You’d think it would be easy to take a photo in these days of point and shoot, Instagram filters, auto-focus and Photoshop. But no exotic landscape, professional lighting or high-end camera can make magic the way a photographer like John Marris does when he takes what we think we see and gently nudges it beyond.
Artist/photographer Marris is something of a serial nomad, and Peterborough is just the latest stop in his international wayfaring. After a successful IT career, Marris decided to change horses and pursue academia – “to find out if I was smart,” he tells me. He completed a degree in English and Film at the University of Wales and an MA in Literary and Cultural Studies at Lancaster University. Along the way and “governed by restless angels,” he picked up the industrial dust of a school-dodging boyhood in Birmingham, UK, the broody lushness of the Welsh seaside, the rugged soulfulness of the Pyrenees, the timeless ochre soil of the Australian outback, and presently has set up camp here, at the edge of the Canadian wilderness, where he settled in to complete his PhD at Trent. Excellent stories of hiking and biking, goats and international gear head gatherings in the outback, and encounters with ancient cave paintings abound. Despite a successful academic career and publications of his poetry, visual art was something he pursued only after coming to Canada and it gives him something that purely cerebral pursuits cannot. He’s a seeker of both knowledge and meaning, and is clever enough not to confuse the two. “Art isn’t intellectual – it’s the counterpoint to the intellectual,” he says.
The Bender Frame Project is an exhibition of Marris’s photography installed at the indomitable Gallery in the Attic as part of the 2014 Spark Photo Festival. The work evolved from an experiment in intentional community, where Marris and some friends set up tents built from saplings and canvas in the Pyrenees. Though the group dispersed with summer’s end, the imprint of that era stayed with Marris and he revisited it by erecting bender frames on a friend’s land and capturing the interplay of the fragile structures with time and the changing seasons. Building the structures undoubtedly was a necessary part of the process; you can see the influence of Andy Goldsworthy’s impermanent environmental art. I like Marris’s sparse yet surprisingly tender photos, sweet vines clasping saplings, shadows as structure. The work does not rely on tricks or fancy camera footwork, but rather a carefully considered, almost Victorian, and heartfelt interaction with the subject. The images strike me not so much as a series, but as distinct explorations – some in colour, some in black and white, investigating a variety of seasonal palettes. Some focus on texture and architecture while others on colour or the relationship of scale to the surrounding landscape.
But his paintings and collages tell another story: an exuberant, abstract tug of war between the academic and the artistic side of his personality with enough rawness to make them exciting. The work is often self-referencing with hints of his affair with language. He turns me on to a 1978 film by Peter Greenaway, A Walk Through H: The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist and I have an insight into his fascination with maps and the filmic qualities of his work.
An endeavour close to his heart is his work with youth at risk for the John Howard Society. The students in the Quantum Program worked with Marris to produce and curate photos and accompanying texts for a group exhibition with SPARK. “There is something about collaboration,” Marris says, “about working with people who have been told that art is not for them.” He describes his efforts to draw out their feelings about the images they created. For me, the vision and voices of his charges come alive with a sense of self and place, and ring through the halls, as if for the first time in their lives.