paper production less necessary. I still dream of real books for real libraries (do you know anyone who might want to publish my Communist Store Window series?)… But I realise that physical production and distribution is still driven by market tastes – and the more strange a book is, the fewer people there are who want to taste it.
DB: What about the politics of the culture?
DH: The baby boom was a political phenomenon in itself. We were bad, sexy and rebellious and there were a lot of us. The political right was small minded – we were psychedelic. Everything was political. Looking back on it there were also quiet conservatives. We did change the world but it has been a collective enterprise filled with contradiction. The dance is not over.