Photographs copyright: DAVID McMAHON
I was probably about six years old when I picked up a Ladybird book and took it into the huge garden to read on the cane furniture under the shade of the giant trees. That book was my first introduction to Quebec City and I was immediately fascinated. Now, as an adult I look back on that crystal-clear memory and I am trying to work out why I was immediately captivated.
It was because of a simple reason. As a little fella who had not yet studied much history, I simply didn’t realise the strong French influence in the region and I had never heard the term "French Canadian" before. Little did I know that one day I would travel to Quebec City with cameras slung around my neck, to record scenes from a beautiful city that captivated me so many years ago.
It was the first time I set eyes on the Quebec City Mural, a three-dimensional, five-storey trompe d’oeil (French for "to deceive the eye") that includes several people who played a prominent role in the city’s rich history. Among those who are painted into the mural are François de Montmorency-Laval, Louis-Joseph Papineau, François-Xavier Garneau, Jacques Cartier, Jean Talon, Comte de Frontenac, Louis Jolliet, Samuel de Champlain, Lord Dufferin and Felix Leclerc.
As you can see from the shot above, the weather was dull and grey. The mighty St Lawrence in the background reflects a brooding sky, yet the whole sight is arresting nonetheless.
The mural itself can be quite challenging to photograph. Can you guess why? Because there are always tourists milling around, listening to tour guides and trying to focus their cameras on the mural to capture their own distinctive view of it. I spent about an hour there on a cloudy afternoon, shooting various aspects of the mural.
There are many things that fascinate me as a photographer. It’s not just the technology at our fingertips; it’s not just appreciating the rapid advance from mixing chemicals in a darkroom to chips and memory cards; it’s not just the choice of angles and compositions. Above all those, it is the human process of self-discovery that completely enthralls me.
Give a human being a camera and you open up a whole range of possibilities.
So as I stood there, hoping it wouldn’t rain as the heavens had opened above me the previous day, I realized there was a distinct possibility that I might not get a chance to photograph the entire mural without anyone else ‘intruding’ into the frame. And that’s when my own process of self-discovery began.
If you have a problem and you can’t work around it, then you worth with it. Quite simply, I decided to use the milling tourists as a bonus, rather than a detriment.
Instead of becoming frustrated that I could not get that one elusive, clear shot, I spent an hour with a big grin on my face, enjoying the challenge of using the tourists around me to tell the story of the mural. I began to utilise the very presence of other visitors as an added dimension to the mural.
This shot (above) was taken from the left-hand side of one group. I trained my lens on the bottom storey of the mural, showing not seventeenth-century figures in flowing robes but contemporary figures in modern clothes. The "real" tourist in the foreground fitted in perfectly. Why did I choose him? Because he was wearing a baseball cap and it was more or less the same colour as the wall. Simple as that.
This shot (above) was taken from a slightly different angle. I had a few seconds to make my decision on this composition, because I saw a male tourist hand his camera to someone else and I knew he wanted his photograph taken. To my good luck, he strode off to stand beside the mural.I had just enough leeway to frame this shot that almost endows him with the same quality as the people painted on the wall. To a casual observer, he might just pass off as just another painted figure. Can you pick the real man? (Answer: he's the figure in the foreground, wearing a cap and a jumper over a blue T-shirt!)
There was a group of about twenty tourists hanging on every word of their tour guide. The guide, mindful of the threatening clouds, was in a hurry to move the group through the square. I quickly composed this shot, lest they scoot off to their next stop, or seek shelter from the weather.
I was in the middle of the square when I noticed these two people on the curve of the hill to my right. They were in perfect position for me to swing my camera up and take a quick shot, freezing two contemporary figures alongside the men and women who shaped the history of the beautiful city.
If you didn't know that the mural ended at the wall, you might even think that this whole frame, including the cars and the two men by the street light, were artfully included in it.
Sometimes the strangest things happen when you have a camera in your hands. Having started out by trying to get a clear shot of the mural, I walked back as far as I could to try and get a shot of the whole mural with as many tourists in front of it as I could possibly get in one vertical frame. By the time I had found the perfect vantage point, with the added value of the curved, dark green handrail, guess what had happened? It had started to drizzle. The crowd cleared miraculously. And I was blessed with the shot (above) I had sought all along.
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