For photographer Willy Waterton, putting together the latest show at the Tom Thomson Art Gallery was like revisiting old friends.
The longtime local photographer will have a collection of his portraits highlighted at the gallery when his exhibition, Salt of the Earth: People of Bruce and Grey Counties, opens on Friday.
“It has been wonderful because I hadn’t looked at a lot of these photos in a really long time,” Waterton said Wednesday. “Some of these people we became really good friends with and spent a lot of time with over the years.”
The photographs in the show mainly depict people who have lived off the land in Grey-Bruce. Many are farmers, but the exhibition includes others, such as anglers, hunters, cottagers, an apple picker, a lighthouse keeper and even a cowboy tending livestock on a community pasture in Bruce County.
For Waterton, the term salt of the earth describes a decent, dependable, unpretentious person.
“Having grown up in the rural area, I grew up with people like these,” Waterton said. “In my work I was always kind of attracted to these salt of the earth people.”
And Waterton said he really enjoys taking photographs of people earning their livelihoods off the land.
“In this day of celebrities, everybody is an instant celebrity, and these are people who you may not normally expect to see,” said Waterton, whose career as a photographer spans more than 40 years. “I always thought these people were kind of under-appreciated. They were out there just doing their thing day-to-day.”
The exhibit is made up of 20 photographs, all depicted in a large black and white format along with a write-up about each of the subjects and how they have made their living and how they have impacted the community. Waterton said he had many more photographs to choose from, and several others will be displayed on a monitor in the gallery.
There is also a book where visitors can share their stories about the people in the photographs as well as their own memories that are inspired by the show.
Many of the works are environmental portraits of the people going about doing what they do on the land, while others are portraits of the subjects holding the tools of their trade in their natural environment.
“It wasn’t going out and setting up a studio,” said Waterton. “It was more of me going out and them pausing in their daily chores and the photo being taken.”
Waterton said he enjoyed how he had to become close to his subjects and gain their trust to truly capture them doing what they do.
“I wanted to be a fly on the wall,” said Waterton, who was a photographer at The Sun Times for about 35 years. “It takes time for people to kind of ignore you and forget you are there with a camera.”
Waterton said all of the photographs were taken on film, which adds its own elements to the show, because he didn’t use autofocus, he had to advance the film after each picture and he didn’t know exactly how the picture turned out until it was developed.
“In some ways it was more of a contemplative process where you had to think about what you were doing,” said Waterton. “Also, film was expensive. Where people now take thousands of photos to take one good one, doing it this way you were conscious of the fact you had 36 exposures on one roll of film.”
The show’s curator Heather McLeese said it is Waterton himself that makes the show so special.
“Willy got to know these people as he photographed them, he spent a lot of time with these individuals and his personality is his secret weapon behind the camera,” said McLeese. “He makes people feel comfortable. I think that is the trick to a very good photographer is to make their subject feel at ease and one with their environment. That is really evident in all of these photographs.”
McLeese said early viewers of the works have already recognized some of the subjects in the pictures, and there will be opportunities for more people across the two counties to see current and former friends and neighbours in the show, as there are plans to take it on the road.
Thanks to funding from the Community Foundation Grey Bruce, the exhibition will tour aboard the MS Chi-Cheemaun for the 2019 season, while Grey Bruce Health Services is interested in displaying the works at its sites across Grey-Bruce. The exhibition will be on view at the Bruce County Museum and Cultural Centre in the fall of 2020.
“A lot of people are going to know these people in the community,” said McLeese. “It is a project about the community that will tour in the community.”
The exhibit will officially open with a free event on Friday at 7 p.m. A talk with Waterton will also be held at the gallery on Saturday at 1 p.m.
Along with Salt of the Earth, another show will open on Friday called Snowed In. The selection of works from the gallery’s permanent collection is guest curated by longtime gallery volunteer Joan Hawksbridge. One area features a collection of sometimes bleak, but still beautiful, winter landscapes, while another area takes the visitors indoors with a space filled with flowers, food, comfort and colour.
“You are in an exterior setting looking at all of the snowy winter landscapes,” said McLeese, who is the gallery’s curator of contemporary art. “Then you move into the warm indoors and you look at the more domestic works, and other interesting sculptures and drawings in the collection that make you feel warm and cozy.”
Both exhibitions join the Saving Face: Art in Front of the Hockey Net exhibit, which is currently running at the gallery until the end of March. That exhibit has spilled out from the main gallery into other areas of the building, as the gallery has received hundreds of submissions from the public, who were invited to design their own masks on a template supplied by the gallery.