Pictured in a thousand words

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By Katherine Gauthier

Let’s just remember.

Way back before we had the worries of a passing grade or the ambition towards our future careers.  When things were simple.  Roaming the great vast fields.  Playing with the neighbours in the dirt. 

Now let’s zip back to reality and visit those same fields.  All you see is change.  Maybe a new street being paved or building being put up.  Or maybe just extreme erosion.

It is this change, this trying to remember the way things were, that inspired photographer Jon Corbet.

“Memories don’t fossilize,” he says.  “You have to make them concentrate.”

Corbet brings reality to his memories through photography.  With photos of mailboxes, rural landscapes, symbols of a small-town community, he shows how times have changed, how we have altered things and what we have left behind.

As a child, growing up in the community of Burlington, Corbet enjoyed flipping through National Geographic magazine, seeing bright pictures of beautiful land in a far off place.  “Seeing what was out there, frozen in time, was really keen to me,” says Corbet.

It wasn’t until he was age 16 that Corbet started to expand his interest in the art of photography.  Through a Grade 10 photography class Corbet discovered a new way of seeing.

“Simple objects took on a new form,” he says.  “The camera acts to take what is there.  It is up to us to find what is within.”

Corbet joined the yearbook committee, tutored photography students and worked extensively outside of school to learn more about his craft.  His teacher, Ian Cowling, was a great influence during high school.

“I opened his eyes as much as he opened mine,” says Corbet, remembering the knowledge they shared.

Cowling remembers the first time Corbet used a camera simply as a recording device, not as an expressive one.

“Corbet shot a very realistic interpretation of events,” says Cowling.  “He then moved to a very interpretive, abstract use of imagery.”

Cowling says by the end of high school Corbet moved back to a more realistic view, but kept the strong expressive quality as before.

“I was very impressed with how Corbet, after taking to heart the necessary rigors of photography, threw away the rules and played with it,” says Cowling.  “He was not afraid to go through a lot of time, paper and film to find a motive.”

This summer, Corbet went to the Centennial Gallery in Burlington in hopes of displaying his work.

“I approached the gallery and asked for an application for showing space,” he says.  “And the lady told me they were booked to year 2001.”

As lunch had it, Burlington was celebrating its 150th birthday this September, and Corbet’s theme fit.  His potential three-year wait shortened to just a few weeks.

Looking at his work may see a mailbox impaled by a stick waiting at the end of a driveway.  You may see a field sustaining an unknown crop.  You may be unsure, for you are used to the sigh to fax machines and fields of concrete buildings.  But the images you see are more than what they seem.

“I recognize all the things in Corbet’s work from growing up in Burlington, things I may have taken for granted, but his work has mad me notice the aesthetic qualities of where I was living,” says Heather Traher, a second-year photography student at Ryerson.

Traher says Corbet’s work is also inspirational to other beginning photographers.

“It’s different going to a show by someone who is a student,” Traher says.  “It reaffirms your belief in the ability of a student to do something with your work.”

Cowling had the unique opportunity to see Corbet’s work develop.

“I didn’t think too much about his mailbox series at first,” he says.  “But I was glad to see it several times, as it was developing and being worked on, because what I recognized within it was a series anchored strongly in realism with an icon quality.”

Corbet hopes to eventually win a Canada Council grant to make art that represents Canada just as famous photographer Robert Frank represented America through his work.  Corbet says it will take a lot of skill, patience and luck but at the end he will have created his own vision.  “And once you create it, no one can take it away from you.  It becomes a part of who you are.”

John Corbet is a third-year photography student at Ryerson.  His work, entitled Faces, Landscapes and Change: the Community of Burlington, will be on display at the Centennial Gallery in Burlington until Sept. 30.

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