KEREMIDSCHIEFF, Vladimir




Author Tags: Photography

Back in the days when the times really were a’changin’, Vladimir Keremidschieff spent seven years documenting the social shenanigans of Vancouver with his 35 mm Pentax, giving rise to his rare panorama, Seize the Time: Vancouver Photographed, 1967-1974 (New Star $24), a collection of one hundred b&w freelance images shot for Georgia Straight, Vancouver Sun, The Province and his own pleasure.

Along with portraits of Pierre Trudeau and the much-maligned “developer” Mayor Tom “Terrific” Campbell—no relation to Gord, at least genetically—Keremidschieff documented the so-called hippie era and the pop music scene with concert images of Cream, Blind Faith, Phil Ochs, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan and The Band, and many more.

While Sieze the Time chiefly reflects the so-called counter-culture of this volatile period, from downtown protests to squatters on the North Shore mudflats, some less dramatic photos—such a female cabbie for Black Top taxi—are more in keeping with the documentary resolve of colour photographer Fred Herzog.

Born in Germany in 1947, Keremidschieff grew up in Australia and came to Vancouver in 1957. When he and his wife left Vancouver in 1974 to sail to the South Pacific, he put his negatives in storage where they remained for almost forty years. In 2011 he began selecting and scanning the best of his images for Seize the Time. Keremidschieff now lives in Sydney, Australia, where he teaches English as a second language.
9781554200740

[BCBW 2013]

Reviews of the author's work by BC Studies:
Seize the Time: Vancouver Photographed, 1967-1974

MY BACK PAGES--THE STORY BEHIND THE PHOTOS
Foreword (2013)


