Photographer’s Q&A – Rod MacIvor
This week’s Q&A is with Ottawa photographer Rod MacIvor who retired after 27 years with the Ottawa Citizen and, before that, 10 years with UPI.
During a campaign appearance at CKWS in Kingston, Ontario, in 1972, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau found out the local candidate was a doctor. He then asked, “Do I look sickly?” and stuck his tongue out so the doctor could check. (Photo by Rod MacIvor/UPC)
You spent 27 years working for the Ottawa Citizen and 10 years for UPI. Have you really retired? What are you working on now?
Well, yes, I am retired from full-time photojournalism, and life is a lot more relaxing in the sense I don’t have to go to work every day. I don’t freelance for newspapers on assignment but I submit photos when I think I have something that can be used. I still think and take photos for myself on a regular basis, and anybody who is my Facebook “friend” gets a running report of my travels.
I have been doing some weddings (six this year), and I’m actually enjoying the experience. It keeps me in touch with my equipment (primarily a Canon 1Ds Mk II, etc.). Shot with a photojournalism style – which is more appreciated these days – the work is fun. (And it adds to my pension income, too!)
I give presentations to camera clubs, such as the Ottawa Camera Club and the RA Camera Club, and also to photojournalism students at Algonquin College, Carleton University and Loyalist College.
I also organize speakers for a men’s club that I belong to in Ottawa by using the many contacts I’ve made over the years. I have made myself available for another Cuban assignment, which I’ll talk about later, (below). I am also exploring the idea of filing to an agency and setting up a web page.
What was your favourite assignment? Least favourite?
I think the Trudeau state visit to Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela in 1976 was my favourite. I had a fight with Castro’s security goon and survived to tell the story.
The Trudeaus’arrival in Havana during the 1976 state visit to Cuba, Margaret is holding Michel. (Photo by Rod MacIvor/UPI)
What was terrifying was covering the seal hunt off the coast of Newfoundland (‘74?): landing on an ice floe that was barely big enough for the helicopter; jumping from one ice floe to another (with equipment), as the ice was bouncing up and down. The danger was not drowning – it was getting squashed to death between floes if you fell in.
Some photographers would probably point to your photographs of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, notably the picture of “PET” at 24 Sussex Drive in 1973 carrying son Justin under his arm like a football, as the most pivotal of your career. Would you agree?
Covering the Trudeau family for 10 years as a wire service photographer working for UPI was most pivotal to my career. Also, giving the wife of the Prime Minister some photography lessons.
The Trudeau photo of Pierre carrying Justin under his arm as an RCMP salutes him is my most famous and recognized image. But it did not really change the direction my career was going in.
Justin and Pierre, 1973: Winner of a National Newspaper Award for Feature Photography. (Photo by Rod MacIvor/UPI)
I humbly recognize that having Trudeau and his family at my disposal for 10 years as the UPI photographer in Ottawa solidified my career. Trudeau was an incredible subject and a good photo of him would be used all over the world and win me awards and recognition.
When Trudeau died, I was asked to put on an exhibit of 50 of my Trudeau images. We had 20,000 people view the exhibit as it traveled across the country. The exhibit raised $20,000 for Prostate Cancer Research. Most people who came to the show thought I had worked for Pierre. The photographs were like a Trudeau family album, but with news value and humour. Official photographers on Parliament Hill did not have the access to his family that news photographers did.
Trudeau was never fazed by news photographers. He played a cat-and-mouse game with us to amuse himself. He would fire paper clips, slide down banisters, and stick his tongue out, etc., when he thought we weren’t ready. I missed a lot of photos but concentrate on remembering the ones I did get! Photographers could never let their guard down around him – that was the fun challenge.
Pierre discovered in the hot tub, looking like a Roman senator in his bath, at a Montreal hotel during an ’74 election stop. Photograph taken through a window in the hotel lobby. (Photo by Rod MacIvor/UPC)
That 1973 photo of Pierre and Justin was included in magazine feature called “10 Photographs That Changed Canada,” and is now included in the hardcover book 100 Photographs That Changed Canada. Do you think yours did? Do you think in the age of mobile phone cameras and an oversaturation of media that it’s still possible for a photo to change a country?
