Creative Commons

Visual arts student draws inspiration from Shel Silverstein and natural surroundings for prize-winning photo

Any elementary school library worth its salt has a modestly-sized selection of Shel Silverstein books on hand. Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light In The Attic, familiar black and white hardcovers filled with drawings and poems, are still consistently popular titles for early readers populating many North American primary schools because of their sophisticated simplicity, laid-back humour and sharp moral sensibility. For visual arts student Chrissy Courtney, the process of revisiting one of Silverstein’s most famous poems yielded fertile creative ground.

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By Nick Ubels (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: March 6, 2013

Any elementary school library worth its salt has a modestly-sized selection of Shel Silverstein books on hand. Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light In The Attic, familiar black and white hardcovers filled with drawings and poems, are still consistently popular titles for early readers populating many North American primary schools because of their sophisticated simplicity, laid-back humour and sharp moral sensibility. Yet amid the noise of growing up, these well-loved works have quietly receded into many a messy shoebox of childhood memories.

For visual arts student Chrissy Courtney, the process of revisiting one of Silverstein’s most famous poems yielded fertile creative ground.

Courtney’s black and white interpretation of “Jimmy Jet and His TV Set” has won her the top prize in UFV photography club’s photo contest as well as publication in the 2013 edition of UFV’s visual arts and literary magazine, The Louden Singletree.

Her image depicts Jimmy, played by her husband Grant, sitting on the ground of an overgrown courtyard, staring transfixed at a large console television with knobs and dials and a vacuum tube screen.

Courtney explained that she selected the vine-covered courtyard near her Clayburn home to represent neglect that can arise from media obsession.

“Maybe this was a house once, but now all he has left is his TV,” she said. “Jimmy watches TV every day and then he eventually becomes the TV. It consumes him.”

The third-year Bachelor of Fine Arts student says the project was for a Photography III assignment, which asked students to craft a single frame narrative. Courtney was drawn to Shel Silverstein’s work because of its unique character.

“I find there’s sort of this moral backbone behind it,” she said. “Even though it’s for kids and it’s funny, there’s always something beyond what’s on the surface.”

The shot was captured using an old medium-format camera, which requires the photographer to hold the device lower than eye level and look down into the viewfinder. It’s a fascinatingly anachronistic piece of filmmaking equipment that Courtney added to her collection as a gift from her mother.

Courtney said she spends nearly 70 per cent of the time she’s working on a photography project in the planning stages. This early investment helps ensure that she is able to work more efficiently when time is of the essence in a shoot or in the development lab. With this particular shot, the planning included setting up the right studio lights and proper tripod positioning as well as selecting a location and finding the TV at the centre of the image.

“The hardest part is coming up with the idea,” she said. “For the longest time I wanted this photo to look like he was lifted and flying or being absorbed into the TV, but I wasn’t sure how to create that without [digital] manipulation.”

The entire composition was created using exclusively analog equipment. It’s a rewarding process, but one that requires a lot more heavy lifting than digital photography.

“With digital, everything is done for you,” she explained. “But with film, you actually have to take into account the kind of shot you want. The depth of field and the lighting is always an issue or it produces a different effect. Developing it yourself gives you all the tools you would use in Photoshop, but you’re doing it by hand.”

Courtney’s work goes beyond photography to include drawing, painting and printing with an eye to working in clay sculpture in the near future. She said that nature and the natural beauty of the region have influenced much of her recent work and crop up as common motifs.

“I’m just trying to figure out a series for my painting class and I’m drawing mountains so that’s the influence of what’s going on,” she said, pausing as rain began falling more heavily against a nearby window. Courtney smild and continued, “where we live. The rain.”

Her other recent projects have included a print media piece commenting on genetically-modified foods and a photography series focusing on the unknown ingredients present in the food we consume. She said that she is often concerned with the natural, something evident in a piece like her reading of “Jimmy Jet and His TV Set,” which shifts the focus toward obsession with artificial beauty at the expense of natural beauty, a message that resonates as well today as when Silverstein first published his original poem in 1974.

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