Cape Breton's photographer:
People, events, places, Warren Gordon has shot it all
By Elizabeth Patterson - Cape Breton Post
SYDNEY, N.S. — At one time many years ago, Warren Gordon considered becoming a truck driver.
But life, as it so often does, had a different vision for him.
“When I started at Xavier Junior College back in the 1960s, Max MacDonald and Maynard Morrison approached me and said we’re doing the newspaper, do you want to be involved taking photographs?” Gordon recalled during an interview at his Charlotte Street photography studio earlier this week.
“I hadn’t taken any photographs ever but I said I would do that so I could be involved with my friends. Then the yearbook editor Kenzie MacNeil heard that the newspaper had a photographer so he asked me to do the yearbook photography and then Mrs. Boardmore of the drama department heard that there was a photographer on campus and she asked me to be the photographer for the drama group and photograph all their plays.
“So here I was the photographer for the newspaper, the yearbook and the drama group and I hadn’t even taken one photograph yet. And I didn’t have the foggiest idea how. But I did it. I did the first ones for the drama group and they seemed to turn out so I just kept on going.”
And kept going he did. For the past 45 years, the Sydney-based photographer may be best known for his photographs of Cape Breton scenery, beautifully displayed in his 21 books (15 self-published and six with other contributors) and 34 annual calendars. But he’s also snapped the photos of thousands of people through the high school and university graduation component of his business.
“I’ve taken graduation photos at Halifax West High School — the biggest school in the province — since 1974 and Sydney Academy since 1973,” said Gordon. “And most other schools as well. That’s several thousand high school grads every year for over 45 years — that’s about 200,000 high school grads. And there’s been well over 2,000 weddings, family portraits … there probably aren’t that many people around that I haven’t photographed.”
One of those who had her pictures done is Michelle Wilson, executive director of the Sydney Downtown Development Association.
“Warren Gordon is a household name in Cape Breton,” says Wilson, congratulating Gordon for his 45 years in business. “Speaking for myself, Warren did my graduation photos twice, along with thousands of others' photos for their life milestones over the past four and a half decades.”
REMEMBERING THE MINER
One of his portraits is perhaps his best-known photo.
It shows a smiling coal miner, headlamp glowing, his handsome face smudged with coal dust.
“I was in the Number 26 mine trying to do a portrait of a miner and this man, Fabian Young, who was a really nice guy, he stopped and allowed me to take his portrait,” says Gordon. “A few months later there was an explosion in that mine and he was the foreman of a crew of 12 — they were all killed in the explosion.”
Young left behind a family that included nine children. One of those children recently contacted Gordon about having the image of his father tattooed onto his arm. He sent a digital image to the son so the tattoo artist could work from it.
“The Miner’s Museum uses that photo as the icon for their museum,” says Gordon, adding, “You do have some effect on people in this business.”
TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS
Five years after he began taking photos, Gordon opened his storefront business on Charlotte Street 45 years ago, on April Fool’s Day. But staying in business while maintaining a high standard was never treated as a joke. He credits his mentor, legendary Nova Scotia photographer Sherman Hines, for getting him on the right track early in his career.
“He was the one who directed me and made the professional career possible. Not only did I see how he worked but I also saw how he ran his business. A lot of photographers over the years, who are very good photographers, didn’t understand how the business worked and didn’t last very long. I take care of the clients and get things accomplished.”
In addition to compiling books and calendars in his free time, he’s spent most weekends doing weddings and family portraits and, during the week, doing commercial and industrial photos as well as running his business. It’s normal for him to be at the shop six days a week and the remaining day is spent on other projects such as taking scenic photos for his ever-popular books.
He has been a Cape Breton Business Hall of Fame inductee and has won numerous national awards for his work. But at 68, he has decided it’s time to move his business to the studio and photo park in Sydney River in July that he shares with his wife, fellow photographer Katheryn Gordon, also an award-winning photographer and the person who did the layout for his latest book. The studio will be open by appointment only. He says he’s excited about the new direction of his business but he wants to make one thing clear: “I am not retiring.”
HAVE CAMERA, WILL TRAVEL
Working from home will be a change for Gordon but change and different situations really don’t faze him. Because he made a promise to himself early on that he would never allow fear to stop him from working, Gordon has always found plenty of work and himself in plenty of dangerous situations.
“Once, when I was in a coal mine, I heard a big whoomph behind me — I turned and a section of the roof the size of a Volkswagen had fallen right behind my ankles,” he says.
Back on the ground or above it could be just as life-threatening.
“The first time I ever flew in a helicopter, I was the photographer for the Wreck Cove project. We lifted off from the construction village in Wreck Cove. The helicopter went up about 200 feet and I leaned out to look out the window and the door swung right open. The pilot had not latched the door and I didn’t have my seat belt on either. So here I was 200 or 300 feet in the air, the door wide open and no seat belt on,” he laughs.
“I didn’t let it bother me. I reached over, got the door shut, buckled up and away we went. What else are you going to do?”
CELEBRATING WITH PHOTOS
To celebrate his 45th year in business, Gordon will be launching his latest book, “Cape Breton Reflections,” at The Old Triangle Irish Ale House, 424 Charlotte St., on Thursday, June 7, 5-7 p.m. The new book, a compact 6”x6” filled with 256 brand-new images, also includes its own shopping bag.
While he’s driven down every back road on the island in his constant search for new places to photograph, Gordon aims to show a realistic side of the island.
“I don’t want to show off my ability with either the camera or the computer — I want to show off Cape Breton. I want people to see what it looks like — to really experience it.”
Because he learned how to shoot with film back when it was costly, he learned to make every shot count. It’s not uncommon for him to go out for a day and arrive home with just one photograph.
“I’ve never really taken photographs unless I had some purpose or use for them so I don’t have thousands and thousands of images. I have specific ones. It’s like a sharpshooter — each shot counts — as oppose to someone with a shotgun hoping to hit something.”
While main street photographers have pretty much disappeared from the Maritime landscape, Gordon has been able to keep his business going thanks to adaptability and hard work.
“Hard work and treating people right — I think that’s key.”
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