In pretty much every image, Gayla Trail weaves together texture, emotion and colour using any one of a myriad of her eclectic assortment of toy and collectable cameras to capture flashes of hopefulness in an oft times weary urban landscape. Trail, a trained graphic designer, photographer and author residing in Toronto, Ontario, fosters her creativity by exploring her dual fascination with art and science through a viewfinder, a keyboard and the business end of a garden hoe. She admits that what drives her, “especially online, are aesthetics which foster investigation and suggest experimentation”. In her images, she collects flashes of time and space with similar sensibilities displayed in her tendencies to covet Fisher Price people, toy cameras, matte stamps, mini plastic food and all things paper. Trail celebrates solitude by capturing the present with cameras from the past, and pursuing the plant kingdom with joyful zealousness.
Ms. Trail operates both makinghappy.com and yougrowgirl.com. A current exhibition of her photographic work is being held at the Toronto Free Gallery; and her newest book, You Grow Girl, is now on sale.
We sat down, via Internet, with Ms. Gayla Trail to find out more about who she believes she is and how photography has helped to shape that person.
GT: I’m not sure how to define who I am with a few words—I’m not sure how to define myself at all. I have a lot of sides and some of those sides oppose other sides. I’m an evolving person. The last five years especially has been a time of great change for me. So far, the more I think I know about myself and the world, the less I come to understand. At this point defining myself and who I am seems impossible. One thing I think I’m supposed to learn from this is that I can’t and I shouldn’t try so hard to make perfect sense of everything including my own sense of identity.
That said, a great deal has happened in my life that I would say has shaped how I am (rather than who I am) for better or for worse. I am trying to embrace the better and sort through the worse. Taking photos has been a part of that process.
CoC: When did the shutterbug first bite you?
GT: I’ve been taking pictures for a long time, but I’d say that the bug only really hit me a few years ago.
CoC: What in particular sparked your foray into photography?
GT: I can’t pinpoint it to one object or event. Something just sparked at the right time. I was searching for another way to express myself, a new outlet. I started the site (makinghappy.com) as an online sketchbook with the intent to push myself to draw more but drawing was and continues to be too scary for me—I’m not comfortable with it. Something about photography as a mode of expression feels both assertive and passive at the same time—it was the perfect combination for me at that time. Acquiring the box cameras and the cheap TLRs helped. I’m more comfortable with top viewers (but didn’t know it then). Starting from the bottom using really simple cameras just sparked something in me and that was that. It was both a slow and insanely fast evolution. I woke up one day and realized the photos were taking up a great deal of my time and energy.
CoC: You work as a graphic designer at your day job, and I assume that you have some training in this area?
GT: I went to school for Fine Art. My focus was interdisciplinary so I worked in a lot of different media. It just so happens that towards the end of my schooling most of my artwork used product, packaging and advertising design. By then I had decided that a career as a gallery artist wasn’t practical, and I wanted to be a designer.
GT: I took a few photography courses in university. My favourite was non-silver which focused on historical processes such as bichromate and cyanotype.
CoC: Your sites, makinghappy.com and yougrowgirl.com, demonstrate your love of both toy camera photography and of gardening. If you had to pick one, which would it be?
GT: I can’t make that choice. They are both important aspects of my life for different reasons.
CoC: How did you wind up becoming a toy camera and film junkie?
I have no idea. I had been using various digital cameras for years because of the practicality of it. Sometimes I used film, but it was really
occasional—I really couldn’t afford it once I finished school. A few years ago I bought a new digital camera in preparation for a trip. At the same time I picked up our old Canon AE-1 and took it along. While the digital camera was good, I was pretty disappointed and bored with the photos for the most part. It was great for macro shots, but everything else was kind of flat and dull. Unfortunately, the one lens I brought along for the Canon was broken, so all the pictures were toast. I can’t remember how, but somehow I found out that box cameras were still viable cameras, and so my return to film kind of spun off from that.
CoC: What do you favour in terms of equipment, cameras, and film? What do you find yourself carrying on a regular basis?
GT: I use different film types depending on the camera. I tend to use Agfa Optima in the toy cameras because the colours are very saturated. Lately I favor Ilford HP5 in the Horizon panoramic because I like the contrast. For the regular medium format stuff I currently prefer muted, neutral colour and have been using Fuji NPC.
These days I carry fewer cameras than I used to because my Kiev88 medium format SLR is so big and heavy. There’s no room in the bag unless I carry my big backpack camera bag . I generally carry the Kiev88 and the Diana or the Kiev88 and the Horizon panoramic. Sometimes I bring along a pinhole but less so because it requires a tripod. It can get incredibly heavy and cumbersome. I have really hurt my back terribly a few times.
