A writer who uses images instead of words. A tender-heart. A man fascinated by eyes, without the full use of his own.
Ted Grant is the silent observer, the father of Canadian photojournalism and an 82-year-old Saanichite teeming with enthusiasm for a lifestyle he can’t leave behind.
In the basement of his Gordon Head home, Grant keeps a compact black camera on the couch next to him.
His modest rec room holds more than a few clues to decode the man behind the lens: wood-panelled walls are covered in clippings, awards and photographs. Books of his work sit atop the coffee table. The camera next to him is a Leica, a German brand favoured by top photographers worldwide. “But without all of that whiz-bang stuff that’s available today,” he said.
With Grant it’s all about capturing a moment, which doesn’t require 80 lenses and extra gadgets.
He’s been hooked on the wonder of photography since peeking into his father’s cardboard box Brownie viewfinder as a boy. Later, as a young newlywed in 1950, he received his first camera – a 35mm Argus A2 given to him by his wife, Irene.
“Well, you’d think I’d been handed a million dollars,” Grant said of the gift that changed his life. “I couldn’t get out to get film fast enough.”
Grant hung bedroom blankets over their sunroom windows and blackened Irene’s baking tins with acidic acid to create a homemade darkroom.
He remembers the exhilaration of seeing his name in print for the first time. It was Sept. 17, 1951, beneath a photo of a stock car in the Ottawa Citizen.
“I couldn’t believe it. Here I was with my pictures appearing in the paper saying ‘photos by Ted Grant,’” he said. “The real beginning of the dream of becoming a news photographer began.”
Over the years, his images have become iconic: oil and natural gas exploration; harvest time on the prairies; candid shots of celebrities, from Jackie Kennedy enjoying the RCMP musical ride to former prime minister Pierre Trudeau famously sliding down a banister.
Grant is also known for his work at every Olympic Games from 1972 to 1992. Many times, despite his experience, he found himself with a camera around his neck and tears in his eyes.
“I’m a very emotional person – an emotional jerk at times,” he said. “They’re playing O Canada and I’m crying and trying to take pictures and focus the camera at the same time. I’ve done it more times than I can count. That’s how I am.”
Perhaps his finest work during the Games came when he captured Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson’s 100-metre win.
“I say I just got lucky, but the fact that I got lucky might have been because of a little bit of planning,” Grant said, admitting to scoping out his hideaway in the stadium trenches the day before the race.
Having the foresight to find these moments doesn’t mean he sets up his subjects.
“Nothing’s posed. I’m a writer, but I use a camera to write what I see. I don’t plan anything. I detest having to pose people. Give them something to do and you will find magical moments,” Grant said. “A lot of people think: ‘Look at the camera now and smile!’ Almost any idiot can take that kind of picture. The thing is to capture people while they’re completely involved.”
Of the people in his photos, few are as focused as the medical professionals he’s featured over the years – including thousands of photos taken at Royal Jubilee Hospital.
His latest exhibit on healers, The Silent Observer, chronicles students of the Island Medical Program. He discovered the subject as a surgical patient.
Fascinated with the operating room, medicine remains Grant’s biggest photographic passion.
With limited vision in one eye and subsequently little depth perception, Grant relies on emotions to direct his Leicas. His process is simple: “Observation, light, eyes, click,” he said. “We show so much about ourselves in our eyes.”
His observations have inspired a generation of photojournalists who entered the business in the 1970s, including Andy Clark, a senior photographer with Reuters who met Grant in 1974.
The two were shooting the same news conference in Ottawa when Clark, who described himself as an inexperienced whippersnapper at the time, got in Grant’s way.
“Instead of giving me a good cuff in the back of the head or scolding me, he approached me and asked very nicely if I would kindly stay back where he was because that was the better angle,” Clark wrote in an email to the News. “Of course he was right, and the pictures were better. A few moments later a colleague who was also covering the newser nudged me and said ‘you know who that is?’ … After the event was finished he came over and introduced himself and I, of course, apologized profusely to which he downplayed.”
The two have been friends since.
“He was a class act from the day I met him and that one eye of his is magic through a viewfinder.”
Passionate? Yes. Poetic? Perhaps. A Luddite? Not Grant.
He sees modernization, from Apple products to online photo-sharing, as a part of the communication revolution. Still, the man who doesn’t use flash reminds the next generation of photogs: “A lot of people don’t take you seriously if you only have one camera, but you can be just as deadly.”
Grant has published eight books of photography and has 280,000 photos stored in national archives through Libraries and Archives Canada. Another 100,000 are at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.
He is the only photographer to hold both gold and silver medals for photographic excellence from the National Film Board of Canada and received an honorary doctorate of laws from the University of Victoria in 2008.
Check it out
The Silent Observer runs Monday to Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. until April 2 at Maltwood Prints and Drawings Gallery, within UVic’s McPherson Library.
Grant will speak at a free public lecture March 10 at 2 p.m. in room A003 of the McPherson Library.