Monday, April 12, 2010

At NSCAD 1976, pt.1

I started studying at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 1976. I was admitted into the Design Division. It was the usual course for a prospective student from Halifax. Working class Maritimers generally went into graphic design, while the more sociably mobile and lubricated kids from Ontario, the U-States and other far-flung places were admitted into the Studio Division.

What I recall most about the Design Building is the smell of ink and solvents coming from the press in the basement. I have the impression that the Heidelberg press was originally in the Bell Building and later moved to the basement of the Design Building. Or was it the other way round? Frank Fox would know. In any case, I have great memories of chatting with my first drawing instructor Ziggy Hass down in the basement. Ziggy was, I think, the director of the press at the time and it was a temporary position. Ziggy had had a stroke not long before, so he had limited ability to communicate. I recall during life class he would often show me how to render the figure by guiding my hand.

We held our drawing classes on the upper floor of Simon’s Warehouse, on the wharf at Historic Properties. This space also doubled as a college dance hall and I can recall a class being given there by Robert Frank. It was likely an early Art Now session put on by Garry Kennedy. Everyone in the college was there. Robert was a very nice fellow, quick on his feet and unassuming, despite being the most famous photographer alive. Later I had the good fortune to become friends with his brilliant wife, the sculptor June Leaf.

Back in 1976 graphic design students studied all kinds of now obsolete photomechanical printing processes. For youngsters reading this they will have to imagine a time before lap top computers and digital photography, though it seems hard to believe there ever was such a time, even for me!

To put this all in perspective, when I started in design, photo typesetting was just coming in. Back then a photo typesetting operation was something like a hybrid between a Commodore 64 computer and a C41 photomat machine and viewed as a startling new innovation by students and design professionals. As with all good things, our design instructors frowned on such technology and held that any kind of text that wasn’t composed on a stick with lead type and pulled on a proofing press; or better still, drawn by hand with a ruling pen and French curves, was the product of laziness or cheating.

Down in the print shop we learned and practiced such dead and gone print technologies as making PMT’s (photomechanical transfers) with a 16 x 20 graphic camera and a vacuum table. Line shots, a process where photographs were transformed, using screens of various fineness for graphic reproduction, and doing colour separations; a process by which colour photographs were manually divided into their primary constituents for registered printing. All these processes were done in poorly vented darkrooms with exceedingly poisonous chemicals.

Along with photomechanical processes, we studied straight photography. Photography was taught at the Coburg Road campus. The Coburg Road campus was in a converted church hall from around the time of the Halifax explosion. It had been in its day, the very modern and comfortable post Argyle Street home of the Nova Scotia College of Art. But by the 1970’s it was mostly empty and dirty with a distinct smell of dry rot.

The photo department was at the top of the building. It was composed of two large rooms, the main room and the studio. The main room was a large common space that opened into the gang darkroom, the colour darkroom, the advanced darkroom and Ted White’s office. Ted White was the senior instructor and had the only office in the department. I remember he was a chain smoker and would sit in his chair giving critiques with a cigarette between his lips. He never touched the cigarette except to light it or stub it out. Otherwise he would let the cigarette ash drop into piles on his large belly, which would only fall off when he stood up to go somewhere. This was before smoking was banned in public spaces. I think everybody in photo smoked, particularly in the darkrooms where you had to be careful not to fog the paper with the flash from your lighter.

The other instructors, Alvin Comiter, Gary Wilson and David Mackenzie hung out in the cage. The cage back then is identical to the cage today, except everyone smoked in it. I remember Bob Bean was always behind the double door signing out equipment and perhaps Chris Nielson was around then too. I seem to recall Ted Wan working the cage. Most serious photo students did a stint in the cage at some time to work out their college bursaries. I was a long time cage worker in the downtown campus.

There was, as well a small library of photo books in a shelf by Ted White’s room (perhaps they belonged to him), a photo mounting table with a tacking iron, a dry mount press, a print trimmer and a heavy paper cutter for cutting mat board. But the main fixture in the room was a huge drum dryer which rendered your print either glossy or mat, depending on which side the wet print was placed on the rolling canvas belt. Emulsion side up for glossy, down for mat.

