40 at 40: Photographing one of NOW’s most challenging covers

Photographer Michael Watier had a vision for his October 2014 Nuit Blanche cover, but when the unexpected happened he had to rethink it

So far in the 40 at 40 anniversary series revisiting 40 memorable NOW cover stories from the past four decades, we’ve mostly caught up with the subjects of a story, or the original writers. But since the Contact Photography Festival is currently on, we decided to focus this week on the photography behind one of our most memorable covers. 

Nuit Blanche covers are notoriously challenging – the installations are usually outdoors, and you have to shoot them at night to capture that “nuit” feeling, a few days before the event, when often the piece hasn’t even been fully assembled. 

Photographer Michael Watier has shot between 40 and 50 NOW covers, including TIFF celebrities and our memorable Nuit Blanche 2013 cover featuring a section of Ai Weiwei’s installation, Forever Bicycles. The challenges behind his October 2, 2014 Nuit Blanche cover of the Lars Jan water-based installation called Holocenes, however, were extreme.

“You can predict everything,” Watier says, looking back on that shoot, “but then something happens.”

Watier was set to shoot the cover on Nuit Blanche’s rehearsal night. Through NOW’s photo coordinator, he had set things up with the festival and performer Annie Saunders, one of four dancer/swimmers doing 90-minute shifts in a big square aquarium for the all-night installation. The night before he had scouted the location at Roundhouse Park, close by the Rogers Centre and the CN Tower.

Original photos by Michael Watier

“I had the perfect cover shot set up, where you could see the city in the background,” he says. “I wanted this transparent look, and I knew how to light it to make it work beautifully.”

Fast forward to the night of the shoot, however, and the water in the tank had mysteriously turned cloudy. The transparency was gone.

“They tested it – it wasn’t polluted, but it was cloudy. When Annie got in, you couldn’t see her face unless she was really close to the glass.”

When you could see her, however, it looked like she was floating in and on a cloud, like “this surreal, ethereal floating effect. It was a pleasant surprise.”

Watier took some shots, then consulted with Saunders, who would swim up to the surface and look at the back of his camera. He would show her some of the images and ask how she felt about them and what she wanted to do and was comfortable doing.

“I knew the shots I wanted, but she was going to be on the cover for a week so she had to like them, too,” he says. “The tricky part about something like Nuit Blanche is that you’re representing three things: the artist [Jan], the performer and me. I wanted this to reflect me as much as the other two.”

It’s also about NOW, of course. Watier phoned NOW’s then art director, Troy Beyer, to tell him his original concept wasn’t going to work but that he had found an alternative and was happy with it. He showed Beyer some of the shots.

Photo by Michael Watier

Watier took the striking image from the inside spread before the tank had filled up. The producers of the show were attempting to get rid of the cloudiness of the water so were refilling the tank. Watier captured Saunders, her feet planted on the bottom of the aquarium, half in the water and half out. Her upper body is in focus, while her lower body has that cloudy effect.

“I thought it made for a really interesting shot because there was this tension break,” says Watier. “It was a very unrehearsed moment, and Annie was just fantastic. She helped make the shoot. She could have said, ‘No, I don’t want to swim in this.’ There was a legitimate moment when I was like, ‘Okay, I might not have a performer in the shot.'”

For Nuit Blanche the year before, Watier faced another challenge. Ai Weiwei’s installation outside City Hall wasn’t completed yet. So how to photograph something that’s not done? (Engineers were still ensuring it was stable.)

“I wanted to make this capture the experience of being at the installation,” he says. “I didn’t want to show everything, because that’s not my work, it’s Ai Weiwei’s work, which hadn’t been installed yet.”

Photo by Michael Watier

Even as a student at Ryerson University, where he got a degree in Photographic Arts, Watier knew he wanted to work as an editorial photographer. He was so impressed with the work of Bryce Duffy – who shot many NOW covers – that he cold-called him after graduation and offered to work for free for a few days.

Duffy met him for coffee and decided to try him out as an assistant – provided he get paid.

“Photographers have their own way of getting into their field, or their niche in the industry, and mine was through apprenticing,” says Watier.

He credits his current cool-headed approach to Duffy.

“Nothing would faze him in a shoot,” he says. “During my first year of assisting him, we had a shoot where I had set up this seamless backdrop, and the wind blew it over, creating this rip. The set was ruined. But he just kept on shooting. And it created these awesome-looking shots.

“At Nuit Blanche, I could have freaked out and said, ‘This is not my shot.’ It could have been this deer-in-the-headlights moment, with me telling the art director wasn’t working. If I hadn’t pushed through that, I wouldn’t have gotten to explore and collaborate and find something new. It’s nice when you nail it.”

– Glenn Sumi

Below is Fran Schechter’s cover feature on Lars Jan’s Holoscenes, republished from our October 2, 2014 issue.

Photos by Michael Watier

Lars Jan’s ambitious human aquarium project probes the connection between the powers let loose by climate catastrophes and our mundane everyday activities

By Fran Schechter

What if, going about your daily routines, you suddenly found yourself underwater?