CoC: How much of your own processing do you do, if any?
GT: I don’t do any processing. I was exposed to a lot of chemicals in school and have vowed never to do that again for health reasons.
CoC: So what’s the deal with Making Happy? Why run a photo blog?
GT: It really wasn’t intended to be a photoblog, and I still don’t really think of it that way— it just kind of evolved into one over time. The intention was to start an online sketchbook, but photography took over. I write a lot too, and that was always intended to be a part of it. I use the site as a place for me to keep record of various goings on in my life. I’ve never been good at keeping a paper journal or sketchbook. When I did keep a paper journal I usually wrote in it on long, daily commutes to school so my book was inevitably filled with scratchy doodles, to-do lists and “I hate the bus” type entries. I’m at the computer a lot and am more comfortable writing at a keyboard, so it makes sense for me.
As a photoblog it works because I use it to keep track of how my picture taking has evolved. I choose pictures on a daily basis based on what I like that day rather than “the best”. I like going back through it to see how both my photographs and my tastes have changed and evolved over time.
CoC: How would you describe that evolution then? Do you see a certain theme or pattern developing? Have you noticed if there is a change in what you create when a major event in your life occurs? If so, what and how?
GT: There are lots of themes and patterns that have evolved not just one.
There have been times when certain major events have occurred, and I have noticed a shift in where or how I turn the camera, but there have been other times when you’d assume a change would occur but one did not (that I noticed anyway). The biggest example is when my father died last summer. My brother and I went back to the place where we grew up to look around and take pictures. The light was very extreme that day constantly shifting from overcast to full sun. At the end of the day we went to view his body, and it just happened to correspond with the magic hour when the light is golden. I have always liked that time of day, but I noticed that because it was such an extreme experience I found myself, from that point on, most interested in taking pictures when the light was like that and not so interested at other times.
CoC: The emotions that your work evokes for me are feelings of loneliness and separation from others. The overwhelming isolation I feel from looking at your work sometimes leaves me wondering if I’m looking at scenes from Toronto or the wreckage of post-Soviet Russia. Very powerful, to say the least. Was this a conscious choice on your part or did this style just evolve over time?
GT: Thank you. Some things are conscious and some begin from an unconscious place and evolve as I become aware of them. Walking around with a camera taking pictures has become a very meditative process for me. As a result, unconscious stuff sometimes comes out in the pictures. However, I’m always going back and re-examining my photos. Once I become aware of themes or trends I will start to consciously pursue them.
But there are other aspects such as framing and composition that I am nearly always conscious of. It depends on the day and my mood I suppose.
I don’t consider my photos to be quite as bleak as you describe. The winter photos definitely are, but that has a lot to do with the long, grey days and the dirty landscapes I encounter while out walking. In the summer, I intentionally go out in the evening during the magic hour when the sky is beautiful and the light is a glowing orange. I make a point to capture a sense of hopefulness in those images.
The predominant theme in my photos is solitude. It’s something that I discovered early on but has become a conscious effort. I realize that sometimes this can be interpreted or felt in the images as a terrible loneliness or isolation but I don’t think of it that way-at least not often. I’m not a lonely or unhappy person but I am going through a stage in my life where I’m working very hard to address difficulty—more specifically difficulty from my past, my childhood. Photography has become a useful tool for me to explore and express my contradictions or paradoxes—the darker or at least deeper emotions that are sometimes harder to get at or express fully.
But like I’ve said I make a conscious effort to include some feeling of hopefulness into the photos as well now. They don’t feel depressing to me, but I’m sure that part of it is that I am the one taking the pictures so my relationship to them will always be different than the observer. And I almost always feel content and peaceful when I’m taking pictures. I try to view the images objectively from an outsider’s viewpoint but I’m not sure that’s possible. We all have a subjective relationship to images and art.
CoC: Your posts to Making Happy over the past year have made frequent references to your You Grow Girl book project. It sounds like it was an exhausting ordeal. Was there anything particularly difficult about doing all the photography for your own publication that you would avoid a second time around? Did you find that it took your energy away from your street and toy camera photography?
GT: The fact that I was writing, designing and photographing the book simultaneously was a huge problem. I couldn’t work in a linear fashion. As a result, I was never completely sure exactly what photos I would need in the end, so I was stuck trying to photograph as much as possible. It was exhausting. And as a result some really good photos did not make it into the book because they were not needed but some bad photos got into the book because they were.