from From New Star Books

IF MY FRIEND CHRIS HAD GONE TO JAIL after being arrested for smoking marijuana in Los Angeles, I might never have become interested in photography. As it turned out, he was never charged and was free to return to Vancouver, his hometown. He had gone to L.A., met a woman and decided to stay there (love does that). However, after his arrest he returned to Vancouver for Christmas. He brought with him a new Honeywell Pentax Spotmatic 35mm camera (outside of the U.S. it was known as the Asahi Pentax). We took pictures of each other walking along Denman Street in the West End, sitting in trees, fooling around on the beaches in the cold, cloudy winter. We photographed everything we saw — shop windows, statues, peeling paint, birds and squirrels and seagulls, boats, gutters full of debris, cobwebs and trees — it didn’t matter what, we were having fun. So much so that when Chris realized he had made a mistake coming back to Vancouver and returned to L.A. and his woman, I went out and bought my own Pentax and, through trial and error, learned how to use it.
When I bought my Pentax in 1967, I wasn’t even 21 and was already married. (I no longer have the camera but my wife is still with me.) The following year we drove our lumbering dark-green Dodge Fargo flower-delivery van, Ours is a Blooming Business, to Banff for a summer school course in photography. It was at the Banff School of Fine Arts, in the magnificent Rocky Mountains, that I fell in love with the darkroom.
We were surrounded by the breathtaking beauty of the mountains, the glories of incredibly clear blue mountain lakes, an exuberant mother nature showing off what it can do — a setting that could make you believe in God. But I found the most joy in the weird darkness of the photographic darkroom. I loved the smell of the chemicals, the eerie glow of the red light, the solitude of working in that dull twilight, seeing my photograph slowly emerge from the chemical bath. This was the most satisfying thing I had ever done; photography was no longer just a hobby or a plaything. I had a need and a desire to learn more. I felt I had to take photographs, I had to be in a darkroom making prints, I had to be good at it. This would be no small thing.
Photography is not all that complicated. There are a few basic rules and firstly you get good at them, learn to really understand them, and then you break them. I used up many rolls of 35mm film, gallons of chemicals and probably thousands of sheets of photographic paper that ended up in the garbage to learn how to control the medium, to understand the technology and make it do what I wanted. Of course, it’s not just technique that makes a good photograph. Some technically excellent photographs are boring while some remarkable photographs may lack good technique but have that undefinable quality that reaches out and touches the viewer.
The mid-to-late sixties were boisterous times. God wasn’t in the mountains and streams but in marijuana, LSD and music. The music came from England, from New York, from San Francisco and Los Angeles and drifted up like smoke into Vancouver, turning everyone on. Led Zeppelin came in 1969 and played at the PNE Agrodome. They weren’t yet famous enough for the larger Pacific Coliseum where the Monkees had played a few months earlier. I photographed Phil Ochs playing a free concert at Second Beach in 1970. He did a lot of that, he was always available to help out. He suffered mental problems later, became an alcoholic and lived on the streets for a while. Just six years after his wonderful free concert in Stanley Park he hung himself. Acts such as Frank Zappa, Peter, Paul and Mary, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Cream and Blind Faith, Ike and Tina Turner, Paul Butterfield, the Velvet Underground, James Brown and the Rolling Stones put Vancouver on the music map. Van Morrison played at the War Memorial Gym at UBC. Ella Fitzgerald played at the Cave Supper Club. Blues artists, folk singers, hard rock acts, jazz masters — all visited and opened minds and doors.
In 1965 Bob Dylan played the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. You could buy tickets for $2 — or $4 if you wanted premium seats. He’d already released five albums by then. When we discovered his first album in 1962, we were blown away. Dylan wrote in his autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One, that listening to Roy Orbison “made you want to drive your car over a cliff.” Listening to those early Dylan recordings was like having a dump truck explode in your head. He could make the blind see, the deaf hear and the righteous weep. I didn’t get a chance to photograph him until 1974, in Seattle. It was the last photo I had printed in the Vancouver Sun.
Besides dope and music, the other defining event of this era was the Vietnam War and all that went with it. Although Canada was not sending soldiers to the jungles of Vietnam, there were constant protests against Canada’s complicity in the war. Canadian companies made fortunes selling war materiel to America. Some 2.5 billion dollars of napalm, explosives and ammunition was sold to the Pentagon by approximately five hundred Canadian companies. Supplementary material such as boots, berets and food brought in another ten billion dollars. Canada also aided the war effort by providing training grounds for the U.S. military — American bomber pilots practised carpet-bombing techniques in Alberta. While about ten thousand Canadians joined the U.S. military, approximately thirty-two thousand American draft dodgers and deserters fled to Canada. These Americans helped to radicalize Canadian youth. University, college, and even high school students were at the forefront of the anti-war demonstrations.
In October, 1968, Vancouverites participated in the International Day of Protest against the war. Protest marches with signs, banners and music gradually became larger and larger as more and more Vietnamese and Americans died in the paddy fields and jungles and cities of Vietnam. The Tet offensive in Vietnam exposed the weakness of the American position and the lies the American military had been feeding the public. Even middle-class Canadians, moms and dads, turned against the war. It wasn’t until 1995 that the then Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, finally admitted that the whole thing was a terrible mistake. We knew that long before he did.
