An overhead view of hockey, featuring Isobel Pettem-Shand (Calgary Fire Red) during a game at Ed Whalen Arena, Calgary, Canada. © J. Ashley Nixon
Lines, light, colours. All of these, and more, come into composing a photograph, just like in painting. Although it’s not often that I pick up the paints and brushes these days (I should do that more often), my photography often has me visualizing scenes with a painter’s eye. Sometimes I think about some of the canvases I have seen on art gallery walls during my travels.
Pictures at exhibitions
I first saw Picasso’s Guernica in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), in New York in 1979, then again years later after it had been repatriated to Spain at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. Its harrowing existential graphics convey emotion, movement, and complexity; human victims, a horse, a bull; cubism rendered out of the tragic bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by Franco’s Fascist forces during the Spanish civil war.David Hockney exhibition, Saltaire Mills, Saltaire, Yorkshire, July 3, 2016. Photograph © J. Ashley Nixon
A walk through the erstwhile textile sheds of Salts Mill in Saltaire, Yorkshire, where I used to deliver conveyor belts, gave me pleasure from seeing an exhibition by Bradford’s famous son who went for the Californian sun, and a reminder of David Hockney’s masterful use of colour. Then the engraved graphics of the enigmatic master of illusion, M.C. Escher, come to mind, as seen in the former palace of Queen Emma in the centre of The Hague (Escher In Het Paleis), Holland. And the beautiful impressionist paintings of ballet dancers by Degas in the Burrell Collection, Glasgow.
There are other paintings I have never seen in galleries, only online or in books, that also might flash into my mind while I have a camera around my neck such as Andrew Wyeth’s enigmatic Christina’s World, and Edward Hopper’s fabulously lit street and café scenes at night. This brings me to Piet Mondrian…
I was introduced to Mondrian’s “neoplasticism” by my art teacher Mr. Clarkson at Greenhead Grammar School in Yorkshire. Pablo, as we used to call him (never of course to his face), would stride through our classes brushing back his long mane of hair, inspiring me and my mates to look more, see deeper, and learn about art. He taught me the skills of perspective drawing, a truly inspirational teacher who very nearly got me into studying architecture. Doubting my abilities in physics and maths, I steered a route instead into the biological sciences and, eventually, ecology. Those times in the art room were, pun intended, impressionistic.
Like anyone else drawn into the work of Mondrian, it was his big bold blocks of primary colours; red, blue, and yellow, demarked by crisp black lines pitched onto a massive white backdrop that got me hooked.
I saw Mondrian’s art again, not in a gallery but in a rink (see featured image, above). Not paintings on the wall; an impression of his work as I was photographing a hockey game between Calgary Fire Red and Airdrie Lightning in 2019.
Ed Whalen Arena in Calgary is one of the few arenas around that is blessed with an upper viewing area unobstructed by that pesky netting that keeps the parents safe from flying hockey pucks brandished by their wards. Not the greatest of light there (in truth, it’s dismal), but net-free, it presents the opportunity to look down into the corners of the rink and see the plays unfold from above the glass. Normally at hockey games, I’m focusing my lenses through the glass and I have learned to use the reflections that I once found distracting but now embrace for the additional sense of movement and tension they bring to some of my sports images.
For a shift or two, Piet was in the team.
Mondrian was on the ice.
And there I saw it! Not in the classical verticals and horizontals of Mondrian’s lines, but in the curves of the boards, the following of the glass and the lines marked out on the ice. Harmonies of blue and yellow, juxtaposed with the red of the Calgary Fire player’s jersey. All on a frozen, white backdrop. For a shift or two, Piet was on the team. Mondrian was on the ice.
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