Conversations with Strange Beauty: The Scratched Lens Collective

The Scratched Lens Collective is a collective of five photographers: Mark Brose, Allan Cullen, Steve Kean, Peter Owusu-Ansah and Kathy Toth. They came together with several other photographers as part of a master class with Vincenzo Pietropaolo, in 2012. That master class resulted in Street Level, a group show which was presented in September 2012 and has since had several other presentations both in Toronto and elsewhere: most recently at King’s College, in London, Ontario. Five of the photographers were invited to a participate in an advanced master class with Pietropaolo which allowed each of them to further refine our skills and develop their first solo exhibits.

Tangled’s Communications Coordinator Lindsay Fisher was able to interview four of the collective members and ask them a few questions about urban/street photography and how this collective has informed their photography practice.

How did the Scratched Lens come together?

Steve: Well, we were all invited to a master class through Tangled that was taught by Vincenzo Pietropaolo, a noted documentary photographer and a friend to all of us and mentor and the five of us worked together in that class for, what was it, eight weeks? And loved working together, got a lot from each other and didn’t want to see it end. We didn’t want to stop working as a group so the idea of the collective came and it just kind of stuck and we all just kept on going.

Mark: Especially looking at the show, we seem like we’re all coming from a different perspective but it’s really quite wonderful to see how all of our photography does really work together. There’s not the same vision but there’s like vision. There’s an interesting perspective that we’re placing on the idea of urban.

Peter: I guess one thing I experience with photography and all of these guys are here is just learning from them. I wanted to experience photography so I just joined those guys and learn from them.

Allan: It’s been a slow steady progression yet we really each maintain our own particular thread of subject matter and creativity so we’re uninhibited by a lot of rules but we still are able to keep our own personal identity and that was due to the previous class that Vince and we handled it and for me it’s been a very rewarding experience.

What is Street Photography?

Peter: Just the street, anywhere. It’s alive where ever you see. It has to be from your experience of what is out there. It could be sad stories but it can be anything. The moment you felt touch, the moment you felt shock. And that’s it.

Steve: Yeah, I think for me, when I started doing what I call street photography, it was moments. It was individual photos. It was slices of individual partial-second slices of life but now I think it’s about stories. It’s about telling stories about the way we live today, the way we live in a certain city, the way certain kinds of people live. Life on the street and life in public.

Image of the collective posing for camera as a groupAllan: It began when I picked up photography again and I photographed what was around me. For any photographer, you photograph what is around you, what is familiar. So I photographed the forgotten men – the homeless, the disenfranchised and my neighbours. People just pass by. I’ve taken the time to stop, get to know them and I’ve used my experience in painting to try to give them an artistic bridge so that we can cross our lives into their lives. I’ve been doing this for the last tens year. It started off as just black and white but it’s grown and so have I and I’m going to continue to use the skills I’ve picked up in art school with photography to sort of enhance people on the street – people who are generally ignored or forgotten or disenfranchised from society.

Mark: For me it’s a matter of really looking and listening and trying to become aware of your surroundings and there are things that happen all the time and there are scenes and people and situations and if you pause and you slow down, you can see these moments, you can find these moments. For me, it’s about finding that moment. If you try to rush it, you’re going to lose those moments. You really just have to let those moments come to you.

Peter: It’s also a piece of history. We see the history for future generations to come experience.

Steve: Street photography is just like any other art form. The inspiration comes from being open. Walking out the door with your camera without any expectations, without thinking I’m going to shoot x, y, and z today. Walking out the door and letting the life come to you and being open to what is right in front of you. Be willing to make a change to get that picture, to talk to somebody. A lot of work that I do, street photography isn’t technically street photography in its historical form which is often candid. I’m doing street portraits. I’m talking to these people, walking up to them and saying, “this is the project that I’m working on. I love the look. Can I take your picture?” Talking to them, spending a few minutes. It can be a pretty rich experience in a very short amount of time.

Peter: It’s also not just being on the street where you can shoot anything. It’s something that you have to feel. I don’t know the description but it’s a feeling right there that I felt I should shoot it.

Allan: I let my work talk for itself.

Steve: Telling people’s stories whatever those people’s lives are, that’s what we dedicate ourselves to doing as artists. We’re telling our story through the pictures but through telling the stories of the people I meet on the street, I’m telling my story.

Mark: It’s interesting sometimes to go out with a particular perspective, a particular angle and seeing how what you see responds to the idea that you’re going out with. Sometimes it’s very exciting to just be open to seeing everything, other times it’s a good exercise to go with a specific point of view and find those moments to tell a specific story inside what you see.

You’re all making me think about how when I’m out in public, I often put my blinders on and rarely notice the things that are going on around me. I’m just trying to get to where I need to go.

