James Wilson has been an artist working in the medium of photography for more than 40 years. James works from his heritage home and natural light studio in the beautiful Kennebecasis River Valley near Hampton New Brunswick, Canada. He uses large format cameras mostly, making colour images of the land and black and white studio portraits. James’s work involves digital photography and traditional silver photography. Although most of his work is straight camera imaging, James does experiment in image layering, textures, and camera movement to create images that challenge the emotions.
His “Social Studies” series continues to grow and is a compelling documentation of the lives and people of the early 21st century. This long-term project will result in a major travelling exhibition starting at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery with an accompanying book published by Goose Lane Editions both scheduled for mid-2020.
He has had 21 solo exhibitions and participated in numerous group exhibits, both internationally and throughout Canada. His panoramic landscapes, figurative work, and large-scale still-lifes have been most popular with collectors. James Wilson’s fine art photographs have been purchased for many private and corporate collections though out North America, Europe, and Asia.
Public Collections: National Gallery of Canada, Five Canadian Embassies, Canadian Consulate – NYC, Beaverbrook Art Gallery, New Brunswick Museum, New Brunswick Art Bank, University of New Brunswick, City of Saint John and City of Fredericton, Town of Hampton
Photo Art Workshops: James Wilson has been hosting art photography workshops with co-instructor Mark Hemmings in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico for more than a decade. He has co-instructed street photography workshops for three winters in Japan and now annually in Lucca, Italy.
Ahead of his book launch we thought it would be great to learn more about James’ journey, and what inspires him to create.
When did you first become interested in photography, and how has that evolved into what you create today?
My father Lew Wilson was a photographer and had a studio and film processing business on Union Street in Saint John where I worked after school and on Saturdays starting at the age of 14. I really did not think about photography being a vocation until I was in high school. Of course my father wanted me to become a commercial photographer and join the family business but it was artist Fred Ross that convinced me that photography could be a creative medium; this made me very excited to explore the opportunities.
Who would you consider to be your biggest influence(s), and/or who inspires you today?
I studied photography in New York after high school and it was there that I started to flourish as a young photographer making art through the camera lens. In New York I first saw the work of the great photographer Irving Penn and then I was hooked. I bought every book of his that I could find. He had such an effect on my creative energy. When I came back to Saint John, I worked for my father’s business helping mostly with the commercial photography that was the biggest part of the business. We did a lot of work for most of the Irving companies. My father used to say that he was not much of a teacher, but he was a great technician and I learned a lot just working with him and looking over his shoulder. In reflection, he was a big influence on me technically. Of course, meeting Freeman Patterson in the early 1970’s and participating in his very first photo workshop at Shampers Bluff in 1974 opened my eyes to the beauty of our New Brunswick landscape.
These days I travel a lot internationally including with our annual photo workshops that I co-instruct with fellow photographer Mark Hemmings in Mexico, Italy and Japan. Everywhere I go I visit art galleries seeking ideas and inspiration for my own work. The photographic artists I most admire these days are Canadians, David Burdeny and Ed Burtynsky, both landscape photographers, but coming from two very different points of view. In the category of portraiture, it is American photographers, Annie Leibovitz and Steve McCurry.
What kind of art do you consume?
Over the years I have acquired quite a large collection of Maritime art. Mostly paintings, drawings, photographs, and some sculptural pieces as well. I love to surround myself in good art. It enhances all aspects of my life. Good art in your life is good for the soul.
What can we expect from the Social Studies project?
Social Studies is a portrait project that constitutes a permanent social record or visual time capsule of who we are as New Brunswickers at the turn of the twenty-first century. It is a projection or communication outward of ourselves from the present to the future. It has been a long-term project for me over the past 20 years.
The many subjects – ordinary New Brunswickers – come from all parts of the province and from all walks of life. They are photographed not in their own environments, but in the artist’s studio, isolated in a neutral space to ensure the focus is only on them. All of the portraits are taken in natural light, using large format film or digital capture to render the subjects in high detail in black and white, giving the images a timeless quality.
“As Homo Sapiens, we are fascinated by looking at each other, and we react to visual clues, which are a form of social communication. We are defined by our outer appearance – what we wear, the style of our hair, our posture, our facial expression, and so on. These things say so much about us socially and visually.”
Wilson Studio spans over four generations starting with Isaac Erb in 1879, then son John Erb took over the business in the late 1920’s. My father Lew Wilson bought the business in 1939 and changed the name to Wilson Studio. I moved the studio to Hampton in 1993. I intend to leave these social portraits to the New Brunswick Provincial Archives to join the previous Erb / Wilson Studio collections so they will become a human visual documentation for future use keeping the images alive and revealing information of who we were at this time in history.
Being from the Saint John area, we’d love to hear a professional artists opinion. Which of our Saint John properties catches your eye, and why?
It has to be the beautifully restored Red Rose Tea Building. It is a classic with a great presence in Saint John. I particularly love the late nineteenth century industrial look with all the old arched windows and red brick.
Commercial Properties Limited is proud to support James, and his “Social Studies” project. By mid-June, 2020 the new book will be available for purchase on James’ website, and at the Saint John Arts Center.
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