CoC: It did take a lot of energy away from my for-fun photography. A lot of my life was taken up working on the book, and I always carried the digital SLR with me “just in case.” I don’t like that camera for personal stuff, so I missed a lot of opportunities.
GT: Why not? How do your cameras of choice work better for you than the digital SLRs?
My success with a camera is influenced in part by my comfort with the camera. If I’m comfortable with the way it holds and operates than I can ease up when using it and take better pictures. I prefer looking down into a viewfinder rather than holding a camera in front of my face (although I still do use cameras like this on a regular basis).
While it’s not an absolute, I find that in general the pictures I take with the digital camera have a flatness about them. I just can’t seem to get a grasp on the tool to make it do what I want – I feel limited by it. I also think that in my case having the ability to take hundreds of photos in a short amount of time makes me a bit lazy. With a medium format camera for instance, I’ve got 12 pictures per roll so the tension of having to make those 12 pictures count pushes me a bit harder.
The other issue is aspect ratio. I just really like working in squares. I’m so comfortable with squares now that I don’t really know what to do with that extra width… although that doesn’t seem to bother me when I’ve got lots of extra width like in panoramic.
CoC: While some digital images do appear on your site, the majority of your work is by and large done with film. Where do you see digital in your future? Do you ever worry that the day will come when film is no longer available?
GT: I don’t see digital in my personal for-fun work anytime soon. I use it on occasion but generally don’t care for it. I don’t worry about film becoming obsolete. Maybe I’m naïve but it seems like a lot of people are still into I, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
CoC: Is there a Making Happy book in your future, or is regularly publishing your work to your Weblog satisfying enough? You certainly seem to have no shortage of material, should the fancy strike you.
GT: I was planning to make a mini book—as in a tiny book with tiny pictures that I would hand bind. But when I finally had the time I was too burned out. That would be fun, but I don’t have plans beyond that. Books are very expensive to print. I would have to have some kind of funding to do it.
CoC: Can you name some of the photographers that have inspired you?
GT: I actually don’t know of very many photographers. Davin (her significant other) has been bringing me somewhat up-to-date lately. Two photographers I have recently discovered are Stephen Shore and William Eggleston. Beautiful stuff.
CoC: You’re a big fan of the films of both Satyajit Ray and Akira Kurosawa. Have you found that their work has had an influence on your own photography?
GT: Probably in some way. I’d imagine all the things I like have had some influence in one way or another. I like photos that have a strong emotional quality about them, and their films certainly have that. In terms of Akira Kurosawa I’m talking about the film “Ikiru” not the samurai films so much. When I was thinking about buying the panoramic camera, I started paying closer attention to the films I watched because panoramic has a closer aspect ratio to film. I thought about the Sergio Leone films a lot, although my camera doesn’t have the technical ability to capture that aesthetic…. And of course I’m photographing urban landscapes not desert landscapes of the American West.
CoC: What other sources of inspiration do you draw from for your photography?
GT: Over the last few years I would say that the process has taught me a lot about who I am. I have watched my photos change as I change. So in that way a lot of my inspiration comes from my own emotional state.
CoC: Are you working on any current photography projects that you are interested in sharing about?
GT: Picture taking has slowed down this winter. The only really conscious “project” I’m working on involves windows and curtains. I’m very drawn to the way light hits that bottom, flowing part of the curtain where it intersects with the frame of the window.
CoC: Tell us about your camera collection. Are there any ‘finds’ that you are particularly proud of? Are there any cameras that you almost had, but that got away from you?
GT: Well I loved my Windsor camera (a Diana clone) until it broke. It was a real bargain at $20 and served me well. For a time the Great Wall was my favourite camera. It has since been replaced by the Kiev88. At the time of purchase I paid way too much for it on ebay, AND it was not the camera in the photo, AND it had some broken bits. The thing is a total pain in many ways yet it is a great camera and I really enjoyed using it.
I can’t think of any cameras that I really wanted that I didn’t get. And I never look at anything I can’t afford to buy.
CoC: Where do you buy all your wonderful cameras? Are there any words of advice you would offer to others looking to take up shooting with toy cameras?
GT: I buy a lot of them on ebay. I have also purchased some at flea markets, thrift stores and the sale bin of my local camera store.
Words of advice… don’t spend $200 on a Diana. They’re good, but that’s just crazy.
CoC: If you won a $20,000 dollar shopping spree at your local camera store, what would you buy?
GT: I never thought I’d say this but I suppose I’d buy a Hassleblad. I like medium format SLRs and while I like my crappy knockoffs they can be a bit of a pain at times. But then again the idea of carrying around a piece of equipment worth that much money freaks me out. I’d rather spend the money on a really long vacation.
