Photography has been a passion for me for over 40 years. It has allowed me to explore the world around me, to develop an understanding of light, and to open doors which otherwise would have been closed. My thoughts are images.
I work primarily in film and to print. I prefer large format cameras (bellows and ground glass viewing) and large format prints from 16×20 inches to 40×50 inches or larger in size.
I want my viewers to feel they can step into the image as they stand before it.
I check my email twice daily, so you can be assured that I will answer your enquiry promptly. My email address is james(at)jamesemler.com.
My mission is to heighten the awareness about our planet to see beyond simple perception. I believe that the strongest and most unique force on the planet is in the will to live. This is the Garden of Eden, we are part of the garden and that we are failing as its caretakers. Part of this failure is our inability to appreciate the magic that surrounds us. To this end I photograph landscapes using traditional techniques, sheet film, bellows based large format cameras that require a meditative approach. I want to see beyond the norm and reveal the unique power of that life force
I use Infrared film to present the landscape as a magical place, to inspire us to see the simple things around us as having beautiful, magical, spiritual properties. I also use normal black and white film to reveal structure and light.
Gifts From My Father
I guess every boy grows up idolizing his father. I was no different, my dad was at once loving, compassionate, warm, hard working, thoughtful, dominating, self-assured, powerful, and terrifying.
He died when I was young, and with his passing, the structure of my life dissolved. I loved him and hated him at times but I need to say that he was a very good man.
My earliest memories of him are alive as a set of images in my mind. The first of these comes from a time when I was 3 or 4 years old. I had a strep infection and I can remember him as he carried me across the field behind our house, to the hospital. It was late at night, the sky was clear and I can remember looking up from the cradle of his arms to see the silhouette of his head etched against the sky, a dark shadow, surrounded by stars.
My second image is only indirectly related to my father. He was a catholic and insisted that I be educated in a Catholic school. So as I entered grade one, I found myself sitting in a room full of strangers, in a neighborhood that was far from my own, being derided by a rather nasty old woman in black robes. I was the tallest boy in the class but I had a learning disability in the days when they were not recognized as an impairment. I also had a lazy eye which caused me to see double when I was under stress.
As far as Sister was concerned, I was a slacker and she decided that the cure for my laziness was to shame me in front of the class, which she did whenever it suited her. So, that was it for me. I decided that I hated her, I hated school, and I became passively resistant. I never did the assignments she gave us, never did homework, and endured her endless badgering with a largely deaf ear. I daydreamed my days away and put up with whatever abuse she leveled.
I was pushed out of grade one, dragged through grades two and three by the same group of nuns who seemed to have collaborated on making my life as miserable as possible.
The first day of grade four was a shock. My teacher turned out to be a rather nice woman who was not a nun! She was strict and experience had taught me to be wary of her but she treated me as a normal student. It didn’t take long for her to discover that I couldn’t read and she requested a meeting with my parents to discuss it. I was busted! I expected that my father would be furious when he came home but he said nothing until the next day.
That night, he came home from work with his newspaper and after dinner, called me to the kitchen table. “You are going to learn to read,” he said. “If you can read, you can do anything.” I believed him.
So every evening after dinner, we sat together at the kitchen table as I read the newspaper to my dad. It must have been a pretty gruesome experience but I learned to read and to ask questions about the articles so I could become informed on world events. The newspaper became my bible, and those nights when he sat with me at the table became my treasures. It was his greatest gift to me as a child and I honor that gift every day.
Over time I discovered that Dad had his own difficulties in school. His father disappeared early in Dad’s life leaving his Mother to fend for herself. This was during a time when single divorced women were virtual outcasts in society and from what I can gather her life was very difficult. She was a devout Catholic and decided to place him in a residential school run by the church. I can only speculate on what it was like there.
He ran away when he was fifteen and somehow made his way from Buffalo New York to San Diego California where he worked at an airfield for room and board and flying lessons. Eventually, he apprenticed to an airframe mechanic and became one.
This began a life, which seemed to me to be one of the most romantic stories I had ever heard. My mother told me that when he got older he spent several years barnstorming, flying from town to town, offering flights to locals in a Curtiss Jenny biplane. When war broke out in Europe, he came up to Canada, joined the air force and met my Mom. They were married in 1943. He was posted to Britain shortly after, and was there until the end of the war.
