Peter Stevens

HA&L Biographical Sketch for contributor Peter Stevens

        It was in Autumn, and it was in Paris, and it was in the year 2000.

I was sitting outside, at a café, in the gallery district, and though this had been my spot on a number of occasions, it was never a surprise to see something new. You shift your eyes just a fraction, and there is the thing you haven't seen before: a person, a gargoyle, the tiniest bookshop. A door, a window, a beautiful smile. A fountain, a flower, a philosopher. And dog shit everywhere, so watch your step.

There was a gallery opposite, and a bit to my left -- an expanse of window, revealing nothing. The name of the gallery above, other names stencilled below the window.

Eugène Atget, Brassaï, André Kertesz, Henri Cartier-Bresson

More names.

I had probably walked by this gallery half a dozen times, and taken no notice. It had to do with that window -- it didn't tell you anything. All of the other galleries used their windows as a calling card: Here you will find bad Toulouse-Lautrec. Here you will find bad Monet. And sometimes the window might say, Here you will find that special thing; that very real thing.

On my immediate left, a couple rose from their seats at the neighboring café. This is another remarkable thing about Paris, so be prepared for it when it happens, I recognized them. Not as Parisians with whom I had become acquainted. No. They were from  Hamilton. There is no escape from the Hammer. It follows you.

I watched them cross the street, straight to the gallery. The door wouldn't open, and then I saw them squinting at a note taped to the door. On my immediate right, a gentleman who transmitted charm the way the eye of a whale seems to transmit a complexity of thought beyond blubber, oil, and meat -- rose from his table at yet another café. He too crossed the street, straight toward the gallery.

The couple had found their individual preoccupations -- she scrying the window's glass; he feeling the stenciled names with stethoscopic fingers. The charming gentleman removed the note from the door and inserted his key in the lock. I believe he already knew that he was not about to make a sale because I saw his eye linger for the briefest second on the couple's shoes. It was not done with disdain.

It took a few moments to finish my coffee and settle my bill. When I made my way into the gallery I broke a beautiful spell that had been cast over the couple, the owner, the exhibit. Before it evaporated completely I saw a proud warmth on the gallery owner's face, and I heard the last echoes of his voice in congenial professorial tone, and their voices in naive enthusiastic rapture. Then silence.

I could not see the couple, but I could feel their fox-like shyness. The gallery owner felt it too, and despite his charm, I saw his disappointment. He had conquered their reticence, knew that the foxes wished to be conquered. I had spoiled whatever magic might transpire between a gallery-owner who makes his daily bread from what he convinces others to buy, and two people without the means to buy. He was warmed by their trust and enthusiasm. They were warmed by his warmth. I wanted to leave, but withdrew to a corner and tried to get my bearings.

In the dim dim light I pieced together the layout; the component parts of the gallery: the counter running the length of one wall this side of the door, wood seeming to be of a fruit tree, something hard, with tight grain. Varnish. Charming gentleman behind the counter, now looking at my shoes. At the table in the corner where I stand -- the same tight-grained wood -- golden-yellow. A price list in various currencies, the lowest priced item weighing in at 36,000 U.S. dollars. More zeroes at the top end.

I am in a corner. The counter runs ahead of me, ending at the door. Now I hear the foxes and their private whispers, coming from my left, on the other side of a partially drawn curtain, maddeningly dark on the other side. Along with Atget, Brassaï, Kertesz, and Cartier-Bresson, I hear the name "Peter Stevens," first once, and then again. Having disturbed them once, I will not again. I wait, eyeing the price-list. When the foxes step through my side of the curtain, I step through theirs -- I am now in the gallery proper, and they are in the reception area, where they may say their farewells to the charming gentleman with me almost intolerably close, but at least out of sight.

And I am lost in a room that is beyond deserving. They really are here, those photographers, in a space that serves them well. The gentle pooling of light on each framed picture seems to arrive without source, gathered without fixture or bulb. I don't know how long I look at each. I do not know how long I look at them all.

