There is a refrain that photographer Mark Raynes Roberts has heard over and over again from authors in the past year or so. The refrain is, “I hate having my picture taken.” Though this attitude is arguably unsurprising, a group of Canadian writers have put aside their natural camera shyness and agreed to participate in the Toronto-based artist’s ambitious new project.
Though you might not recognize his name, Roberts is no stranger to CanLit. The award-winning crystal artist designed the sculpture that is presented to the winner of the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction, a partnership that served as the springboard for Illumination: Portraits of Canadian Literature. A collection of 12 handcrafted crystal pieces, each inspired by a work of Canadian writing, the project was created in collabortion with the Writers’ Trust, which selected the passages Roberts “illuminated.”
The collection, which will be exhibited at Toronto’s Gardiner Museum from Oct. 26 to Nov. 11, is accompanied by Illumination: Portraits of Canadian Authors, a series of 150 black-and-white photographs of Canadian writers, including Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, David Bergen, Lynn Coady, Priscila Uppal, Wayson Choy, Sheila Heti, Roch Carrier, Kim Thùy, Susan Musgrave, and many others. The portraits, which will be projected on the walls at the Gardiner during the exhibit, will also be projected during the Harbourfront International Festival of Authors, from Oct. 22 to Nov. 1, as well as appearing at the Toronto Reference Library and various branches of the Toronto Public Library throughout the fall.
The experience of photographing writers – a new one for Roberts, though he has been taking photographs for more than 40 years – differs from crystal work, which he says is a resolutely solitary experience. Portrait photography, by contrast, is communal. “It’s a visual conversation,” Roberts says.
The conversations began two years ago in England, where Roberts was travelling with his wife, Globe and Mail writer Sarah Hampson. Roberts was invited to photograph the authors Hampson was inteviewing, figures that included Alexander McCall Smith, Rachel Joyce, and Jim Crace. When he returned to Canada, Roberts contacted author Charles Foran, who agreed to be a “guinea pig” for what became the Illumination series. (Foran agreed to sit for Roberts, though he also admitted that he doesn’t like having his picture taken.)
With Foran on board, Roberts says the project grew by a kind of osmosis: Mary Osborne, executive director at the Writers’ Trust, got interested and helped the photographer connect with writers; he was also aided by figures in the publishing world such as Louise Dennys of Penguin Random House Canada and McClelland & Stewart’s Ellen Seligman. “When I’d shot, like, 20 or 30 authors,” Roberts says, “people just smiled and said, ‘Nice idea.’ But there was no inclination that this was of any great importance.” In fact, Roberts himself didn’t know what scope the project would take. He thought he might work on and off for four or five years and perhaps stop at 100 authors. But the invitation to exhibit at the Gardiner put a self-imposed deadline on the artist.
“It wasn’t until about November [of last year] that I thought, I’m at about 80 authors, maybe I’ll suggest to the Gardiner that I’ll do a crystal exhibition based on Canadian literature, and at the same time, could we have the portraits of the authors?” Roberts says. Kelvin Browne, the executive director and CEO of the Gardiner, who had originally approached Roberts about exhibiting his crystal, liked the idea, but hesitated because the museum does not display photography. (Roberts’s crystal exhibit was already breaking new ground for the Gardiner, which is dedicated to ceramic art.) Eventually, Browne agreed to have the photos projected on the walls.
The photographs are a labour of love for the artist. His hope, he says, is that they will help draw attention to the vibrant literary talent that exists in Canada. “The most important thing is, I want to herald the writers of Canada. We’ve got this amazing wealth of writers across the country.” Unlike awards, which Roberts acknowledges are important but are predicated on exclusivity, the portrait series is “a celebration of inclusivity”: Roberts has endeavoured to include writers of all genders, sexual orientations, ages, ethnicities, and geographical regions. “I’ve tried to, within the framework of the time limits I’ve had on me. It’s been a bit overwhelming lately, because I’m feeling as though this thing has grown into something I didn’t imagine in the beginning.”
Ultimately, Roberts hopes the portraits will inspire viewers – and, not incidentally, media – to recognize the array of talent that the Canadian literary community has to offer and, perhaps, even pressure governments to do more in the way of funding that talent. In this respect, Roberts is as much of an advocate as an artist. Which is not something he denies. “We should be waving the flag and telling people,” he says. “It’s not a case of our not having the talent, [or that] we’re selling false gods. That’s rubbish. We’ve got some of the best in the world.”