A Conversation with Simeon Posen at Toronto’s Liss Gallery

Simeon Posen at Toronto’s Liss Gallery in the heart of Yorkville; photo — Ryan Emberley

Simeon Posen, the famed Canadian architectural and landscape photographer, needs little introduction. With works spanning over four decades, two grants from Canada Council for the Arts, and the recent inclusion of The Iran Collection into the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection, Posen’s consolidated his position as one of Canada’s most respected photographers.

Posen is easy to talk to; the type of man one says of afterwards, He looks at you right in your eye. When I met him briefly at Liss Gallery in Yorkville — where you can see a selection of works from the Iran Collection — to discuss the exhibit, Posen was preparing for the opening night in the midst of his associates and admirers. We sat down among the hubbub of the preparation, surrounded by images of mosques, faraway lands, and markets.

Hoon: How did the Iran Collection come to be a part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection?

Simeon Posen: We were at the MET, visiting, and my partner said that we should contact the museum and show them the work. So after a number of phone calls, I eventually got to the right person, and he came down with one of his associates who was one of the associate curators. And they saw the photos and said, These are beautiful photographs and we want them. It was as simple as that.

Persepolis by Simeon Posen

H: Could you tell us a bit about your time spent in Iran in the ’70s?

S: I was there for two and a half months — there’s actually a map there where you can see how I went around. I went from North to South and from East to West. I was visiting to look at the extraordinary architecture of the country. Iran’s one of those countries where pretty much you can go anywhere and see something phenomenal. It’s not like northern Ontario where you can drive for three days and only see trees [laughs].

H: It’s interesting that you mention Northern Ontario. You’ve also photographed farmhouses, which aren’t necessarily buildings we look at as architectural feats.

S: As an architect, I look for simplicity, rhythm, patterns, lines. They’re not that unrelated. When photographing something like the Persepolis, it’s pretty hard not to take a beautiful photo. With something a little simpler and basic, you may need to work a little harder to find a composition you like. I’m not really interested in city buildings or new buildings — not that there aren’t some wonderful ones.

Isfahan – Friday Mosque by Simeon Posen

H: Part of the reason why the exhibit seems timely is because it feels, in regards to the turmoil in the Middle East, in part like an act of preservation. Did you have that in mind when you were photographing in Iran? 

S: No. I photographed them because they were beautiful buildings and because I’m interested in them as such and extraordinary structures. That dome there [points to the above photograph], if you look at it, you’ll see that it starts at the top as an octagon and it spreads out until it hits 32 points or so at the bottom. It’s phenomenal design. Phenomenal construction, apparently built without scaffolding. It’s incredible feats of ingenuity and design — that’s what I’m interested in. The fact that they are universal expressions is wonderful and I’m glad to know that. But that wasn’t what I was there for.

Firuzabad Highway by Simeon Posen

H: One of your influences is Ansel Adams, the famous landscape photographer. Could you describe to us his influence on your work? 

S: The beauty of the world expressed in architecture or landscape is fantastic. His landscapes are unbelievable and beautifully done, of course. But he was an inspiration because I was having trouble developing prints at that time. I was getting prints of very high contrast and…I just…basically, I gave up. I was at a school in the States and one of my friends there said, You should read one of Ansel Adam’s books on how to make an exposure called the Zone System. So I went into Phoenix and bought the book. The Zone System is a brilliant observation on how highlight and shadow work in relation to film. So I was reading along one particular page, scratching my head, and got to the bottom of it where there was a little asterisk that said, Don’t give up, go back [laughs]. So I went back, about twenty times, until I finally understood what he was talking about, which was the relationship of highlight to shadow; and the nine steps most film have between the darkest dark and the brightest bright. When you have that knowledge, you can start designing your negatives.

Isfahan — Friday Mosque by Simeon Posen

H: Could you take us through your creative process?

S: It’s simpler than you think. I taught a course a number of years ago at Toronto Image Works and all I said to people was — and this may sound corny — when you’re out someplace, if something catches your eye, that’s where you put the lens and make the photograph. It’s no more complicated than that. That changes as you change, but the best and the hard thing to do is to not think about it. If there’s something you want to explore, do so, but try not to think about it so much; instead, try to be intuitive about it. That’s the approach: put your lens right where your eye is.

H: So don’t think about compositions and whatnot?

S: Don’t think about it. Don’t look for the s curve and the rule of thirds and all those horrible things they teach you at camera class. I remember, many years ago when I was a kid, I showed a collection of the things that you do for composition to an artistic cousin — there was the s curve, the crosses, all the things that make a “good photograph.” And my cousin, he closed the book and said, Just go out and take pictures [laughs]. So that’s my advice. Stop thinking about and just enjoy it.

Damavand by Simeon Posen

H: You photograph in black and white. Is there a reason for your preference? 

S: Black and white has a way of abstracting things. There are wonderful color photographers whose works I admire, but I don’t know if I particularly think like that. But the uninspiring answer is that thirty or forty years ago, color was really hard to do; you needed perfect temperature control, all kinds of stuff. So even if I wanted to get into it, it was very difficult. It’s the difference between watercolor and oil painting — you have to know and look for different things.

Soltanieh — House Interior by Simeon Posen

H: Do you have any photograph in the collection you like in particular?

S: The answer is no. I once asked a friend of mind who has two kids, Which kid do you prefer? The answer was, It depends on the day [laughs]. Yes, there may be some days when I look at a photo and think, I really like that one. But on the next day, I’d really like another. I guess, maybe, I’d lean toward certain ones to a certain degree, but they are all like children. The attitude toward making the photograph in one location to another isn’t that much different.

H: I’ve heard that you developed the Iran photographs in the hotel bathroom made into a makeshift darkroom. Why the sense of urgency?

S: It’s a fair question. I was concerned, and in those days, security wasn’t like now — though it may be worse now. It was very erratic. I was worried that somebody was going to say, What’s in the box? Open it up. Nobody did as it turned it out. A box of developed films isn’t going to care if you open it, but a box of undeveloped ones… your whole trip is ruined. Or even when traveling around, if the box opens up, the films are ruined. There was a lot of anxiety about it.

Simeon Posen’s The Iran Collection will be on view at Yorkville’s Liss Gallery at 112 Cumberland Street until May 27th.