Negotiating Intimacy with Jim Verburg – NMP

Capturing fleeting moments, ephemeral glimpses and cinematic memories, Jim Verburg uses light colour, intimacy and sexuality to show us a tender side of relationships in his photographic work. NMP had a chance to talk with Jim about his process and practice.

NMP: When did you first pick up a camera?

JV: I can’t remember when I actually picked up a camera, although I always wanted one of my own. The summer I was fourteen, my dad let me use the family point and shoot during summer camp, and I took a lot of photos of morning light, mist and canoes. Later that year, I set up a little one-day studio in the family rec. room. I draped a sheet under a row of spotlights, and had my sister sit on a backward facing chair and laugh with her hands in the air. I guess I wanted to capture what I saw in fashion magazines. I asked for an SLR (single-lens reflex camera) every Christmas, but didn’t get one. There was actually a year that everyone in the family got a camera for Christmas except me, but that’s another interview… I eventually got a hand-me-down SLR and started taking lots of photos.

NMP: How does intimacy factor into your work?

JV: I’ve always found that there is such a shift to what you’re experiencing when you look through an SLR camera, the framing and focusing of what you’re seeing surrounded by black; there is something quiet and intimate about the experience. It allows you to meditate, to focus on an aspect of what you’re experiencing. The camera is kind of like a small personal cinema where the photographer is both the director and the audience. I have always loved this experience. Do you remember the View-Master? The viewing device with the paper discs of images that you clicked through? When you were peering into it, it was the only thing that existed- a mini, dark, personal, theatre with clear bright images.

I remember being disappointed when the photos [of my sister] were developed. They weren’t as magical as when I was peering through the lens. Maybe that’s why I moved to work with the projected image- to get back that brightness in a dark space.

NMP: How has your practice evolved, and how has your approach changed?

JV: Well, after falling in love with light, I think I fell in love with love. All I wanted to do was photograph the people in my life, specifically men that I dated. Looking back on it, I think it was a way to make sense of what I was feeling and in a way, creating what the relationship was through photography. I saw it a certain way, and I wanted to hold on to the way I was seeing it. I guess I wanted to capture the beauty of what I was experiencing. It’s interesting actually- when I entered into a long term, more permanent relationship, I didn’t feel the desire or need to photograph it. I wanted to live the relationship rather than interpret or portray it a certain way.

In the beginning, portraiture was always tied to my love or attraction to the person. People say that all portraiture is self-portraiture, and I guess the images at the beginning of my career was very much about how I was seeing my relationships. Through the encouragement of a professor at Concordia, I started to explore portraiture of people I didn’t really know or wasn’t intimate with. The photographs are very different, as is the approach, and it becomes more about composition, light and aesthetic beauty.

NMP: Is your sex life and your photographic life intertwined, and if so, how do you approach your subjects/partners? What is their response to “the process” and what are their reactions to the work?

JV: I find most of my work more intimate than overtly sexual. That being said, I don’t want to down play sexuality in my work. I’ve always wanted to present sexuality as a multi-layered and normal aspect of life and relationships, rather than as one-dimensional, overly stylized sexy images [as they] might portray in porn or fashion. Don’t get me wrong- I love images that portray sex or beauty, it just hasn’t been my primary concern. There’s no formula. Every interaction is different, whether it’s with someone I’m intimate with or someone I hardly know. Often, with someone I’m intimate with, the camera is around when we’re hanging out, and there are hardly ever planned shoots. I’m usually inspired by how the light falls somewhere, or I’m just struck by how beautiful someone looks in the moment. “Hold on, I just want to get my camera,” is how it often happens. For people I don’t know, it’s more of a planned photo shoot, and the model just shows me what they want to show me.

NMP: Can you talk about your film and writing practice as well as your installation work? How do you decide what form a project takes?

JV: People have often commented that my photographic work looked very “filmic”. Years ago, when I was living in Kingston Ontario, a film student saw a little exhibit of my work at the local cafe, and thought that I would be a natural at film making. He gave me to reels of 16mm film (I think about 10 minutes worth) and asked me to make a film about whatever I wanted while he made a video about the process. It was a fun experience thinking about how I might translate a photo project into film. The result of our collaboration played at a few festivals, but it’s a bit cringe worthy when I look at it now. There are a few great ideas, but also some pretty bad ones. I didn’t make any film or video until 5 years later for a class at Concordia. That piece was made entirely of still images; I thought that it would be a good way to make the jump from still to moving images. It’s the only form of film and video that I’ve done since (using still images). I think in the past I would be inspired by something I saw; now I feel like I’m inspired by something I think or feel. I write it down, and then think of the best way to portray the idea or emotion. To be honest, I found working with one photograph or a series of photographs to be a bit limiting. It’s a great challenge to convey all you want to convey in one image. When you’re working with moving images, you can play with pacing, the juxtaposition of images and sound. Sound can add so much. Especially when the work is about intimacy or about personal stories. A voice can be a very powerful tool.

NMP: Do you think your practice is moving more towards film and video?

JV: I’m not sure. I think it’s a really great way to get an idea out. Film festivals are a great venue for an audience to see what you do. It really does depend on the project. I’m currently working on a series of short films that deal with hidden personal stories based on recorded interviews. I’m also working on a series of individual portrait books and an unresolved text piece. So yeah- it all depends on the idea. Someone asked me if I was a photographer and I found it a difficult question to answer. I think my practice is based in photography but has moved to other media. As much as I love light, colour and form, my main concern is to portray emotional matters in a way that doesn’t manipulate people into feeling what I want them to feel, that issues about family and relationships can be expressed in ways that normalizes the experience. I recently had a meeting with a curator from Finland. When she had finished watching “For a Relationship,” she looked at me and said, “there is so much I want to tell my mother but can’t…” which started a great discussion about the complexities of family relationships. I felt really good after our conversation. It was exactly what I hoped my work would do. By telling personal stories in a certain way, other people can connect with their own stories, histories and the way they feel about their relationships.

Jim Verburg was born in Belleville, Ontario, and has lived in Vancouver, Kingston, Ontario, and currently lives and works in Montreal. His work has been exhibited, screened and published nationally and internationally.

His second film For a Relationship screened at the 2008 Oberhausen Short Film Festival in Germany, and won the 2008 Jury Prize for the “Best Canadian Short Film” at the Inside Out Film Festival in Toronto. The work has also recently been nominated for the Iris Prize in the UK. He’s held residencies at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) and Gallery 44 in Toronto. In spring 2009, he had a solo exhibition at Widmer and Theodoridis Contemporary Gallery in Zurich, and was featured by the gallery at the HOT ART Fair 2009 in Basel Switzerland. http://www.jimverburg.com

Comments from old site:

Submitted by Antonymouse (not verified) on Wed, 11/04/2009 – 03:10.

Do you ever have moments when you wish you *didn’t* have your camera?

Or that you could just enjoy without feeling like you were missing out by not taking a photo?

Submitted by Manon (not verified) on Wed, 11/04/2009 – 03:04.

These photos are really striking. Intimate, indeed. Very good to have them showcased in the journal. Great cover, too.