Dr. Ted Grant: A Canadian National Treasure

Ted Grant is one of Canada’s most accomplished and prolific photojournalists with 280,000 images in the National Archives of Canada and another 100,000 images in the National Gallery of Canada’s Museum of Contemporary Photography. These images, which comprise the largest collection by an individual photographer in the history of Canada, were honored by the University of Victoria with an Honorary Doctorate of Laws Degree in recognition of his remarkable and outstanding career.

Referred to as the father of Canadian photojournalism, Dr. Ted, as he is affectionately known, has been creating iconic images for well over half a century, quietly clicking with “the eye of an artist, the concentration of a surgeon and the reflexes of a cat.” Grant has published eight books, three of them dedicated to the work of medical professionals. In 2003 “Doctors’ Work: The Legacy of Sir William Osler” was republished, followed in 2004 by “Women in Medicine: A Celebration of Their Work,” co-authored with Sandy Carter. Bravo TV produced a documentary film about this outstanding photographer’s life recording the events and history of Canadian’s and people of the world. In the interview that follows he shares the profound truths behind his poignant images.

Q: Your images of the medical profession at work have a sense of straightforward authenticity characteristic of the best photojournalism, but also a heartfelt emotional quality one usually associates with fine art. Can you say something about how you bridge that gap in your photography?

A: The truth is, I never think in this fashion; therefore, I have no need to bridge the gap, although there have been a number of my exhibitions in galleries that evoked similar comments about fine art. I understand why some of my photos have a fine art appearance about them, but they are all real life as it happens. Not a word is spoken with the medical staff, but these are my subjects and I capture them just as my heart relates to the moment. I’m a pure photojournalist and have been since the beginning on September 17, 1951 when I had my first newspaper photograph published. My way has always been to capture life regardless of subject or location in as straightforward and truthful a manner as possible!

Maybe the emotional impact occurs because I’m a very emotional human. I have, on many occasions, been crying and shooting at the same time. A simple example occurred on the Olympics medal podium. A Canadian athlete won a gold medal and it was being presented as the Canadian National Anthem was being played. As the tears started I attempted to focus on the athlete and shoot while crying and looking through a motor driven Leica R8 fitted with 400mm 2.8 lens! It’s a challenge at best, but I’ve always been successful in capturing the magic moment with tears and my heart thumping proud. My photography is emotion driven in capturing reality as truthfully as I can.

Q: What characteristics of the Leica M rangefinder camera do you feel are especially conducive to your kind of photography? Which Leica lenses do you use most often and can you say something about why they work for you?

A: The “M” stands for magical silence and simplicity. That’s what M cameras are all about! Put an M around your neck and in many cases you look no different than the quiet unsuspecting amateur photographer. This can be a major factor if the assignment entails a police presence to keep media related people away. However, the amateurs are hardly bothered. An M camera? It’s an amateur! It’s also so many other things; the M viewfinder is sharp and clear, the focusing is quick and it fits in my hands as though it were custom made. It’s quiet and quick handling. And if you can see it, you can shoot it! An M? You can’t beat it if one shoots in this fashion. I work 100% of the time with available light and never use flash, so the Leica M serves me extremely well.

Look at my medical books — all shot in existing light under the most amazing available light conditions and the M clicks away capturing what I observe during those magical moments of medicine. They’re probably 90% M photography! Depending on the assignment I was shooting, and certainly during film days, I’d often have three M cameras hanging around my neck and resting on my chest. They’d be stacked one above the other so they have a gap between each.  On the top one, a 21mm lens, a 35mm on the middle one and on the bottom camera, a Noctilux! Please understand that this three M camera array wasn’t used on every assignment. Often they were complemented with three motor driven Leica R8 cameras: two off the left shoulder, one on the right, again with lenses of varying focal length.

Q: Since you are a Leica M8 shooter, have you ever considered acquiring a full-frame Leica M9? If so, which lens or lenses do you think would complement it best for your type of work?

A: I am actually considering acquiring three M9s! That way I’d be able to work in the identical style of the past many years during the film era. The lenses would be the same, 21mm, 35mm, Noctilux and a 90mm if and when required. Generally I favor the 50mm f/1.0 Noctilux as my longest working M lens. I prefer to use lenses of 90mm and longer on an R body.

Q: Do you think that you take the same basic approach in covering the medical profession as you have when photographing, say, the children of Chernobyl and international sporting events? Can you tell us something about the similarities and differences in what you are trying to achieve and the equipment you use?

A: The international sports scene is quite a challenge at any time due to the numbers of photographers packed into designated photo areas. Capturing peak action is most photographers’ goal during these events. That is the driving force each time the starter’s gun is fired. The competition among photographers is intense because you want to capture that absolute winning moment or the high jumper at the peak of her jump. If you are really into the sports scene, your reflexes, attention and reaction to the action must be finely tuned and at their peak — it’s no different than the athletes. Particularly in sports photography you can’t think, you just shoot. If you are thinking about the race or event it’s over and you’ve missed your shot!