Steve: It’s a very Toronto thing to do but it’s also the way that a lot of us live our lives. I was talking to somebody last week and I said, “this time of the year I start walking home from work and it’s about a mile and a half walk, about 30 minutes” and I’ve caught myself being aware of where I am, at Bathurst and Richmond and then all of a sudden not being aware of myself until I’m at Adelaide and Sherbourne! How did I get that distance without killing somebody or killing myself? Because I was completely unaware so I do that! But when I’m walking, I go out with the intent of taking pictures, I’m a different person, I walk slower. I look, I stop. I see an interesting background. I’ll stop and sit there for half an hour and watch and see who walks by.

Mark: Or, yeah, you see a scene or you know what the scene needs and it might need an interesting person walking in front and so you wait. And you wait for that interesting person to show up and sometimes that interesting person shows up and sometimes it doesn’t. And sometime you come back tomorrow and wait for that person.

Peter: It can also be the light on the street – the light for instance just creates magic moments. Just feel, just see magic. I don’t know what the word is to explain it but it’s just, I think that there’s a link to this world. Touch. There’s an eye, you see and you say, “Wow!” For what the light creates.

Allan: My art doesn’t stop simply with the picture. I enhance it and change it. I try to give it more meaning then simply just taking a straight photograph.

Steve: A picture I took the other day – I’m sitting there waiting for the bus and at the side of the street by a building where I work, waiting for the bus and then that happens.(Steve shows me an image on his camera) She just walks there and strikes a pose in the light and she’s just standing there having a smoke and it just makes the scene. That photography workshop taught me to make some decisions before I go out shooting. For example, I’ve been shooting with this one lens, one camera in black and white for a year now. That’s all I shoot. One lens, one camera, one year and black and white and beyond that, the subject matter is completely mine.

Allan: I keep my camera holstered and I’ve been doing this for years. Even in Montreal when I was an early photographer, you don’t have to have the best equipment. Sometimes it isn’t wise to have the best equipment but a lot of my shots have been taken with a broken fifty dollar digital camera. It is timing, place, and taking more than one picture. Grab that first shot, compose the second shot and take the third shot to make sure you got it. But it’s often the choices you make after you take the photographs that show your style and personality – not the photograph itself but the choices as to what interests you when you edit the photographs. You decide what you want to say, what is appropriate so the editing and the choosing of the photographs that you want to show people is as important as taking the actual photograph.

How has the Scratched Lens Collective helped your practice?

Steve: Well it’s helped me because I have people to critique my work. That is a really important part of the process that, working in isolation as photographers, we often miss. My family loves my work, my friends love my work. They love every single picture I take but to have a group to say, “ok, here are ten pictures I took this week that I think are pretty good. Have at it”, and to get a really honest critique about, you know, “the composition on that one kind of sucks. Did you try this? did you try that? Have you seen this? To offer constructive criticism is a great gift and that’s the real strength of a group like this.

Are all of you really honest during critiques?

Mark: I think, yes, honesty is a big part of a collective. It’s a big part of being critical. Art criticism is a big part of what we do. We are critical of each other and true criticism is a positive thing. You can talk about what doesn’t work, talk about what does work. I think that is the big strength of the community that we’ve developed where, a photograph that one of us is working on, is assisted by ten eyes and five sensibilities of what those visuals mean. I can introduce a photograph to the group and I’m greatly assisted by what the group says and in the end, I can choose to ignore everything that they’ve said but I can also choose to listen to what the others say. That process is inevitably helpful.

Allan: Basically I’ve had gallery shows before but the collective has given me a higher level of participation in Toronto art scene and more different people see my work and yes, art is a constant practicing in trying to get better. This show is building this group of people, this helps me to grow and has given me a wider audience.

Peter: Showing with the same guys, together like this as the Scratched Lens – especially for me, my experience to show like this together. For me, people like myself, I don’t find it in this society of art. Sometime I want to see. Someday there is high spirit to keep company like mine, or maybe the same for you guys, more cheerful to see people like myself or stuff like that. Something that I want to see so Scratched kind of pulls me up, trying to create what I want to create.

Steve: I think Pete makes a good point – the Scratched Lens Collective is unique in the Toronto arts community. A group of artists, collectives aren’t unique. There are a lot of photography collectives and other art collectives but nothing like this, nothing like a group that are connected like the way we’re connected. Showing our work and working together to develop five distinct bodies of work and maybe at some point, develop something as part of a group – there’s nothing else like us out there and that’s a real strength.

Mark: I think Pete said something really nice too and it’s five of us pulling each other up, you know, working together to grow each other.

Do you ever fight?

Everyone: Oh, yeah!

Mark: That’s Steve’s third pair of glasses!


The Scratched Lens Collective will be giving an artist talk on Friday, April 24th at 7pm in the Urbanspace Gallery.

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