He never talked about the war and he rarely talked about flying but over the years I learned that his life as a pilot was anything but romantic. However, he still loved flying and every once in a while, he would tolerate a few questions.
Of course, he was my hero and though we never really connected, his love of airplanes became mine as well.
Unfortunately, he died young. In 1965 he had a huge heart attack and died in his bed at the age of 52. My mother was devastated and never really recovered from her loss.
I was the eldest of six kids and life became very difficult for us all. Our world became a different place. We were all aware of the hole that existed in our lives and each one of us experienced that differently. My Mom couldn’t deal with the world for a long time.
I had experiences where I felt sure that I was seeing him on the street. I would feel this strange sense, a presence, a shift in my reality and then I would see him just ahead of me, beside or behind me, just out of reach. There were times when I believed so strongly that I would almost break out into a run to catch up with him. I felt incomplete with him, though his words echo in my mind even today.
“if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well” he would say. I embraced those words and still do.
This really came to a head in February, a month after he died. It was a Saturday morning on a winter day where the air was crisp and still. The snow crunched and squeaked under my boots. On days like that, I had to go out a few minutes early to start the car and let it warm up a bit before I could drive it. I had just come back in when the phone rang.
Of course it was someone looking for Dad. By then I was almost used to explaining that he was no longer alive but this man seemed so surprised. He went silent for a moment and I waited for him to process this new information. Finally, after I’m sure was just a few seconds, he expressed his sadness and said “My name is Bob Goodall, and I have a photography shop on Hargrave Street.”
“Your father brought a camera in to me and asked about having it fixed as the shutter was jammed. Well, it is pretty good camera and we fixed it for him. I was just calling to let him know.”
He paused for a few seconds and said “I think you should come and pick it up.”
I was pretty excited, it felt like this camera was a message from my father. Bob Goodall was a wonderful guy. He wouldn’t let me pay for the repairs and insisted that I try the camera out. After patiently explaining how to make pictures with it, he gave me two rolls of film and told me to bring them back so he could process and print them for me.
The next day, it was a Sunday morning I remember, I went out to take pictures, It was a perfect winter day. There was hoar frost everywhere, not a whisper of a breeze, and the trees were dressed in the glory of that beautiful, delicate coating of crystals.
I was so excited. If I recall, there were only ten shots to the roll and I used them up in no time. The next day, I went back to the store and dropped the film off with Bob. I was elated. I felt that I had discovered a way to record beauty and was convinced that the photographs would be beautiful.
Well, they were and they weren’t. There were two that I thought were lovely but I was disappointed with the rest. Bob patiently went through them with me and showed me how I could do them better, how to crop them, how to explore my subject.
My confidence was fueled by my enthusiasm and the next day I called my girlfriend to arrange to go over to her place to do her portrait.
Now, in February, the sun sets at about 4:30 so by the time I got to her place it was dark. She had a lamp in her room but I knew nothing about lighting or portraits for that matter but I was optimistic and we did the second roll. I took the roll to Bob and the pictures were awful. He did his best to encourage me saying that portraiture was a skill to be learned and practiced. The best photographers spent years learning the craft. But I felt crushed; Julie insisted on seeing them and was pretty upset about them too. We broke up shortly afterward and I thought, well I guess I’m not good at that either.
I never took another picture for seven years.
“It’s a man, lock the door!”
In the summer of 1973, I was working on contract to the Royal Bank. We were building their saving and loans system using Cobol. Initially, I took the contract while I was living in Winnipeg. Burroughs had hired me as a programmer and for the first few months I was living in the Palisades Hotel on Robson Street. My wife Pat, was still in Winnipeg and after a few months we moved, lock, stock and barrel to a two bedroom apartment in the West End of Vancouver.
Pat and I were not doing well. In fact our marriage was a disaster right from the start. I think I married her as an attempt to get away from the chaos that was my family home. When we got married, I discovered that my friends were taking bets on how long we would be together. I was furious of course, and decided that we would show them how wrong they were. That decision was to haunt me for six years.