Nineteen sixty-eight was one of the most turbulent years of the era. Martin Luther King was murdered in April and some 110 American cities went up in flames, resulting in the deaths of at least thirty-six people. Students rioted in Paris, and in May a general strike by eleven million workers across France paralysed the nation. In June, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. On August 21, Russian and Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to suppress the “Prague Spring.” A few days later the infamous Democratic Convention took place in Chicago, resulting in over 100 demonstrators being sent to hospital and even more arrested. Richard Nixon became president in November. The year ended with the three astronauts of Apollo 8 circling the moon for the first time, in preparation for next year’s Apollo 11 moon landing.
Two years later, in October, 1970, there was another round of massive protests when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act of 1914 in response to the kidnappings of British High Commissioner James Cross and the Quebec Minister of Labour, Pierre Laporte. A week after kidnapping Laporte, the FLQ (Front de libération du Québec) announced that he had been killed. Heavily armed soldiers patrolled the streets of Quebec. Nearly five hundred people were arrested without warrant but only sixty-two ended up being charged with any offense. Although the majority of Canadians supported the implementation of the Act, a vocal minority staged protests around the country decrying the use of the military in what was seen as essentially a criminal matter. Vancouver mayor Tom Campbell issued a statement saying that he could use the provisions of the Act to clean out the hippies in Vancouver. He quickly backtracked after a storm of protest, including from the federal government, which pointed out that this was not the intent or proper use of the Act.
For all the turbulence of the times, there was a great optimism among the young. We felt we could change the world, change it into a better place with more freedom and greater understanding. While some things were clearly for the better, such as the art, the music, the sexual revolution, women’s liberation, and the confrontation with racism, it’s difficult some forty years later to say that the “revolution” was successful. Some things are better. Some are worse. Life is like that.
In 1968 I opened a small studio-cum-darkroom in a shopfront on Yew Street, half a block off Fourth Avenue, and began freelancing photos to the newspapers and looking for customers. The first photos I published were in the The Province. I should remember how it came to be, but I don’t. I just know that one of the first photos was of jazz great Lionel Hampton at Isy’s Supper Club on West Georgia Street. A few weeks later I shot Little Richard there. After that, I began to do some of the big concerts that came into town.
It was pretty hectic as I wasn’t allowed to use the newspaper facilities: after a shoot I’d race to my darkroom, hoping I had something useable, develop the film, make a print (or perhaps two), and then hightail it to the newspaper offices in the newly built Pacific Press building on Granville Street, near the south end of the Granville Bridge. Time was tight. Often shows didn’t begin until after 9:00 or 9:30 and the deadline for photos was 11:00. It didn’t leave me much time to get a shot and come up with a print. Sometimes I drove down the street waving the print out the window, trying to dry it as I sped along the quiet streets in my old VW Karmann Ghia. It was tight but fun. And you always had to have a shot — that’s the unwavering rule of newspaper photography. After all, there was a hole in the paper where your photo would go with the review and if you didn’t have a useable photo, well, you had a very short career in newspapers. Editors are funny that way: they expect you to come up with the goods, on time, every time. I may have handed in some still damp prints but I never missed a deadline.
For a number of years I fed photos to Vancouver’s “underground” newspaper, the Georgia Straight, which in its early days managed to outrage just about everybody at some time or another, and was the most persecuted newspaper in Canada’s history. I don’t remember ever getting paid for anything I gave to the Straight, but if I did it was very little. I didn’t really care. This was about photography, not money.
In May, 1969, the Straight published a two-page spread of my Aldergrove Pop Festival pictures. A couple of days later I heard a large motorcycle draw up at my shop front. A biker with a beard, tattoos and denim came through the door. He was as big as a truck, and looked mean as a cut snake.
“Are you Vlad, the photographer?” he bellowed at me.
I wasn’t sure whether to admit to it or not but the shop front was plastered with photos. This wasn’t looking good. I couldn’t figure out what he was after. He asked whether I had taken the photos of the Aldergrove Festival and again, it was hard to deny as my name was all over them. A big smile broke through the beard; he grabbed my hand and shook it vigorously.
“Man, they were great shots. Can we get some of our colours?”
Of course! I had a photo published of his motorcycle gang crawling all over the stage during an act, wearing their colours, the large patch on the back of their denim jackets that identified their gang. For the next month or so I had gang members dropping in at the shop, sitting around on the floor smoking (I didn’t have chairs), their big bikes parked out front. They turned out to not be as tough as they thought they were, but they certainly added an element of colour to my place, an element that wasn’t good for clients. Fortunately, they eventually got bored with me and disappeared. I never even saw any of them on the streets around Fourth Avenue after that.
For the audience a concert is an aural experience, but for the photographer it’s a visual event. Photography is all about light; the word itself means “writing with light.” If there’s not enough of it there to make an image on film you carry your own light, or you go home and put up your feet. Without adequate light, you have nothing. The question is, what’s adequate? It appeared that the nightclubs and the early concerts didn’t seem overly concerned about lighting. A black stage, a spot or two and that was it. Even worse, sometimes they used a blue or red spot. Nothing you can do then as you can’t use a flash during a performance. Might as well sit down and listen to the music. But you can’t do that either; you have to get a shot. How far can the film and the developing be pushed to come up with a useable print?