You can take a picture now with your telephone. Anyone can be an itinerant daguerreotypist, and in fact, for much of the history of photography, accessibility was a feature of its mechano-chemical process. There were photo albums in every household, or cookie tins filled with photographs, as in mine. Today we can post our telephone photos on the Internet by the hundreds -- are they more or less meaningful than in the past?

But since its inception, there have been gifted individuals who through talent, dedication, and a kind of divine spark -- make photographs that sing arias of experience and beauty even when the subject matter may be utterly common or horror-filled.

I did not know then who Peter Stevens was, but I do now. And I do not think the foxes were saying that Stevens was Atget or Kertesz or Brassaï. I later came to understand what I think they were talking about.

To link the name Peter Stevens with the most recognized names in photography's art history is to throw an anchor around his neck. Better to say he is who he is, but to acknowledge he is a rare thing. Think how exceptional it is for someone to have made a living from their facility with a camera -- yet he has done that. Countless photographs executed with skill to communicate what a client wishes communicated. That's one. Second is his capacity as a portraitist, which falls somewhat outside his day job. I have seen the contact sheets from Colm Feore's sitting, and every shot is filled with nuance. The same is true of Toronto's once tiny perfect mayor David Crombie. Sheila Copps wisely used a magazine shot Peter had taken as her parliamentary promo piece. The list goes on.

Then there are the years as the Photography Editor with Broadway Magazine, where what he found through his lens gave that publication an unmistakable sensibility. But more than that, Peter commissioned other photographers and gave them a place on the page.

Over decades, every rock and roll band in Hamilton asked for Peter, from Tom Wilson to the Crawling King Snakes. Some could pay and some couldn't. Peter is generous to a fault. Again, digging turns up informal shots of Jack de Keyser and Sarah Harmer taken with an aplomb that shames what a big city studio would overcharge to execute.

This just scratches at the surface of one person's path through life. It is a path that is hard to find -- the person who made it walks lightly; draws a minimum of attention; makes less of a show of things than someone else might. It is an ability to disappear, to blend with the background, that may be key to so many perfect frames. There is something absolutely natural about a camera in Peter's hands -- it is no longer mechanical -- it becomes organic. The subject doesn't see a camera, barely sees Peter; is only aware of some vague encouragement to be themselves, be their own unique self. Peter will find the light in that. He will find it in a person, in landscape and nature, in the detritus of the prototypical post-industrial industrial city.

Should commercial photography galleries vie for the work of Peter Stevens? Of course. Should his work be in the National Portrait Gallery? Without question. Is this likely to happen? No. You see, he too is a fox -- a Saint Exupéry kind of fox. To find and reflect the light in all things, he remains out of the light. Someone else must champion him.

As for the other two foxes, I encountered them twice more in Paris. The first time they were alone with George Whitman at Shakespeare & Company. They had found their way to one of the private nooks. A pattern was developing. So long as the two of them were together, engaging a human might be manageable. The human would have to draw them out; acknowledge being outnumbered. Mr. Whitman, who saw that they were without guile, was telling them that they could buy the cat they were patting. "No, you can have her, she clearly cares more for you than me." Here's what would have happened: Mr. Whitman would have brought the conversation around to poetry. The foxes would have rummaged in a satchel and given him a manuscript, but the floor creaked beneath my feet. They were gone in a twinkling, and I again felt like my shoes were being examined in a critical way.

The last time I saw them, it was again in the gallery district. They were excited, and had engaged the affection of another gallery owner. The three of them had become intimate, had created an enclosed circle. The circle could be easily broken. I kept far enough away this time. The couple were completing the purchase of a very reasonably priced Marc Chagall print. The gallery owner had talked her own price down for them. The couple were explaining, in a mix of English and terrible French, that the print was a wedding present. The explanation endeared them to the gallery owner. It went beyond words -- cheeks that flushed, tiny movements of fingers, sometimes hands -- never arms. Eyes but not heads. The wedding present was for Peter and Vesna. The gallery owner nodded as if she knew them.

Now enjoy the work of HA&L's Artistic Director, Peter Stevens. 
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[This HA&L biographical sketch and introduction © 2008 Vikram Bondai, Université Nouvelle - Paris 3.]