The Night Photographer
For Larrie Thomson, photography has been a life-long pursuit to take the mundane and make it surreal. From the age of six, Thomson attempted to make pictures that appealed to more than just his family. This desire manifested itself in the drive to preserve on film all sorts of odd subjects in peculiar ways. In the early days, this penchant resulted in candid shots of aunties and uncles fiddling with their dentures or searching for the Hi-Fi off switch. Now, he’s evolved to the moonlight shooting of forgotten places and objects. Although many of his relatives thought he was nuts to stray from the standard ‘posed in the living room/front yard’ family shots, and often accused him of wasting film, his determination paid off. Larrie Thomson is Canada’s leading night photographer.
Larrie Thomson describes himself as a nocturnal loner, which is a pretty good combination for a night photographer.
Even though he values his close relationships with friends and family, his wee streak of antisocialism has shown him homes, communities and public buildings are much more interesting once left abandoned. The lives of those who have moved on become all that more fascinating to him when pieced together from forgotten artifacts and old-timer memories. The restlessness to create, rather than only consume creative content, finds Thomson out shivering on cold nights in the race between image exposure and lens frost formation instead of curled up on the couch watching what passes for entertaining television. Night shooting revitalizes him, replacing what everyday life saps.
Larrie Thomson took his first night shot in July 1999 and hasn’t looked back. On a clear moonlit night, with fresh film loaded into his Praktica—the one with the broken light meter—he headed to the local county garbage dump to attempt some light painting techniques he’d read about. Once he got used to stepping over skunks and crawling around old cars, he discovered a mysterious peacefulness that fueled his creativity. His very first light painting, Pipes #1, can still be viewed on his website. As the ghosts of the place slowly began to reveal their stories, it became obvious to Thomson that his task was to capture this vibe on film. Since then, he is often found traveling the countryside by full moon and sharing forgotten spaces with nocturnal beasts, restless spirits and the odd gang of bored rural teens.
As most artists will tell you, the art alone takes awhile before it will pay the bills. Traveling the prairies, with occasional detours to the United States, takes its toll on the budget as well as the vehicle. Thomson’s Starving Artist Van has done yeoman’s service. At any given time this rusted twenty-one-year-old van—stuffed with a sleeping bag, jugs of water, a box of Raisin Bran, maps, a weather radio, camera gear, extra fuel and samples of his work—can be seen pulled over on the roadside with Thomson wielding a can of extrudable foam or a wrench.
Wherever he travels, Thomson remains cognizant of his surroundings, not just for photographic possibilities, but for safety purposes as well. Always armed with a stack of his own photos to demonstrate to the local land owner he’s not up to some nefarious deeds, Thomson says he rarely runs into opposition to his being out in the remote locations he chooses. Post 9/11 has done little to change this when he’s working in remote spots, but higher profile locations now have Thomson getting clearance before he ventures out. Wandering up out of a ravine, standing outside the fenced compound of a large industrial plant and looking in while carrying a camera will have security nervous.
Security issues aside, it is of no surprise that Thomson has his fair share of humorous, horrific and sometimes embarrassing stories related to his solitary lunar road trips.
Occasionally, Thomson gets to exercise his evil sense of humour on the unsuspecting who cross his sleep-deprived path. Such was the case in September of 2001 when he shot the ghost town of Bateman, Saskatchewan. Bateman, finally abandoned in 2000, is an entire abandoned town, intact, with blocks of residential, a main street business strip, two churches, a curling rink, but no people. After scouting the place by daylight, Thomson decided it easily had potential for a full night of shooting. He arrived back about 9:30 PM, pulling the Starving Artist Van in alongside an abandoned wreck at the service station. After two days of bouncing over dusty gravel roads in 100 degree heat the rusty old ’81 Dodge fit stealthily into its surroundings.
After spending a few hours working the various buildings, Thomson heard a vehicle approaching in the distance along the gravel road. This struck him as unusual since he had had the entire town to himself all evening. It was 1:30 AM as the sound of the vehicle neared, and then went silent. That bothered him. It was awfully late, and what’s more, nobody lived there! As soon as the exposure was complete Thomson gathered his gear and quietly made his way through the dark, silent, residential streets back to the centre of town.
Rounding the corner by the fire hall, he saw an older Monte Carlo and five human figures vandalizing the town, knocking over wooden signs and trying to heave batteries through windows. Thomson stood in the shadows watching them while he concocted a plan. He was almost certain he hadn’t been observed until one of the youths looked his way and jumped. “Hey, there’s a guy over there!” he heard through the stillness. Thomson dropped to the ground behind the tall grass, continuing to view the vandals.