I won’t go through the problems we had. Suffice it to say that they were numerous and we were both to blame. But in the sixth year of our marriage I had decided that I was done. I could not continue with it any longer. I told her that I was leaving, we could split the few assets we had and I planned to leave on September 30, exactly six years since we were married.
My work required working on weekends. One Saturday I had written a lot of code and took the coding sheets over to a service bureau that was a block away. On weekends things were much less structured and as usual, I walked in the rear door. Going in the back way put me at the back of the keypunch room. There were two aisles of machines with young women sitting at them keying in data which was transposed on to punched cards. It was a tedious task that I would often do myself but this time I had written a lot of code and I was in a bit of a hurry.
As I entered the back of the room I heard one of the women exclaim, “It’s a man! Lock the door!” She immediately got up and walked down the aisle to where I was standing. She was just over five feet tall, well proportioned, wore blue jeans and had bare feet. I had never seen a woman swagger before but that’s what she did.
I admit I was a little taken aback. She was quite beautiful and had a mischievous smile. I showed her what I had and she told me she would do them herself. I could come back in half an hour.
When I returned, she gave me the stack of cards held together by an elastic band. On the top was a blank card with her name and phone number. “Phone me,” it said. I smiled, a bit embarrassed, thanked her and left.
Things were pretty tumultuous in my life, I was trying to get myself organized to move into my own apartment, which I hadn’t even found yet. Two weeks passed in the blink of an eye before I called her. “It’s about time,” she said, “I was beginning to give up on you.” We agreed to meet the next day for a walk in Stanley Park.
That sun drenched walk changed my life. We held hands almost instantly and never let go until we kissed goodbye.
Beverlie was a Canadian Elizabeth Taylor with a sharp mind, abundant sense of humor, sparkling blue eyes and a ready smile. It was the whirlwind romance of my life. She was on her way to Australia and was due to board a cruise ship in a month. We formed a deep connection and within a couple of weeks, I decided to join her there.
On the fifteenth of September 1972, Beverlie’s ship set sail. I began divesting myself of most of my earthly possessions in preparation for the long trip to Melbourne. I planned to leave at the end of the month but on the evening of the 24th my phone rang. It was Evelyn, her mother. Beverlie had fallen ill on the ship and she was in a hospital in Melbourne. She was seriously ill and a nurse from the hospital had called earlier to suggest that someone from the family fly down there as soon as possible. Her condition was critical.
I told Evelyn that I would leave as soon as I could and the next morning booked a ticket to Melbourne.
I had one suitcase, one trunk, a small backpack with a few essentials. I shipped the trunk and my friend Lillian, who was Beverlie’s best friend, drove me to Seattle to catch a plane for the first leg of my trip.
Three hours later I was in a window seat on a Boeing 707, 30,000 feet over the Pacific heading for Honolulu. I was on a mission. I was also ecstatic. I listened to Handel and Bach. I felt like I was so close to heaven, 6 miles above the ocean.
My first impression of Honolulu was the fragrance of flowers in the air, even in the airport! I didn’t get much further than that as I was changing planes there to move to the next, and most startling leg of my trip, Hawaii to Pago Pago, 2600 miles.
I was excited to go there though I had never even heard of “Pango Pango” before. (The letter “g” in Samoan sounds like “ng”; thus Pago Pago is pronounced “Pango Pango.” According to Wikipedia.) But the excitement was to begin before we arrived. It was a beautiful day and if you have never heard Bach at 6 miles above the earth, I recommend it as a peak musical experience. Looking out the window I was convinced I could see the curvature of the horizon.
The excitement began when I got up to go to the washroom at the back of the plane. Almost immediately, I found myself on the ceiling and crashing down to the floor. The seatbelt sign came on and I was fortunate to grab a handle that projected from the wall with one hand as I reached up to the ceiling. Again, another drop followed by a surge but I was prepared now. The next few minutes felt like hours as we pitched up and down on the craziest roller coaster ride I have ever experienced.
It finally stopped and the captain came on the intercom saying that he was sorry for wild ride but “clear air turbulence” was sometimes hard to anticipate. I don’t think anyone was hurt but there were some pretty scared people on that flight.
