Warren Gordon celebrates 40 years as professional photographer

warren-2012-awardBy Greg McNeil - Cape Breton Post

SYDNEY — Although he didn’t begin his career in photography as early as most, Warren Gordon has managed a degree of longevity that is the envy of many in his profession.

Topics : FX Junior College , Professional Photographers , Canada , Cape Breton , Antigonish

This year marks his 40th as a member of the Professional Photographers of Canada and he’ll soon mark his fourth decade as a photography business owner.

While most aspiring photographers get the bug in their teens, the profession didn’t grab his interest until his college years at St. FX Junior College.

“My friends Max MacDonald, Kenzie MacNeil and Maynard Morrison were running the newspaper and the yearbook,” said Gordon. “They wanted me to get involved and asked if I would take some photographs. I thought I’d get my little Brownie one-piece camera and just take a few photographs. I had absolutely no idea, but I wanted to participate.”

He couldn’t find his Kodak Eastman camera, often referred to as a Brownie, so he ended up taking the photos his newspaper buddies needed with his father’s 35-millimetre camera.

Things grew from there.

“The drama society and Elizabeth Boardmore heard there was a photographer on campus and I had never taken a photograph yet, so she hired me to take photographs of the drama group. That was the very first thing I did. I was paid to take pictures of the drama group before I had even the foggiest idea what the heck I was doing.”

Despite that lack of experience in taking photos and only a brief introduction to developing them in a dark room, those photos turned out, he said.

Gordon went on to take photos for the yearbook and its college newspaper before moving on to St. FX in Antigonish where he took photos for that university’s yearbook, too.

From there an instrumental introduction to Canadian photographer Sherman Hines followed.

Hines, the publisher of hundreds of books of photographs of Canada and other parts of the world, signed Gordon up for the professional photographers association in 1973.

With just $300 to work with, Gordon opened his own business a year later.

Accolades for the well-known photographer have rolled in throughout his career, but especially this year when he won the top photographic scenic prize in Canada and gained an induction into the Cape Breton Business Hall of Fame.

“I’m getting the hang of it, you know,” he joked. “I’m starting to get them in focus now.”

In his hall of fame introduction speech he spoke about some of his career alternatives to the photography industry and where life might have taken him.

“I said that 40 years ago I turned my back on a promising career in the petroleum industry,” he laughed.

“I was actually pumping gas and washing cars at my father’s service station. And so then I didn’t have anything else particularly that I had in mind to do.”

While taking photos at St. FX Junior College, Gordon figured he’d also make a good truck driver or a similar profession.

“I thought ‘Well, I’ll do a few weddings and things to get through the summer and then get a real job in the fall.’ Truck driving lost its star. I ended up doing a reasonable amount of work and the next year more and the next year more.”

Gordon went on to become one of the area’s most versatile photographers, snapping photos in Cape Breton coal mines, at the Sydney steel mill and other industrial settings.

He continues to be sought after for wedding photos, aerial photography, architecture and school pictures.

Charitable organizations such as the Run for the Cure are among organizations he volunteers his time to, as well.

“I was a jack of all trades, as it were. Friends of mine who are really prominent photographers — award winners — say ‘That Warren Gordon he can do anything,’ meaning that he may not be the best at everything, but he can do everything.”

Books and calendars would become his calling card as much as his versatility. To date, he has sold more than 200,000 books and more than 200,000 calendars.

“I suppose in one sense the Cape Breton scenic books and calendars, I think, have been really beneficial to the island for tourism and promotion.”

Initially, those bestselling items were simply an aside to his business. He had no idea they would prove to be so popular.

“I’ve talked with people who have gotten something of mine for a gift and ended up bringing their family to Cape Breton for a holiday because they were entranced with the idea of looking at the place.”

One of those recent scenic images stands as one of his personal favourites.

The photo of Cap Rouge along the Cabot Trail was the Professional Photographers of Canada best pictorial image of 2012, an image captured during an early evening in August 2011.

“A lot of people think I hike through the backwoods and climb mountains, but really clients want to buy something where they can say they were there.”

His images of the trail, he said, are places where people have been for their honeymoon or locations they have sailed around.

“They don’t want to see a bunch of rocks in the backwoods. It is still Cape Breton, but not what they are thinking of.”

Another favourite is of Fabian Young, a coal miner he photographed in the late 1970s at the No. 26 mine in Glace Bay.

“It’s a typical face portrait — a very striking, handsome man and totally black face with the helmet and light and the whole thing. A few months after I took the photograph there was an explosion at the mine and he and his 12-man crew were killed.”

Technically, he said, the photograph of Young may not be the finest photograph in the world, but it’s one that catches the attention of everyone who views the large print copy he keeps in his Charlotte Street studio.

“Over the years, everyone who comes in comments on it. And of course once they hear the story of him dying and having nine children it really catches people. The guy’s expression, the light in his eyes, he looks so pleasant and approachable and nice and then you find out he was killed a few months later It really grabs people.”

His history in photos has also taken him through Europe, to Asia, across Canada and in parts of the United States.

“That is what I think I imagine as being the life of a photographer. Nowadays, the few real photographers around are very specialized, but I have had the photographer’s career that people think of — doing everything under the sun and having tremendous experiences.”

There may be more adventures in his future as he has no plans to retire. You can find him working six and sometimes seven days a week at his downtown studio or with his wife Katheryn, also an award-winning photographer, at their Sydney River studio and outdoor photo park.

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