Shooting the medical scene is as completely different from sports as midnight is to high noon. You are alone, meaning you’re the only photographer. It’s nearly silent but for a few quietly spoken words and ticking sounds of equipment and one must be absolutely aware of how the light is accenting the subjects far more than the arena of the Olympics where you rarely have any choice of moving to a better lighting location. When you move within the operating room (OR) you move very carefully and know exactly what direction you have to take without fear of touching a sterile table with medical apparatus. The most important thing is this: if you feel like you’re going to faint or worse, throw up, get out of the OR immediately and even if you have to sit on the floor out in the hall that’s fine. If you faint during an operation, you will be left where you are until the operation is over. Or if you are in the way, the medical staff will drag you to a corner out of the way and leave you there until it’s over.

Q: Do you think that your long experience as a photographer of the medical profession gives you a special insight in being able to create compelling images of doctors at work that convey the gamut of human emotions?

A: I had well over 20 years experience shooting individual medical assignments for newspapers and magazines prior to my 30-year concentration on the medical profession for my books. Now given all those years of seeing events from birth to death, I truly do not believe those years of experience on the “front line of the operating table” made any difference in how my emotions and visual reaction affected the final photographs. It still came down to KISS (keep it simple, stupid)! The process was and always has been “see … click!” Don’t think or it is gone forever!

Q: Your image “Doctor Eyes and Patient in OR” seems to be the very embodiment of empathy and human compassion and the antithesis of “professional detachment” that is often demanded of doctors. Can you tell us how you came to take this picture and what it means to you?

A: Unfortunately and humbly I offer this: I do not have the kind of reactions about pictures that many photographers do. The most important part for me is “get it right!” In this case I wanted to focus on the surgeon’s eyes, so I sat down on the floor with my back up against a wall and because I was at the closest focusing point of a Leica 180mm f/4 lens I had to squish my body harder into the wall to get the image in focus. I went “click!” Truly it’s that simple. It’s just another image. There’s no great pontification about the reasons! Sorry I couldn’t make it sound more melodramatic!

Q: Your image “Surgeon Eyes During Operation” is a remarkable statement about the intensity and focus required by surgeons, and yet it has such a personal and human quality. Can you tell us something about creating this image and how you feel about it?

A: Again, I didn’t create anything! I saw and I clicked! Photo captured! End of story! However, I can say that surgeons concentrate so intensely during tight moments in an operation it is quite amazing and you have the storytelling eyes to photograph. But again I have to quickly add that I do not think about these individual moments as I react to what I see without thought, other than the feeling in my heart and my one good eye! Yet as soon as that key moment is over the talking and chatter picks up as though nothing is going on. Now this is the time to watch for smiling eyes because that’s all you can see, the eyes! Yet at times good, bad, ugly and happy, they can be quite storytelling with the greatest of impact!

Q: You mention being influenced by Alfred Eisenstaedt and Life magazine. What essential lessons, spirit or techniques do you think you derived from studying these images?

A: They were my heroes in my rookie years! I wanted to do what they did; namely, photograph people in various environments all over the world! They seemed to shoot without a flash in the face of the subject so their photographs were natural looking! I wanted my photographs to have that natural look and not the “big blast of flash in the face” look. So I shot as much as possible according to the motto of “If you can see it, you can shoot it!” Without question using a Leica M yields images that are absolutely true right down to a few candles on a child’s birthday cake!

Q: Aside from the subject matter, what do you think differentiates your upcoming book about medical students becoming doctors from your previous books, “This Is Our Work,” “Doctor’s Work” and “Women In Medicine”?

A: I’m not sure there is anything other than that the images will be truly international, taken all around the world. Medicine isn’t a one country profession nor are the learning institutions! I hope it will demonstrate that regardless of color, creed or religion these young people will become doctors to serve the population of planet Earth everywhere they are required!

Q: Since you have had “a love affair passion you never want to end” with photography for over 61 years, how do you think your photography has evolved over the decades? Or is it a case of, “The more things change, the more they remain the same”?

A: That’s an interesting query. There isn’t any question that I feel I have improved as a shooter due to my years of experience! However, I’m kind of inclined to think that  given my years of successful experience, it might well stay the same or certainly similar in the future. Why would one change the recipe for a fine chocolate cake, if it has been so successful? Besides, my love affair with being a photojournalist, photography and the excitement of life presents itself in so many fashions. I can’t imagine changing anything other than having another 61 years to do it all over again with brand new subjects and locations! If only? I’d be back at it in the blink of an eye!

However, here I am in my 83rd year and still shooting regular paying assignments that have been published in many newspapers across North America during the past eight months! So as long as you can see, feel the moment, love life and record it why wouldn’t you continue the greatest love affair of your life?

Q: What do you think is your most significant accomplishment over your long career as an acclaimed photojournalist, or which undertakings or images are you the most proud of? Aside from your forthcoming book do you have any new projects in the works, or are you inclined to pursue new photographic genres?

A: Honestly? That given all the nearly killing, crashing and crazy moments in my life, that I have survived this long! Of what am I most proud? My medical books without question, as they are the most unique straightforward real life recordings of the men and women devoted to medicine and caring for humankind! Trust me, nothing is any better than that!

Thank you Dr. Ted!

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Ted’s work on his website, http://tedgrantphoto.com.