The highlight was over the top though. As we approached Pago Pago it looked like the classic Pacific island, dominated by a huge volcano with deep vegetation, just I imagined one would be.
As we turned on to our final approach, we followed a path that ran over a beautiful long beach, warm sand with waves topped with foam. I looked into the forest and spotted several thatched buildings. It is an image I carry in my mind, one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. I dearly wished I had brought Dads camera.
On landing, my first thought was to hire a taxi to take a quick tour of the island but I was told, at gun point no less, that I was not allowed to leave the waiting room. It was a rude awakening.
Our next stop was Fiji and I could imagine the beauty of that island as well but I had an isle seat! What a waste!
By the time we left Fiji, I had run through all the music that I could handle. The quality of the headphones left much to be desired and the selection was the same on each of the aircraft. However, seated beside me was a beautiful woman who seemed to be as excited about her trip to Auckland as I was. She was going to Sydney to get married and I of course, was headed to Melbourne to be with my new love. I have no idea how long the flight was but it was one of the best I have ever had.
I arrived in Melbourne in the early afternoon, found a cheap hotel where I could stash my bags and headed to Fairfield Hospital to see my love.
Beverlie was a mess. She was sleeping when I arrived; I had to wear a gown and mask as I sat by her bed watching her sleep. Eventually, when she woke I was greeted with a brave smile that I will never forget.
It turned out that she had Salmonella Poisoning. By the time she reached Melbourne she was very ill. The Salmonella had progressed into a blood poisoning called Septicemia.
Over the next few days, the staff in the hospital treated her with Penicillin but it wasn’t enough. They switched her over to Sulfa and she began to respond. Unfortunately, she lost a lot of weight and most of her hair. She was there for five weeks and of course, I visited her every day.
Initially, she wasn’t strong enough to carry a conversation, she drifted between sleep and conscious periods and it was frankly, pretty scary. As she recovered though, we spent a lot of time talking, sharing stories and laughing together.
There was a gift for me behind all of that because as she recovered I borrowed her little Kodak 110 camera and took pictures of the places I went and people I met. I shot slide film and bought a small hand held viewer so that she could see the pictures as I told her of my experiences. It had been eight years since I had held a camera and the simplicity of hers made it pleasant to use.
We returned to Vancouver after 6 months in Australia. Beverlie’s recovery took all of that time. I took lots of pictures as the days passed. The Australian landscapes, the architecture and the people we met were fascinating and wonderful. Most of the pictures I did were unremarkable frankly but there were some that I felt had merit.
I met my best friend and mentor, Robert Title, shortly after returning to Vancouver. He had recently moved from Toronto and his work was featured in the BC Photographer magazine. I met him by accident one day and he has been the friend of a lifetime.
He inspired me to treat photography as an art form. He taught a course on photographing the nude at a local photography school. I was a willing student but very confronted about the prospect. My first encounter was less than impressive I’m afraid. I had ten minutes in an empty studio with a nude woman and a single light. I walked in and stood stock still for at least a minute. I then apologized, turned and left. Robert was astounded I think. He asked what was wrong and I told him that I couldn’t do it. “Get back in there” he said, “lift that camera to your eye and push the button.” I went back in and noticed that she was casting a shadow on the wall. I began to photograph the relationship between her and her shadow. It was another turning point in my life.
My passion for photography developed at a rapid pace. The Nude led to portraiture, self portraits included.
I began working for a software company and that led to industrial photography. My understanding of systems was augmented by the photographs that I did. I travelled extensively in North America for business and made photographs whenever I could.
It took several years for me to make the shift to being a full time commercial photographer.
I spent over a decade teaching photography, photographed hundreds of weddings, been places and done things many people would be challenged to believe.
I have done thousands of portraits, worked in a range of formats from 35mm to 4×5 sheet film to digital, from analogue darkroom to contemporary Giclee. I found joy in the craft and continue to explore many areas. I returned to photographing landscapes and continue to do so today.
I’m now in my 70s and my focus has shifted back to making fine prints. I shoot film as well as digital, have several cameras, and find great satisfaction in my work. My oldest camera was built in 1906, I still work with it and love it. I shoot paper negatives, film and digital. I love the older processes, working under a focusing cloth on ground glass. My studio is an old garage and I retreat there to find out what I think.