I don’t think ANY photo can change a country, but as the authors (from Canada’s Historical Society) stated, my photo was chosen because it reminds people of an era and a time in our country that they will remember. I feel it was chosen because it portrays Trudeau as a family man and a Prime Minister who had style and a sense of humour. Many other Trudeau images could have been selected.
At this point, I will add that many, many immigrants to Canada who attended my exhibit commented that they chose Canada as a place to live because of the Trudeau images they had previously seen in the media. In the opening days of my Trudeau photo exhibit, many people carried a rose in their hands and had tears rolling down their faces. What other politican would cause that kind of emotion from people who had never met him?
Back cover of a paperback, non-authorized biography on Margaret Trudeau. Pic taken circa ’74 at 24 Sussex with my camera around her neck. (Photo by Rod MacIvor)
Are there any additional plans for the Trudeau work to be seen again?
The exhibit is not on display at the moment, but I have been giving slide/PowerPoint presentations for 30 years now, and those photos are a big part of the presentation. Eventually the images will be donated to the public archives.
You were supposed to go to Cuba with Margaret Trudeau earlier this year to work on a Peter Raymont documentary revisiting the famous 1976 Trudeau state visit to Cuba. What’s the status on that project?
Well the trip has been put on hold, as the Cubans have not yet given us visas to get into the country. Cuba is totally involved in negotiations with the U.S., removing embargoes, and getting ready for a huge influx of American tourists. They say they still want us to do the movie. Tentatively called Three Nights in Havana, the movie will compare the Cuba of ’76 with Cuba now, and will show how Cuba will change in the future.
Maggie Trudeau, early 1980s. Shot in the Ottawa Citizen studio for a fashion/television shoot. (Photo by Rod MacIvor)
Changing subjects, now: You are on the Advisory Board at Loyalist College in Belleville, Ontario. What kind of advice do you find yourself giving to students (technical, career, other)?
I try to key in on the personality of the student and whether or not it comes through in their images. Some students shine with little effort, others have to work at it. The more mature students (with degrees in physics, music, etc.) are the ones who have no problem proving themselves as visual artists.
I always had some doubt as to whether the number of jobs in our industry could handle 60 grads per year, but since the formation of the photojournalism program, many, many Loyalist students have established themselves as award-winning photographers.
As a Ryerson grad, I was told that getting a job was my problem, not the school’s. They were happy to educate you but if you ended up washing dishes, that was your problem. I think that was not a bad way to handle the issue.
On the subject of advice to students, we are often called upon to go over their portfolios. I do that as if I am interviewing them for a job. I am known as being totally honest about that, and many a student has come back to me in later years and thanked me for my straight talk. If it’s not working, they can try to improve or they can go in another direction, but why pretend that things are good if they are not? I knew I was doing OK when students started lining up for my critiques.
“Tribal dance” – Runners at Mooney’s Bay park, Ottawa, 1985. (Photo by Rod MacIvor/Ottawa Citizen)
How important is having a mentor? Do you/did you have one?
I think it’s important to identify with someone in the industry. Sometimes that’s a more experienced photographer, sometimes it’s your boss.
I think Gary Bartlett and Bob Carroll were both role models at UPI/UPC. Photographer Bruno Schlumberger’s uncanny ability to create feature photos at the Ottawa Citizen always kept me humble.
Watch the older guys, like Andy Clark at Reuters. Can you produce images like them? How do they do it? Look at photographs in the paper: tie them to the assignment and ask yourself if you would have come up with an image as good as or better than they did? Keep an eye on the young guys moving up. Can you learn from them?
“I want to be alone” – Cross-country skiier at Mooney’s Bay park, Ottawa. (Photo by Rod MacIvor/Ottawa Citizen)
What are some of the must-see websites you visit? Please include why you visit these sites (e.g. inspiration, guidance, information, education).
