Whittling down 135 of Ted Grant’s photos from his collection of over 300,000 was just part of the process for Thelma Fayle.
Her first feature book, a biography, Ted Grant: Sixty Years of Legendary Photojournalism, launched last week. It took the freelance writer deep into the life of the renowned Canadian photojournalist for the past two years. Now 85, Saanich-based Grant is as emotional as ever, and is very much the same man who shot nine Olympic Games, the Vietnam War and countless iconic Canadian and international moments.
“When I read (the book) I had it for three hours and I cried half the time I was trying to read it. I’ve published eight (photography) books but they have been about others, not myself,” Grant said.“I’m emotional. When I was on assignment I’d be crying while trying to focus the lens. Same with seeing kids in Chernobyl (post-nuclear disaster). The emotion drove me to stay in the moment and watch.”
So often, Fayle was overwhelmed with the decision process of what to include. She sifted through more than 300,000 Grant photos at the national archives in Ottawa and thousands more in his Saanich home. The stories, which she gleaned from 50-odd interviews with him and several more with former colleagues, totalled well into the hundreds of hours. All of it spoke to Grant’s bold spirit and colourful character. Even Grant had trouble picking one photo over another.
The experience was uplifting with the only one downside, fitting it into 224 pages.
“I wanted to honour a hard working Canadian artist and Grant is just that. So many Canadians know his work but not his name,” Fayle said.
Fayle, a former government worker turned author, started slowly. As the project grew, and with Grant on her side, 10 interviews with Grant turned into 20, then 30, with Grant pulling off all kinds of surprises for Fayle no matter how far along they got.
They charted Grant’s time shooting from the beginning, when his wife Irene gave him a camera in their first year of marriage back in Ottawa.
“She kicked it all off,” Fayle said. “The first chapter is about Irene. She was there when I shared the news, all of us at their kitchen table, that the book had a publisher.”
Having just lost Irene, his partner of 60 years, Grant was in the grieving process.
“Right from the start I thought, ‘I’ll just start interviewing him, and take it slowly,’” Fayle said. We limited it to two hours a day, usually once a week.”
Somewhere around the 35th meeting Grant uncovered a lifetime scrapbook, three-feet by four-feet in size, which he’d been working on for 60 years, he said..
Then came another major find, a box of Grant’s diaries, again charting his career, which she was able to use to cross-reference his many stories.
Despite Grant’s tag as the father of Canadian photojournalism, Fayle’s pitch was rejected by 12 publishers before Heritage House agreed to take it on. Some never even responded, she said.
“I think people are going to freak out when they read some of the stories,” Grant said. “What a job she’s done to craft these into the book. I really think it captures (that) you get what you give out of life.”
Both author and subject will present the book at the University of Victoria on Sunday (Oct. 27), 2 p.m. in the David Lam Auditorium of the MacLaurin building. Grant is scheduled to speak at UVic for 25 minutes but will likely go over. The event is free, as is parking at UVic on Sundays.
The longer Fayle spent with Grant the broader his persona became.
“One day, far into our time together, he says ‘I’m going to speak at Reynolds secondary today.’”
Fayle tagged along and watched Grant, 85, command the interest of teenage arts students for an hour and a half. Yet another surprise for Fayle, was that Grant has made annual visits to teacher Dean Norris-Jones’s class for over 30 years.
“A student in front of me, 16 years old, started eating a sandwich. He unwrapped it and took one bite then left it sitting on his desk the entire class while listening to Grant. It was a good looking sandwich. That tells you something.”
As a 65-year-old, Grant parachuted solo out of a plane. For his 76th birthday Grant and a friend arranged to fly in a Second World War-era Spitfire.
“In my other life I always wanted to fly in a Spitfire or a B-52 bomber, which you can do now. The waiting list was long, but we figured out if you made a donation to the flight museum you can jump the line, which we did.”
For his 80th birthday, Grant shocked his grandkids during a family gathering in Ottawa.
“I’d been practising for months to do 80 sit-ups on my 80th birthday. My kids and grandkids (in their 20s) didn’t know. When I laid down outside on the deck they said ‘what’s wrong with Grandpa?’”
His grandkids didn’t believe he could do it and bet he wouldn’t make it to 25. Once he was into the 50s, all bets were off.
“They started cheering me and counting down the sit-ups until I hit 80. Then I did one more, 81, to show them Grandpa can still kick ass.”