25th Trillium Award

On Writing & Photography, with Mark Schacter

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Mark Schacter

Photographer and journalist Mark Schacter views diverse aspects of our world through the lens of his camera. However far he may travel, he remains aware that Thunder Bay, the city of his birth, lingers at the corner of his mind's eye. "Thunder Bay still has the feeling of a temporary outpost perched on the edge of vast wilderness," says Mark. "That sense of being isolated, alone, vulnerable and ephemeral informs every photograph I take."

Mark recently had the opportunity to spend more time along the shores of the Great Lakes of his youth. His most recent book is Sweet Seas: Portraits of the Great Lakes (Fitzhenry & Whiteside), a stunning collection of photographs and essays about these awe-inspiring bodies of water. Today, Mark tells us how and why he undertook the challenge of representing the complexity of the Great Lakes with photography.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Sweet Seas: Portraits of the Great Lakes.

Mark Schacter:

Sweet Seas is a photographic portrait of the five Great Lakes of North America — a picture of what it looks and feels like to live, work near and travel around the Great Lakes. It also highlights the tension between our desire to both exploit the riches of the Great Lakes basin and protect its natural environment. The 160 photographs in Sweet Seas capture not only the Lakes' natural environment, but also their cities and towns, their ships, ports and rail yards, and their factories, grain elevators and power plants.


How did you go about collecting the photos for this book? Did you shoot all the photos over a short period of time, or did you slowly gather them from different trips over the years?


I shot most of the photographs for Sweet Seas between April and October of 2011. (A few were shot earlier — some as early as 2007. This would have been before the idea of Sweet Seas occurred to me. The earlier images came in handy once I started the project in 2011.) During those seven months I made a series of trips around the Great Lakes coastline. My typical method was to fly to a Great Lakes city, rent a car, and drive for about a week. As well, I was able to photograph the Lakes from a waterborne perspective. Some of the photographs were shot from a Canada Steamship Lines freighter, on which I sailed from Thunder Bay, Ontario all the way down the Lakes to Montreal, Quebec. I also spent a week aboard a cruise ship on a tour around Lake Michigan.


What was the most challenging aspect of the Sweet Seas project?


Easy answer: trying to cover as much of the Great Lakes region as I could within the usual constraints of time and money. The Great Lakes coastline is nearly 18,000 km long. On top of that the region is diverse: everything from intense industrialization to pristine wilderness. I wanted to capture as much of it as I could. I?m happy with the result but was frustrated by not being able to visit more locations. Among other places, I really wanted to go to Isle Royale and to the Keweenaw Peninsula, but just couldn?t manage it.


Is there one Great Lake (or one location along one of the Great Lakes) that you are especially drawn towards? Why?


It?s all magnificent. But I was born in Thunder Bay, Ontario, so I?d have to say that my favorite area is the north shore of Lake Superior. Also, the dunes and beaches on the east side of Lake Michigan have an other-worldly feeling — they?d get second place on my list.


How did growing up in Thunder Bay inspire your creativity? What do you miss about being an artist in that city?


Excellent question, because I think that no matter how many places you live in (and I?ve lived in a few) you never really leave the place where you grew up. Thunder Bay is a remote city — you have to drive 300 kilometers to reach the nearest city of comparable size. And although it?s neither a new nor a small place — the population is about 120,000, and the area was first settled by Europeans more than 300 years ago — Thunder Bay still has the feeling of a temporary outpost perched on the edge of vast wilderness. That sense of being isolated, alone, vulnerable and ephemeral informs every photograph I take. Being able to convey that feeling through imagery gives me a sense of accomplishment.


What do you believe is the single most important thing we can do to conserve and respect the Great Lakes?


That question would be better put to a scientist than a photographer. But I did learn a lot about the current state of the Great Lakes ecosystem when researching the essays I wrote to accompany the photographs in Sweet Seas. I just hope people recognize that through our carelessness we have done a lot of damage — much of it irreversible — to the Great Lakes. The scale of the Lakes is awesome and the vistas magnificent, and this hides the reality that the Lakes are fragile. The first step to saving them is to recognize that we cannot take them for granted.


What will be your next photography project?


I?m working on a book of photographs to be published late this year — again by Fifth House — called Houses of Worship. It will include approximately 160 photographs of churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and gurdwaras shot across Canada and in a few locations in the US. My idea is that although religious faith is invisible, a photographer can point a camera at tangible signs of its existence. Houses of worship are the visible accompaniment of the ethereal phenomenon. So the photographs will comprise a study — in bricks, clapboard, shingles, concrete and steel — of evidence of religious faith. I?m not religious, but I don?t think you have to be to recognize that houses of worship are visible signs of universal human needs for certainty, a sense of purpose and a connection to something that outlasts an earthly lifetime.

Mark Schacter is a self-taught photographer. Thunder Bay, the city of his birth, left a lasting impression on him, informing how he sees the world. He translates that vision into photography. An accomplished journalist, Mark has a Bachelor of Arts (Philosophy) from Yale University, a Bachelor of Law from University College, Oxford University and a Masters of Business Administration from the University of Ottawa. He is the owner and operator of a management consulting firm. Mark Schacter lives in Ottawa with his wife, two daughters and two cats. You can view some of his photos and find out more about his work by visiting his website.

For more information about Sweet Seas: Portraits of the Great Lakes please visit the Fitzhenry & Whiteside website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

1 comment

This is a magnificent book that can make us feel lucky to live in north america. It will also help us to understand how important it is to respect the majesty and vulnerability of these magnificent bodies of water.

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