Geoffrey James

"The first thing I do is create a framework. I never walk around aimlessly with a camera hoping I’ll find something to photograph. I work on projects, areas of investigation, and so I’m always working on a subject of interest to me. But the actual taking of the photograph is a whole set of other actions, and they are extremely hard to analyze. The main thing is the condition of light."

- GJ 2003

Geoffrey James is a picture maker who invests the raw materials of light, paper, and chemicals with the power to recall things. For over thirty years, he has been investigating Western society through two opposing themes: the ideal spaces - formal gardens and sylvan parks, and the sites that record the impact of culture on nature- the wastelands of mining sites, and the economic systems of a problematic international border.  James has commented that the best photography gives a sense of what it is like to be there, that it has “a mnemonic power that no other medium has, a power to recall things, which painting doesn’t have.”

James was educated at Wellington College, Berkshire, and at Wadham College, Oxford, where he graduated with a degree in modern history in 1964. The same year, he moved to North America where he worked as a reporter for the now defunct Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. He also began photographing scenes of Philadelphia. In 1966, James moved to Canada; working for several years as associate editor of Time magazine in Montreal from 1967-1975; as head of the Visual Arts, film and Video section of the Canada Council, Ottawa from 1975-1982; and on various independent freelance projects. From 1982- 1984 James continued photographing while working as a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa.

In the 1980s, James travelled around Europe with an old panoramic camera, taking pictures of 17th and 18th century gardens, and the Roman Campagna.  His interest in gardens shifted to North America where in the 1990’s, he photographed for seven years, the urban parks designed by F.L. Olmsted, a project sponsored by the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal. From his initial interest in the bucolic and utopian, James shifted over the years to a fascination with the effects humans have had on the rural and urban landscape.  In the Asbestos series of 1993, he explored the slag heaps left by the asbestos mines in Quebec. In the Running Fence project of 1997, James explored the 14-mile metal fence erected by the Americans along the California/ Mexican border. In 2000, he travelled to Paris on a Canada Council Grant, capturing the transformations of that city with an 8x10 camera.  His recent investigations of the built environment, Lethbridge, Toronto, 905, and the way in which human activity registers upon it, focus on architectural forms. 

James’s photographs reverberate with a sense of history, yet are solidly rooted in the present. His ability to locate human aspirations within built environments, coupled with a keen sense of pictorial structure, have allowed him to discover poetry and irony in both the planned landscapes from the past and in the visual complexities of our contemporary urban environments.

Geoffrey James is a Fellow of the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, Chicago, and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, New York. He is the recipient of the Victor Lynch Staunton Prize of the Canada Council, the Roloff Beny Foundation Photography Book Award and has received the Gershon Iskowitz Foundation Prize. James is a member of the Royal Canadian Academy.

Geoffrey James, Tijuana (1997) © Lee Friedlander