I don’t spend a lot of time visiting photographers’ web sites. I monitor NPAC and read the New York Times online, The Globe and Mail and the Ottawa Citizen every day. Otherwise, I monitor the journalism industry the best I can – equipment and photographers.
What is your favorite way to unwind?
Taking photos for pleasure: travel, sunsets, birds, people. My wife is an active birder and I found myself trying to capture photos of some of the birds and trying to treat them as “portraits”. It is also a good way to see parts of the world – American Southwest, Costa Rica, Mexico, etc. – that are normally not accessible to tourists.
For example, in Costa Rica, we travelled to the Cloud Forest in the Mountain area and found a Costa Rican Pygmy Owl with the help of a local birding guide. Two weeks ago, we travelled to national parks in Utah and Arizona, where the personal challenge was to capture images that would be worthy of a book, agency, etc.
Reading mystery/police/detective stories by David Baldacci, Jonathan Kellerman, Robert Ludlum, Eric Van Lustbader and Michael Connelly. Watching movies (DVDs).
I spend as much time as possible hiking with my wife’s family in the Adirondacks (Lake Placid) and canoeing at my cottage in the Gatineau Hills.
Top: Eagle, Florida, February 2009. Bottom: Red-shouldered hawk, March 2009. (Photos by Rod MacIvor)
What’s the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you about being a photographer?
I think the best advice I can pass on is this: I have learned that the ability to put subjects at ease, to work closely with fellow photographers, and to recognize other photographers’ abilities and learn from them, is as important as technical photographic ability.
You cannot be a great photographer if people don’t want to be in the same room with you. The ability to meet a stranger, get him/her onside and to have them co-operate with you in five minutes or less, is a skill that should not be undervalued – and it shows in the finished product.
Subjects should react to you, not to your camera. Your style and your personality is part of the final image. Some of the best photogs don’t even need a photo credit: from just their photographic style, it’s obvious who took the image.
Competition with other photogs is part of the game but I make a point never to block another photographer. If things are tight, share the space, take turns. We all have the same job to do and we should help each other survive. Many photogs appreciate that and return the favour when they can.
When on the same assignment, I shared information with radio and television crews. In return, they’d help me at some other assignment. Police and security officials also need to be treated as friends. Many a time they have come back and helped me get the image I need.
“Hay Days, 1992” – Farmer Sundance Smith brings in his hay the old-fashioned way. Smith called the paper hoping we would come and take his photo so he could match it up with clipping he had of his father with the same equipment. Photo taken in colour, but used as B&W on page one. Received a Citation of Merit from the National Newspaper Awards. (Photo by Rod MacIvor)
Any other points you would like to make?
Yes, to wrap it up: I have found throughout my career that people envy us as photographers. (E.g. I have had medical treatment for my back that resulted in an operation and, as happened many times, the neurosurgeon and the other doctors wanted to spend more time talking photography than about my back, even with waiting rooms full of people.)
Politicians, athletes, policemen, etc. … A lot of doors open to us because of our profession. I never felt I was going to work every day. I was always sort of surprised (and, of course, pleased) that people would pay me to do what I wanted to do. How lucky are we! I tried never to take that for granted.
I think some people in the newsroom do not understand the skill required to compete in our business because photography looks easy, (and because we are having a good time doing it!). I think it’s lost on the bosses of today that a good image, a winning image, sells newspapers. Many, many readers admire our images and our profession.
Unfortunately, one will never be able to survive on their still photography skills as my generation did. The need to understand news and journalism’s requirements are more important today than in the past. Video is “IN”.
So I consider myself lucky to have entered the arena as 35mm cameras became the tool of the trade, and to leave the arena as video cameras, or hybrids, take over. May all those still in the profession have has much luck and fun as I did (and as I’m still having!).
“Dog and his man ” – Lac Leslie, Quebec, August 2009. William Fenton and his dog are shown returning from their daily routine of fishing at dusk. (Photo by Rod MacIvor)