This dinosaur persisted in the photo department well into the 1980’s and only went out with the total victory of multi-grade, resin-coated paper over old-fashioned single-grade, fiber-based paper. In 1976 we mostly used Agfa Brovira paper in little red packages. I liked Brovira #3. It had a wide range and good contrast. The more advanced students swore by Ilfobrome #2 paper and exposed, then developed their negatives accordingly.

This was attributable to Alvin Comiter’s influence. The idea was to over expose the film in the camera, then under develop it in the can, to get that hot and glossy Gary Winograd/Lee Friedlander L.A. look. Alvin liked that aesthetic, as it was also his own. I had the good fortune to learn black and white printing in 1976 from Gary Wilson. He was the junior instructor in the department and I think it fell to him to teach all the new students how to print. He was a great teacher, a true craftsman and a meticulous printer.

The photo studio was next door, just down the hall. I don’t recall the room very much because it was usually dark. It had a high ceiling, a wooden floor and was well furnished with half a dozen Mole lights in various sizes on rolling stands; a professional umbrella strobe, a hydraulic studio stand for large format cameras, a three roll back drop assembly and incongruously, an ancient three colour separation camera, that looked like a closet with three door knobs, stored at the back of the room. David MacKenzie gave his classes there and we did a lot of lighting. It was a great foundation in photography.

David MacKenzie was a first rate photographer in all respects from composition to advanced studio lighting. He had the facility in the studio that Alvin Comiter did not. David was from Toronto and was something of a hot shot. He was slim and lithe and had curly black hair. He and his partner Lynn lived in a second floor apartment on the south side of Blowers Street. I remember a Photo Illustration party there where we all drank too much cheep Italian wine (Fontana da Papa) and ate strange vegetarian food cooked with exotic ingredients like couscous, green onions and ginger. I had never seen a green onion before. They didn’t sell them at the Halifax Shopping Center Sobeys.

I was fortunate to have British graphic designer, Tony Mann as my Design foundation instructor. He was a wonderful guy, full of curiosity and a natural teacher. He was the type of instructor who could give a lecture on the evolution of chair design and make it a fascinating and thought provoking experience. I remember he took us all down to Lunenburg for a day trip to meet boat builder David Stevens. David was quite old at the time, or at least seemed so to me, and something of a legend. We saw a half sized schooner he was building in his loft. He showed us the tools and materials and described how a boat was constructed from them. It was the perfect lesson in applied design.

In Design foundation we also took a course in environmental planning. I don’t recall who the instructor was. It was a very interesting class with maps and land sat imagery and one of our projects was to do a land use survey for an imaginary housing development in Lunenburg County. So, perhaps there was cross purpose for our trip to Lunenburg. I remember we had a lovely picnic on Rissers Beach that day.

It was an interesting experience for me to meet and become friendly with all the Germans who taught in graphic design, Ziggy Haas, Horst Deppe, Jurgen Hoffmann and Hanno Ehses. My idea of Germans had been formed from American war movies and sitcoms Like Hogan’s Hero’s, where Germans were presented as either sadist, as in Schindler’s List – for a more contemporary example, or funny, like Colonel Klink and Sergeant Shultz. I recall there was an undercurrent of anti-German sentiment in the design division among some of the students. Perhaps it was because the German instructors were so tough and the attrition rate in Design was the highest in the school. One small thing that struck me at the time and I still reflect on, was a simple door sign outside the Design Division offices, where the word “design” had been scratched out with the word “joy” superimposed in Letraset. The sign read Joy Division.

Every student at the school had a mailbox in the small mailroom beside the Library. It was an open window space from the library desk to the boxes, so presumably your mail would be safe. I never got any mail except notices from the office, but students from away picked up their mail there. It was my morning routine to check the box, scan the NOW Bulletin for daily events, then go into the library and have a chat with John Murchie. John Murchie was the director of the library in 1976. Despite the important title, he did a daily shift on the desk and from his seat he came in contact with every student in the school. He was a charming guy and everyone knew and liked him.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Eric I enjoyed reading about your time and experience at NSCAD. I was a student all through the 70s. Great memories.

    Did you ever have Tom Klink? I am wondering where he is or even if he is still alive. He was a fabulous teacher and so gifted. I had hin as a drawing teacher for perspective drawing.

    John Murchie runs Struts, the artist run centre in Sackville NB. His wife Gemy Kelly works as Curator at the Owens Gallery on Mount Allison Campus. They are a wonderful couple and John of course is as charming as ever. Catherine Meyers