After several minutes they seemed to have discounted the mysterious sighting and moved down the street to the service station, tossing rocks at the windows. They were literally feet from the Starving Artist Van, prompting Thomson to attempt to do something. Knowing he needed to do something soon, lest he wished to sacrifice his van and gear, Thomson chose not to confront the vandals, but quietly move to a better vantage point and build on what had already freaked them out once.
He stepped out of the shadows onto the street. The moon was directly behind him, as he stood motionless in silhouette against the distant prairie horizon. Several minutes passed without the hooligans noticing. For Thomson, it seemed like hours. Then the same guy again happened to glance down the road. Even a block away Thomson could see the teen’s startled reaction when he spotted him. He sort of “squeaked” to the others. In a moment all five of them were standing beside the old Monte Carlo, staring at him. Thomson stared straight back at them, not moving a muscle.
Unable to know what they were thinking at that point, Thomson remained motionless silently saying, “Well, now I’ve done it. There’s no going back now…” Almost simultaneously, the group turned, looked at each other, looked back at the ‘ghost’, then back to one another. Suddenly, each one made a scramble for the nearest door. The driver threw it into gear, and they burned out of there in a cloud of oil smoke, dust and gravel!
The Ghost of Bateman Saskatchewan had the town to himself for the rest of the night!
Sometimes the joke gets played on Thomson in what could only be described as horrific, at least to a photographer. In July 2000, he was working the Mohawk Tipple, an old, burned out concrete mining ruin the Crowsnest Pass region of southern Alberta. The building was situated on a steep ridge overlooking a river. Access was easy at the tip, but he wanted to work it from below, necessitating exploration. Early on in the day of the shoot, he had discovered a small dirt trail beginning at the outskirts of a nearby town and following the river to end at a small clearing just below the Tipple. It looked long forgotten and overgrown. Figuring it was the perfect place to sneak in and shoot for the night, Thomson went on to explore other locations. He arrived back at the Tipple after dark to set up for a night of shooting.
Working from the rail bed at the base of the Mohawk Tipple, Thomson took advantage of the level, cleared area and set up his tripod right in the middle of the tracks. His long exposures afforded him time to scale the ridge on foot, get into the building to add lighting and still have time to descend and close the lens at the end of each shot.
This routine worked quite well until about 2 AM. Thomson was up in the building light painting the ceilings when he thought he heard a low rumbling sound in the still night. It was barely noticeable at first but slowly became louder. Looking out from his vantage point, Thomson saw a bright light approaching in the distance. “Naw, it can’t be,” he thought, but soon realized it could be. Apparently the rail line wasn’t as abandoned as he first believed.
He scrambled down the ridge, bypassing the small trail of switchbacks, and instead opting for a more direct route, sliding and tearing up bits of turf while grasping at trees and shrubs to break his fall. He skidded to a stop at the bottom just as the train rounded the corner, and dived out in front to scoop his camera, tripod and portable darkroom timer to safety by light of the train’s headlight. In retrospect, he wouldn’t describe it as a near miss, “but an approaching freight train looks pretty damn close when you run in front of it to rescue your gear. I wonder what the engineer thought when he rounded the corner and saw a tripod sitting in the middle of the tracks.”
Occasionally, these nocturnal trips can lead to some embarrassing situations. One memory that he’d like to repress occurred shortly after the above camera rescue at the Mohawk Tipple location. Because Thomson works almost exclusively alone, he was quite content to have a place like this to himself. After a night of scaling ridges and scrambling over rocks in order to light the Tipple, Thomson decided to take a ‘bottle’ shower in the middle of the railroad track before climbing into the back of the van for the night.
Imagine his surprise the next morning when he awoke to discover a small car and tent pitched not more than fifty feet through the trees from where he was parked. Apparently a young couple had arrived before dark and set up camp. Although Thomson wondered what the couple made of the noises and strange lights, he never had the guts to say hello before leaving. He just kept thinking about aimlessly wandering naked on the railroad tracks by moonlight believing he was the only human around for miles as he toweled off after his shower. Maybe going ‘commando’ isn’t always the most comfortable.
