Artist Mentors I: Paul Lowry, Madman or Genius?

Many of us know that we’d never be the artists we are today if it wasn’t for the inspiration we received from our artist mentors of the past. I found mine at university in the departments of photography and art history. There, a few special professors brought art to life in a way I’d never experienced it before. The passion and commitment they instilled in me continues to guide me. Today, I’d like tell you about Paul Lowry, my non-silver photography teacher.

Anna Atkins, Algae (Cyanotype) in "Photographs of British Algae -- Cyanotype Impressions" (1843-53)

Anna Atkins, Algae (Cyanotype) in "Photographs of British Algae -- Cyanotype Impressions" (1843-53)

Non-silver photography offers alternative methods of making photographs not based in traditional gelatin silver emulsion. One such example being using a photocopier as a camera to make pictures. Another, made popular over a century ago, involves making special chemically-based light-sensitive papers to create blue (Cyanotype) and deep brown (Vandyke) tinted images. Printable on watercolour paper or fabric, the exquisite images this latter technique produces is an amazing blend of the handmade and mechanical worlds. Seduced by its expressive potential, students flocked to register for the non-silver class. I was drawn to it for its collage potential. In previous years, I’d seen students layering photographic negatives to make cool surreal images and was eager to learn the process. At first I hesitated taking it… my butter fingers approach to first-year photography hadn’t exactly inspired confidence in my abilities as a fledgling photographer. But, I crossed my fingers and dove in!

Paul Lowry was new to the department; I remember he commuted to Ottawa from Montreal for the class and always looked a bit rumpled after the trip. He was a middle-aged, unassuming man with curly brown hair. When he spoke, however, we all took notice as he animatedly relayed the history of photography and its methods to us. His dramatic manner of speaking was reminiscent of a master magician about to relay his most prized ruse to his apprentices… but more often than not, he reminded me of a mad scientist! If you caught a glimpse of his work, you might think that Paul had stepped out of a time long ago to make his photographs which looked like they had been spirited away from the fictional labs of Victor Frankenstein or Henry Jekyll! (His Unstill Photograph: “First Sight” is a great example of this!) But Professor Lowry was not mad; he was a photographic genius, a great story teller and a splendid actor. His images almost always involved himself as the main character. His grotesquely contorted and anguished figure added a deep, dark psychological and sometimes mythological mysterious element to his work. His art: part photo; part drawing and part painting (and now animation) has the ability to touch and disturb viewers on many levels. As students, many of us wanted to absorb Paul’s inventive and intensive approach to art making.

One day I remember struggling in the dark room with a couple of classmates wondering what the hell Paul meant when he said we needed a “punchy” negative. Confused, we nervously went about our work as he stood watching. Eventually we confessed to him that we had no two clues as to what we were doing (!) and further we didn’t know if we’d be able to survive the technical end of the class! We had nothing to fear — Paul told us all we needed to know and more. We were then free to roam wherever our imaginations took us! I can’t tell you what a feeling that was… it was like free-falling!… it was finally being able to unleash our wishes, fears and demons into the world… it made us feel like real artists. I remember transforming an image of a business man into a corporate toy doll; I even devised a special cabinet to house my dreams and nightmares!

As a result of Professor Lowry’s teaching, we happily worked over-time to bring our creative visions to life. In his class, the photo lab became a wonderland! Paul had a way of instilling confidence in everyone with his enthusiasm for their ideas. Asking compelling questions that struck at our minds and souls, he also made us realize the responsibility that came with putting images out into the world. We worked hard to consider the meaning behind the icons we used, the marks we made and the stories we wished to tell.

Paul Lowry, that wonderful teacher – artist, scientist, magician, and genius. I don’t know what he’s up to now. But I did locate his website. If you like you can stop by and lose yourself in the amazing worlds he creates.

Everyone needs artist mentors to push them further in the field. Did you have any artist mentors? Who are they? Did they come from the field of art or some other space? I’d love to hear your stories too. Soon I’ll be posting another entry related to making your own cyanotype prints so stay tuned…

Other Related Links:
Paul Lowry’s Website
Non-Silver Photographic Processes
Anna Atkins, Mistress of Blueprint Manor (by Liz Hager)

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