CoC: How do you find the locations you shoot? Some of them look a bit dangerous, to say the least. Have you ever felt threatened while working a location?
GT: It’s an illusion. There really aren’t many dangerous places in Toronto. I probably tend to make things look a lot scarier than they are.
CoC: Has anyone freaked out on you after finding you taking pictures in odd places? Is dealing with security a problem for you on your photo shoots?
GT: One time in an alley I was photographing a bright red staircase that I saw through an open door. Some guys were standing behind and nowhere near me but went ballistic when they saw my camera anyway, threatening to smash my head in, etc. I just took off quickly. For the most part security is not a problem. I don’t photograph people, so my conflicts are rare.
CoC: From reading your Weblog, I’ve noticed that you politics lean to the left of what would be considered the centre in Canada. How does your political outlook affect your photography, or do you allow it to?
GT: I’m sure it affects the photos in some way but I’m not sure how exactly. Some of the scenes I capture say something about society—if that’s a result of my lefty political leanings I don’t know.
CoC: What are you reading right now? Would you encourage others to read it as well?
GT: I’m currently reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, but I am not getting into it as much as I thought I would. I’m forcing myself to give it a chance and get through it, so I haven’t been reading anything else except my own book—which sounds so ridiculous I almost didn’t want to say it.
I’d rather talk about music. I go through phases listening to the same 25-40 songs over and over for a time before moving on to a new set of songs. Current faves include:
Hey Love—Stevie Wonder Miss Misery—Elliott Smith He’s Misstra Know-It-All—Stevie Wonder Amsterdam—Coldplay Got to Get You into My Life—The Beatles Slipping into Darkness—Carl Bradney Rhiannon—Fleetwood Mac See Line Woman—Nina Simone Eternalists—Talib Kweli
I am a huge Nina Simone fan so I would always recommend anything by her and the album “Innervisions” by Stevie Wonder is another fave.
CoC: What do you look for when you’re taking a picture? Is there any one thing that makes or breaks a picture for you?
GT: I hate new cars. They’ve slipped their way in at times—in only the most dire circumstances when they absolutely couldn’t be avoided. Often times when I see something I want to capture it becomes an exercise in working my way around vehicles and other ugly contemporary elements.
CoC: Out of all of the pictures you have taken, which one holds the most meaning for you? Why is it so meaningful?
GT: The Yellow Chair is one I go back to regularly. I often think of my photos as evolving self-portraits. It wasn’t until I took that photo that it became clear to me what I was doing. I also have something with the colour yellow even though I don’t particularly like it. My mother always said I looked sallow next to the colour and that set a precedent for how I see it. There was a certain period in my early childhood when yellow was my favourite colour. I think the yellow pictures refer to that time in my life somehow.
CoC: How do you deal with periods of creative depression where picking up your camera is the last thing you feel like doing?
GT: I can’t say I’ve experienced that. When I slow down it’s either because the weather is bad, or I’m too busy. There was one time a few years ago when I felt overwhelmingly disappointed with my pictures and felt I couldn’t or shouldn’t continue. I got over that quickly and haven’t felt it since.
CoC: Taking pictures of people is something that you have said you find awkward and uncomfortable in the past. Do you ever see yourself overcoming this?
GT: In some ways I don’t want to-or it’s not important enough for me to work on it at least. Sometimes I like taking pictures of people but ultimately I don’t really want to. I think that on some level all my photos are self-portraits in a way. Maybe not in a directly literal sense, but in the way that they capture emotions that are meaningful to me. The awkwardness I experience when photographing people creates some distance. If I became skilled at it, my own self-indulgence might get mixed into it and I’d end up using the people to reflect myself rather than capturing them as they are. That seems a little unfair to the subject.
CoC: What would you hope people can take from seeing your photography? Would they be able to look at your work and make comments about the type of person you are? If so, what would you hope it is?
GT: Well I am sometimes uncomfortable more than anything with the idea that people might be looking at my photos and drawing conclusions about the kind of person I am. My photos are often interpreted as sad and lonely but I don’t consider myself to be a sad or lonely person. The furthest I hope they go in an analysis of me based on my photos is that I am a person with emotions.
I understand that people want to draw conclusions, so I have worked on trying to get comfortable with that—coming to terms with this discomfort is a part of why I make the images public in the first place. This whole process is quite self-indulgent, but it does make me happy knowing that they generate a positive response for some people.
By Sean & Jennifer McCormick