Larrie Thomson’s photographic style emanates from his fascination with the night and how the cool light of the moon can entirely change the look and feel of a scene. It was a desire to capture this on film that resulted in his using light, colour and surreal perspectives to make photos with more emotional impact. Thomson took inspiration from fellow night shooters, Troy Paiva and Chip Simons when he first began exploring this photographic niche. Paiva has since become a personal friend and mentor, and the two of them have been known to set out exploring lost America. Other photographers that have his admiration include Canadians Yousuf Karsh and Darwin Wiggett.
Thomson is a photographer that has learned on the job, so the advice of his mentors and his personal experience have become his manuals. While he doesn’t rule out pursuing further formal education in photography at some point, he seems to thrive on the lessons from ‘The School of Life’. A good example of this is how he learned to think about light in a whole new way while working as a television cameraman in a live news studio. He quickly learned that what happens in a live show does so too quickly for logic, and that he needed to think visually with the instinctive part of his brain. He’s learned to listen to the creativity his intuitive side was showing him.
Thomson’s desire to work with only what lays before him, untouched to the point of refusing to kick a pile of cow dung or fast food packaging out of the picture, then wildly manipulating the viewers’ perceptions through light and colour leads to the ultimate goal of capturing elements of the mood or atmosphere he experienced when present at the scene. This paradox of mundane and surreal shouldn’t work, but it does. He claims that he doesn’t try to approach his photography with any environmental, political or ideological agendas, but rather lets his work speak for itself. Even if everyone who sees his photos has an entirely different interpretation, Thomson believes that the work is still stronger than if he attempted to put forward a ‘correct’ interpretation.
The same goes for staging his photos. He avoids it. Getting too caught up in trying to ‘perfect’ something takes away from capturing what the scene already says. While Thomson admires those who can construct a photo deliberately from the minutest details, his skill lies in making the most of what is already there.
This purist attitude has resulted in a few favourites for Thomson including The Signpost Time Forgot. It’s a photo that accidentally came out of nowhere at a location he stumbled across on the way back from a long American road trip. Weather-beaten and leaning crookedly at the intersection of two deserted roads, it was like life and time had gone whirling by while the signpost just remained there neglected and forgotten, its faded and broken markers a metaphor for the vanishing small towns to which it pointed the way. Although this photo is different from his usual style, Thomson believes it defines his approach to photography: to never ignore his instincts and pass on a photo op just because he’s exhausted.
It is patience, perseverance and attunement to his surroundings that defines Thomson’s work ethic. Although he has a day job, he still puts in thirty-five to forty hours per week working on his photography. Consistent practice has taught him the key is not to look for the perfect moment through the viewfinder, but spend enough time getting a feel for the shot. By the time Thomson finally opens the shutter, he has spent at least ten minutes considering the shot, framing it using the spot from a flashlight, leveling it with a bubble level, tweaking the framing again because everything moved, discovering the light of a cell tower in the distance, jockeying the camera around to hide it behind something, then starting the process again.
It is this same patient consideration he is applying to his daytime photography. Although night photography is the main bulk of his work, Thomson has begun to pursue other facets of photography, namely, underwater shooting. It is the similarity in challenges between night and underwater shooting that draws him a hundred feet below the ocean’s surface. The desire to capture this experience in an image and show it to those who will never be fortunate enough to see it in person fuels both photographic ventures.
Outside of the actual picture taking, Thomson pursues other closely related interests. He attempts to market his work, maintain his Web site, frame his own exhibition prints, conduct the odd night photography workshop and negotiate some of his own stock sales. This keeps the job from getting boring. His technical background in electronics has helped him design a few gadgets that have proven useful in his night photography. He feeds his wanderlust with road trips and aimless exploration.
To this point, Thomson’s work is accomplished with film for two main reasons. First, digital photography has a maximum exposure time, although this seems to be improving as the technology evolves. Secondly, film is surprisingly convenient. Although the digital zealots and gear-gods laugh at his battered Praktica, using film helps him keep it simple and concentrate on taking good pictures. The camera gear he packs is straightforward, durable and free of need for batteries or electrical power. On return, he needs only to look at the light table to eliminate duds and decide which images are worth investing the time of scanning, cataloging, and correcting for colour and density. In essence, all he requires is a light-tight box that will handle film without damaging it, accept a lens, and open and close the shutter within a few seconds of when he wants it. Thomson believes that if he were to work with digital raw images, the temptation to correct all of them would be too great. Despite all of this, Thomson believes the change to digital is inevitable. Looking at the latest technology, he knows it won’t be long until it is worthwhile to make the switch. A welcome bonus will be the instant feedback making it practically impossible to mess up on exposure or lighting.