This is the premise of Holoscenes, an ambitious water-based artwork by Lars Jan’s experimental multimedia performance lab, Early Morning Opera. Fittingly, its genesis was an ordinary event: reading the paper.

Jan, who’s based in New York City and L.A., couldn’t get out of his mind a 2010 New York Times photo of people caught in a flood in northern Pakistan, a place where he has family. Its beautiful composition reminded him of Raphael, but at the same time it was an image of utter devastation. He had a vision of a person inside a box of water, the water level going up and down.

Research on floods and climate change led him to the concept of the Anthropocene, the idea that we’re no longer in the Holocene epoch of the last 12,000 years but a new geological era marked by the impact of humans on the planet.

He was surprised that few are aware of this concept. “It’s an interesting metaphor or lens into our total inability to deal with the problem of climate change, but also with lots of long-term issues that require thinking on a scale at which we’re not really evolved to think,” he says over the phone from New York.

“I want to access the imagination as a way to make up for our lack of sensory capacity to think and respond to the long-term.”

To draw a connection between the massive forces unleashed in violent weather events and our mundane habits, he and his collaborators began a search for repetitive daily rituals that performers could enact inside an aquarium. Their complex collection process involved a world map, connecting with people near 52 random GPS points and an open call for daily-life videos.

“I was looking forward to tremendous diversity in everyday behaviours. But what I’ve found is really interesting: people in a lot of different places make tea in a lot of different ways, but a lot of our lives are just about making tea.”

Holoscenes is slated to travel to art venues in Florida and California next year. “Every new place we go, we’ll use new videos to make new behaviours in the aquariums and add to the old ones,” he says. “My hope eventually is to create a menagerie of 24 behaviours that rotate between three aquariums in a 24-hour performance – a triptych, complementing and counterpointing one another in strange ways.”

In Toronto, where Holoscenes will be presented outdoors to a mass audience for the first time, the EMO team – which includes a fountain designer, an aquarium builder and the head of aquatics for Cirque du Soleil’s Vegas show O – is working with one 4-metre-tall rectangular tank. Four performers each take a 90-minute shift, rising to the surface for breath and sinking as they struggle to continue their actions. Two are Toronto dancers Ben Kamino and Lua Shayenne, a connection made through the project’s Nuit Blanche producer, choreographer Jenn Goodwin.

An algorithm based on climate conditions controls the speed of the system, which can drain or fill the aquarium with 12 tons of water, heated to 32°C, in less than a minute. Underwater and surface microphones capture sound that’s mixed with compositional elements.

For future iterations, EMO is collaborating with climate scientists on information handouts and considering using local docents to facilitate audience discussion.

“It’s a massive undertaking for our group of creators and the producers, MAPP International Productions – everybody is doing something that’s very far out of their comfort zone. It’s a scale that we haven’t worked on before,” says Jan. EMO’s previous projects have combined provocative performances with innovative projections.

“I often think of the performers as test pilots, getting in this thing that nobody’s ever gone in before. We’re extremely serious about safety. Water is an incredibly powerful and dangerous force.”

Though he’s building on the tradition of zoos and aquariums as well as aquatic entertainments like Vegas’s Bellagio fountains and Esther Williams movies, Jan’s also critiquing the practice of collecting and exhibiting exotic specimens.

“An art piece that’s part of a global conversation inherently holds lots of biases. I want to take up the challenge of having a global conversation while also acknowledging that there’s a colonial history of searching far-flung corners of the earth for diversity for cabinets of curiosities or menageries in European courts. Aquariums are also ways of looking at the world’s diversity and having people who don’t get to travel see those things and understand that they exist.

“It’s very tricky. The point is to be in a public space and create something that’s entertainment but also a location for conversation and consideration about issues that are not usually taken up in a spectacle.”

Jan’s background informs his approach to the global and the local. Raised in the U.S., the son of an Afghan mother and a Polish father (whose Cold War history is the subject of a new EMO project), he’s been travelling since he was 19. He’s done public art projects in Afghanistan, where his mother now runs a girls’ school, recorded traditional music in Ukraine and apprenticed with a Bunraku puppeteer in Japan.

“Central Asia’s been very important to me,” he says. “Travelling to less populated parts of the world allows me to get back in touch with a long-form thought process that we lose in urban places. It’s really great for thinking about origins or associative daydreaming, a rich source of my artwork.”

Will people make the connections between global and local, everyday life and climate catastrophe amid the hurly-burly of Nuit Blanche? Though granting agencies he’s worked with try to quantify the impact of art, as an artist Jan doesn’t find this process useful.

“I’m going on the assumption that some instinct I don’t have control over is guiding me, and somehow it resonates inside other people. That’s been my experience of other artwork that I’ve loved, and I’m hoping that’s also the case for me as a maker.”

Check back every Monday for a new 40 at 40 cover story marking NOW’s 40th anniversary year.


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