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  • Joshua Cameron

STEPHEN BROOKBANK: The making of a place

Stephen Brookbank, Roller Rink at the waterfront, Hamilton, Ontario
“The grey warm evening of August had descended upon the city and a mild, warm air, a memory of summer circulated in the streets. like illuminated pearls the lamps shone from the summits of their tall poles upon the living texture below which, changing shape and hue unceasingly, sent up into the warm grey evening air an unchanging unceasing murmur.”

—excerpt from“Two Gallants “ by James Joyce

Inspired by Irish novelist James Joyce’s short story “Two Gallants,” Stephen Brookbank explores after-dark and before-dawn urban, suburban, and industrial environments. Using a large format camera, he uses long exposures and available light to create images that aim to illustrate the “truth” of a scene.

Stephen Brookbank, Greenhouse, Gage Park, Hamilton, Ontario

Stephen’s environmental portraits in home, work, and play settings look to document the resilience of people in the midst of a challenging period in human history. “North America is in a phase of deindustrialization,” he says. “I’m interested in creating work that supposes allegories representing flexibility and adaptive strength.”

One of Stephen’s key influences is the New Topographic movement of the 1970s, in which photographers worked to identify a critical view of the state of America. “I am interested in looking at the everyday urban and suburban landscape with a sense of awe and respect, coloured with the mixed-up night-time lighting situations from available light sources,” says Stephen. “This work is intended as a document of our time.”

Stephen Brookbank

An inherent analog aficionado, for this project Stephen used Toyo View G, a 4×5 large format studio camera, with Rodenstock Apo-Sironar lenses and Kodak Portra 400 film. “My reasons for shooting analog are purely personal,” he says. “It works for me and what I’m trying to achieve. Shooting with such a large camera forces me to work slowly.”

Rather than taking lots of photographs of a scene, Stephen takes time to decide on an ideal composition and takes one shot. “I may only make two negatives. A successful night of shooting may only yield a couple of photographs. The process and ritual of making a picture on a large format camera appeals to me. The richness of a well-made negative contains such beautiful, smooth clarity and detail,” says Stephen.

Stephen Brookbank

Stephen follows a few self-imposed rules when photographing. One of these rules includes not adding any light to a scene, including after dark. “I rely on street lights, window light, and low clouds to light scenes for me. One of the challenges this creates is that when I am photographing people in their work, home, or recreational environments, my exposures have to be quite long. It’s not unusual to have people posing for up to a minute.”

Stephen Brookbank

“I’ve figured out a trick,” he says. “During a long exposure, one of the things that makes a person jittery is an effort to keep from blinking during the exposure time. I’ve found that if a person blinks comfortably they are more relaxed and able to keep still — even little kids. In the photograph their eyes are still clear and sharp.” He does very little in terms of posing people, as they are to look relaxed, comfortable, and like themselves.

“Another challenge is the skepticism I encounter,” says Stephen. “People are typically proud of their neighbourhood, so after a short conversation I try to demonstrate that I am there out of respect. Then their guard goes down. Of course, the curiosity of my big, old fashioned—looking camera also seems to help diffuse any tension.”

Stephen Brookbank, Families at Roosevelt avenue, Hamilton, Ontario

Stephen’s laborious process influences not only how his images appear, but also his audiences. When people slow down to understand the technical factors involved in his work, they gain further insight into the narratives he creates and presents as documents.


This story originally appeared on the RESILIENCE OF ANALOG #FilmIsNotDead edition.

We share this incredible work now as tribute to our late friend STEPHEN BOOKBANK. Thank you for sharing your work and your stories with us.

As per his wishes, please make a donation to QEII Health Sciences Foundation or the Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute.

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