What is in his camera when he’s shooting colour is tungsten film. Moonlight is really just reflected daylight, and if a moonlit scene was photographed on daylight film and exposed the way he does it, the result would probably look just like daytime. There would be star trails, but other than that the look would remind the viewer more of high noon. Tungsten balanced film, normally used to compensate for the yellow/brown appearance of incandescent lighting, adds a slight bluish cast to the scene which comes close to how the human eyes would perceive it.
What else does the Starving Artist have ferreted in his bag? Mostly lighting goodies such as flashlights and theatrical lighting gels, duct tape, and if he’s lucky, a rock hard granola bar from last October. After four days on the road that fossilized bar will be looking mighty tasty and well worth gambling on a broken tooth.
Although he has yet to make the leap to digital shooting, Thomson does rely on computer technology. Up until last year when his photographic paper of choice was discontinued, nothing in his manner of shooting and printing pictures had changed from how they would have been done forty years ago. The process is now hybrid digital, passing through a scanner, computer and FTP server on the way to exposing photographic paper. He only manipulates the images to ensure they look like the original slide film.
While computers have not significantly influenced the work itself, they have been essential in Thomson’s success. Without the Internet and the opportunity to bring Night Photographer Dot Com to the world, he believes he’d be sitting on a box of slides in his basement that nobody would ever see. Nearly every opportunity that has come his way has found him via his web site, resulting in publication in many magazines such as Crimewave Magazine, CBC Radio 3 Magazine, Photo Life, American Photojounalist and WestWorld Magazine.
The Internet has provided an unprecedented forum for up and coming photographers, artists and musicians to showcase their work. Thomson believes the downside that comes with this is that users have the notion that all creative content should be free. From Napster and subsequent free music sharing networks, to the growth in popularity of royalty free photography and downturn in licensing fees for quality stock photography, to bloggers giving away their writing online and not only depriving themselves of remuneration, but forcing wages down in the print media, he believes we are entering an age where it is becoming more difficult to make a living from creative work.
As for copyright infringement, Thomson thinks it is a fact of life that he works to keep the damage to a minimum. One countermeasure he uses is keeping the images on his web site relatively small. There is little commercial use for a 450×300 pixel web image. If abuse does happen though, Thomson believes the artist has to be prepared to stop it. “I know this is an unpopular school of thought, but hey, it’s your livelihood and you have to protect it. Contrary to popular belief, nobody’s getting rich at this.”
Part of Thomson’s belief system is that young photographers should seek the advice of a mentor who has achieved success in their chosen field. Not only will this fast track the young photographer’s learning and skill development, but the real world advice will also help in deciding what direction to take the photography in. “As you gain experience, try to develop a unique style. It’s okay to imitate the work of photographers you admire for the purpose of learning, but even if your work in an existing and identifiable style is better than the original, it will always be compared to the original body of work, and will achieve little critical or commercial success,” says Thomson. “Granted, photography has been around long enough that you may not invent anything ‘new’. I’ve done my best to stray far from the pack and I’m still using techniques that have been practiced for over a hundred years, but at least try to bring something new to the table. I doubt it is coincidence that my most successful images are consistently the ones that are most unique.”
Many young artists struggle through times of a lack of creative motivation. For those times when inspiration flees, Thomson suggests taking a break as he’s learned this is his muse’s way of saying he has overworked a location or type of location. For himself, he’ll climb in the van and drive. Sometimes a whole new type of location will reveal itself and he’ll shoot the best material of the trip. Other times, a couple of hours on the road listening to tunes by moonlight will revitalize him, and he’ll be back at full power for the next shoot. Whatever is needed at the time, he’ll do, as he knows the next night will be better. “The creative process is a fragile thing. You can’t be too hard on yourself.”
There are photographers who want to consciously capture the essence of Canada. Larrie Thomson isn’t one of them. For those who want to do that, he thinks they may end up with stale clichés and stereotypes, but if they must, he advises they shoot what they know. “If you’re Canadian and you work subjects you know well, it will be more honestly Canadian than anything you could contrive to this end.”
Although Thomson doesn’t set out to shoot the spirit of Canada, that is what people from abroad seem to see when they look at these secluded, lonely prairie landscapes. The images of remote ghost towns and surreal landscapes in the silent stillness of the night are more popular overseas than they are here. Perhaps it is what they expect Canada to be, and we know it no longer exists. Thomson says these people would be disappointed if they knew that even at his most remote of locations he compromises his original compositions to hide distant cell towers on the horizon.
by Jennifer McCormick