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'Invaluable' book portrays literary figures in B.C.

By PAULA WILD
November 15, 2012 · 3:53 PM
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PHOTOGRAPHER BARRY PETERSON of Comox and his wife Blaise Enright will unveil 111 West Coast Literary Portraits this Saturday at the Courtenay library. / PHOTO SUBMITTED

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, 111 West Coast Literary Portraits is invaluable.

Fifteen years in the making, it contains more than 100 photographs of B.C. authors, as well as extracts from their work or personal notes written specifically for the book.

Photographer and Comox resident Barry Peterson will present this stunning who’s-who of the B.C. literary world at the Courtenay library this Saturday from 3 to 5 p.m. Peterson will give a short talk and authors from the Comox Valley and nearby regions will read their text from the book. Admission is free and includes a reception with light refreshments.

111 West Coast Literary Portraits is an important documentary of B.C. literature. It includes emerging, famous and infamous authors and speaks to the diversity of literature, culture and the unique voice of Canada’s most western province.

And the Comox Valley is very much a part of that.

Gracing the cover is former part-time resident Alice Munro. Inside pages include Colin and Julie Angus, Des Kennedy, Rick James, Keith Harrison, Amanda Hale and other local authors, as well as former residents Jack Hodgins and Caroline Woodward.

The book itself is a work of art. The 8x10 heavy stock, glossy paper gives a depth and luminosity to each portrait. And the use of black and white film provides a classic, timeless quality to the images.

When Peterson began photographing writers 15 years ago he didn’t know he was working on a book. He and his wife at the time, Blaise Enright, were new to the West Coast and wanted a project they could work on together while finding out about their new home.

So they began photographing authors, sometimes accompanied by their pets or writing partners. It wasn’t always easy.

The initial photos of poet Al Purdy didn’t turn out well.

“I answered the phone one day to find someone screaming at me,” says Peterson. “I finally had to ask who it was.” Purdy, a character with an occasional crusty edge, demanded the photos be retaken the next day or he’d blacklist the couple with every writer in B.C.

It was a scramble to get to Victoria from Vancouver on time but they made it. Along the way, Enright bought an assortment of squeaky toys hoping to lighten up the situation.

After the shoot, Purdy said he hadn’t known whether to smile or be offended. The photo on page 158 tells it all.

As the collection of photographs grew, it was titled Lit Happens and exhibited in a variety of venues to promote literacy in B.C. A couple of years ago, Mona Fertig of Mother Tongue Publishing approached Peterson about creating a book.

This fall, Peterson has exhibited prints from the book, attended signings and participated on panels of photographers in Vancouver, Vancouver Island and Gulf Island locations.

“I love the book but standing up in front of people isn’t my favourite thing to do,” he admits. “I’ve always been the guy at the back of the room, not the front.”

Peterson has a passion for black and white film. “It helps the viewer focus on the subject,” he explains. “There’s no confusing palette of colours and it seems to really highlight the subject. Also, film photos have a depth to them that digital can’t duplicate.”

As well as taking the photographs, Peterson developed all the film himself, matted and framed the prints and even made the cardboard boxes to transport them in.

Now retired, his employment background includes photography and psychiatric social work. Local exhibits include Lit Happens at the Comox Valley Art Gallery and On the Edge, Putting a Face on Homelessness in various locations. Peterson moved to Comox with his wife and step-son in 2005.

111 West Coast Literary Portraits retails for $48. Copies will be available at the Courtenay launch courtesy of Laughing Oyster Books.

Paula Wild is a published author and regular contributor to the Comox Valley Record's arts and entertainment section.