My concerns are expressed in my pictures, I have a reverence for life, for our planet, for beauty and feelings. My pension is small so I sell my work as single, archival prints, one of one. I make a single print to be sold and an artist proof for my records; everything else gets destroyed. Often, if the single image comes from a negative, the print is accompanied by it. I have no interest in making copies. My hope is that the people who buy my prints will treasure them as the unique pieces they are.
I have done a lot of teaching in my time here on earth. I feel it is important to share the knowledge we acquire. I only wish I had believed in myself a lot earlier in life. Photography has been good to me and I have done my best to be good to others, especially my students and the people I love. I value the work I have done, am doing and most especially the photographs I am planning to do tomorrow. What more could I ask?
I have authored four books on the subject of photography and the art of seeing: Nudes: Photographs, Notes, Observations & Ideas; Search For Silence: Photographs & Notes; Developing Style: A Photographer’s Workbook; and Dreams & Realities, all of which are available in PDF or Epub formats on request.
My work has also been featured in a number of publications including Rod Ashford’s Lighting for Nude Photography available from Amazon.com
I have been fortunate to extend my love of photography to teaching the craft. For 6 years, I was the head instructor at “Focal Point – The Visual Arts Learning Centre”. Following that, I taught at “Vancouver Photo Workshops”, and then I served as the Department Head for the digital photography program at the “Vancouver Institute of Media Arts”, where I was also Chairman of their Advisory Board.
After I retired, I spent almost seven years on Gabriola Island, BC, making pictures, books, and folios of limited edition prints. Looking back, I realized that the best times for me were when I was teaching photography at “Focal Point”, “Vancouver Photo Workshops, “UBC”, and “Vancouver Institute of Media Arts”. I have also acted as a mentor for several emerging photographers.
Last December, I announced that I was going to start teaching again. Below are some of the responses I received.
Johnathan V – They are very lucky to have you over there. Nothing but great memories of you as a teacher.
Patricia T – Hands down, James, you are the best teacher I’ve ever had the privilege of learning from. I never enjoyed learning as much as I did with you! So happy to see you continue to share this experience with others.
Leanne L – So happy to hear you will be teaching again. I will never forget what a great teacher you were- always made me feel excited about photography.
Craig A – I valued your teachings in photography and in Life. Glad to see you are teaching again. The world need James Emler teaching.
Ellia M – Your students will be very happy, as I was, to have you as a teacher. And grateful too! Still remember your classes that helped me soooo much to settle my own photography business. Send you a big, big hug from Mexico, James.
Martha M – I am 100% sure that I would have not had the courage or knowledge to begin my business years and years ago if it weren’t for you, James Emler. Your gifts go beyond teaching, but you care about the craft and your students. We love you!
Graig D – Good luck James I’m sure your passion for what you love and show to the people who are lucky enough to meet will shine on your new endeavors. I think of you often my friend and you are the best teacher I’ve known.
I have a lot of testimonials from former students and I have to admit it is a bit overwhelming to go through them but here are a few. I will add more over the next few weeks as I think it is important for you to know what my former students thought about my teaching.
Scott M – A keen eye and passion for all things beautiful, he managed to illustrate to the hopeful acolyte what was necessary to improve on, what was needed to be disposed of, and what was ready to be expanded.
Megan M – Thanks for being such an awesome instructor! I love seeing the incredible passion you have for photography. It motivates me!
Shawn M – James, you’re the man. Thanks for being someone incredible to look up to.
Lindsey E – You are a wonderful, wonderful teacher. Thank you so much for all your help, encouragement & support.
Philip P – I can’t wait to take another course with you. It is one of the things I look most forward to this year. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity in this lifetime to count you as my teacher.
Franco V – What I admire most about James is his genuine concern for people and especially his students. You always know that he’ll be there for support in order for you to “find your vision.”
Heather S – Thank you for coming into my life as a great teacher. Your generosity in sharing of knowledge and skill as well as your gentle human nature are a true gift.
Oh, by the way, there is a video behind the picture of the airplane above. It is titled “The Story Behind the Picture.” This was filmed and produced by Tony Puerzer, a brilliant and talented guy who lives in Nanaimo.