I was always a black and white photographer and for concerts I used only Kodak Tri-X film. It’s rated at 400 ASA, which is not nearly enough for most entertainment situations, so I pushed it to 800, 1200 and even 1600, four times its rating. This is pushing the film to its very limits. The result is a very “thin” negative with not much detail in the blacks and often over-exposed faces. The skill lies in creating a print from a negative that you shouldn’t be able to print — but I didn’t know that it couldn’t be done. I learned pretty quickly how to breathe life into these near dead negatives, and even if the shot wasn’t exactly award-winning, it was printable in a newspaper. Pushing film like this creates grain but sometimes the grain adds to the appeal of the photo, giving it an interesting texture. I spent hours and hours experimenting with film, developers and print-making, tweaking processes to come up with a useable and interesting print.
Although the lighting at that time couldn’t compete with modern concerts with their flash and dash, security was far easier. With a camera around your neck you often got access in front of the stage. More than once a roadie even beckoned me up on stage to shoot from the wings, which would be impossible today without a long drawn-out negotiation with the promoter and security guards and the artist’s manager, and passes of various colours hanging around your neck. Security was much more relaxed. It was another fifteen or so years before John Lennon was murdered and rock stars felt they were targets.
Having worked under tight deadlines with poor lighting, shooting in the daytime was a breeze. I covered all kinds of daytime events — demonstrations, the “be-ins” in Stanley Park, pop festivals. In 1969 I covered the Aldergrove Pop Festival, the Paradise Valley Pop Festival and a big festival in nearby Seattle. It was the year of festivals. From August 15 to 19 the most famous festival of all took place at Woodstock. The year ended with the Rolling Stones headlining the infamous Altamont Speedway Free Festival in December. An audience member, Meredith Hunter, pulled out a gun and was stabbed by one of the Hells Angels gang members that were hired (for $500 worth of beer) as security guards. Three others died in accidents. It signalled the end of the peace and love “hippie era.”
Much has been written lately about rock photography. While taking photos at concerts has its own problems, such as lighting, crowds, and access to a good spot to shoot from, in other respects it is similar to any kind of shoot. You always try to get a shot that says something about the subject, the event and, inevitably and unconsciously, about the photographer. The 1969 photo I took of Eric Clapton when he was with Blind Faith has an almost religious quality to it, embodying the famous graffiti “Clapton is God,” which began appearing all over London in 1965 when he played with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. In another shot, Leo Lyons, bass player for Ten Years After, throws his bass into the air, hair flying, a smile on his lips. It shows something not only about Leo and his style, but about the exuberance and the joy of rock and roll. It’s one of my favourite pictures. I have two photos of Janis Joplin in this collection. One shows her hard-drinking, hard-living life, on and off stage, as she drinks from a bottle of tequila, lemon slice in hand. But the other photo, a close-up, shows another side of Joplin: the soulful blues singer, the gentle, vulnerable Janis that made her one of the greatest female blues singers of her generation.
I loved taking street pictures of the life around me. I never did much nature photography and I hated setting up shots, fiddling with lights and backdrops, posing people. Studio work was not for me. I liked to work with what was there in front of me. Just leave it alone and become invisible, and work out the problems as you go along. For me, capturing the moment meant letting the moment reveal itself and being ready when it came. I practiced this on the streets of Vancouver, learned how to pre-focus and estimate exposure so that when it came time to take a photo, I’d need as little adjustment as possible. There are many photographs being taken all the time but only a few capture this moment. Speed is essential, as things change instantly and if you’re not ready, the shot’s gone.
There is a certain ambiguity to many street photos. Who are these people, what are they doing? The photo “Two men and a lady, 1969” invites the viewer in to wonder about the moment: why does the woman look so worried? What’s on her mind? The three stand on the corner, waiting for the light to change, each in his or her own world — the loneliness of the city.
My first newspaper job where I was an employee and actually received a steady salary was at the Lions Gate Times, based in West Vancouver and run by the remarkably-named Cloudesley Shovell Quentin Hoods­pith. He interviewed me for the job in a café on West Tenth Avenue, a few blocks from the University of British Columbia. I’d never been interviewed for a job in a café but I thought this was cool. He bought me a coffee. After browsing through my portfolio, he asked a couple of questions and hired me on the spot. I began work the following Monday morning and seldom saw him again.
Suburban newspaper photography is about two things: pets and children. If you can get both in one shot, so much the better. There’s a simple economic imperative behind this — every mother will buy at least half a dozen copies of the paper if it has her little darling in it. The larger the family and circle of friends, the more copies she’ll buy. For a photographer starting out in journalism, there probably isn’t a better training ground. Within a year, the Vancouver Sun offered me a part-time job as one of their photographers. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, and it wasn’t long before I was doing almost as much work as any of the full-timers at the paper. Throughout it all, I was still able to keep my regular customers. I did publicity shots for the Vancouver Symphony and the Vancouver Playhouse. It was fun going to symphony rehearsals and shooting pictures of conductors such as Simon Streatfeild, Meredith Davis and Kazuyoshi Akiyama. I also did work for the UBC Chronicle, the alumni association’s quarterly magazine, which at that time was under the steady hand of Clive Cocking.
Things were going well, but that irrepressible urge to travel, to break from the confines of what was becoming an increasingly middle-class lifestyle, was rising within me and my wife. We were doing okay, but I had spent much of my time since high school travelling, and that was no longer possible. I couldn’t just take off and expect to come back to life as it was. In mid-1974 we went to Seattle to see Bob Dylan and the Band. The Sun published a photo of mine, although I was no longer working for them, and it was the last waltz for me in Vancouver. We packed a few things, placed our furniture with friends and took off for a year’s trip through the South Pacific. We ended up in Australia. It was five years before we returned to Vancouver. We never lived there again.

Vladimir Keremidschieff
Summer 2013