Saturday August 23, 2014

Art of Life goes on


Mitch (left) and Geraldine Hippsley with Mayor Bob Maloney recreate on April 4 the film cutting ceremony from 1984 when they opened their store.

 - The original 1984 ceremony with then-Mayor John Wytrykush. -

The original 1984 ceremony with then-Mayor John Wytrykush.

Common wisdom has it that photography has undergone a complete revolution in recent years with the proliferation of professional quality digital imagery.

When it comes to shooting, though, the more things change, the more they stay the same according to Mitch Hippsley, co-owner of Art of Life: Photography by Mitch with wife Geraldine, Yorkton's only remaining storefront studio, which celebrated its 30th year in business last week.

"Light is everything, it really is," he said. "It's one of those things that scares people because there's a lot to it and a lot to learn and honestly, I spent a lifetime acquiring that information and learning to manipulate it, and learning to repeat it."

Basically, he explained, it's not so much the profession that has changed as the tools. Computers and photo processing software have replaced darkrooms and tubs of chemicals. Light photons entering a camera's lens are turned into zeros and ones on a storage card instead of creating a chemical reaction in grains of silver halide on a film surface, to drastically oversimplify.

The change of equipment is like a carpenter getting a new hammer, Hippsley said, it does not change how you build a house.

"I still believe in the old school, if you want to call it, which I'm proud of," he said. "You still have to have the substance; the content still has to be there so you have to nail that down. Luckily for me, I learned from the world's best lighters, so I know light and I'm proud of that so when I'm shooting, there is no guessing, I know exactly what's coming through."

While digital has not fundamentally changed the way he works, it has given him a little more flexibility.

"Knowing that I'm not paying for the film, I'll shoot more because I like shooting for emotion and expression," he said. "In the olden days maybe I would take 15 shots. Now I think nothing of shooting 50 or 60, knowing that I'm getting it in the first couple of photographs, but now I can get really picky. Do I want your eyes a little more open or a little more closed? Do I want a turn of the head? Are your lips gonna curl a little bit, you know, little things, nuances to your face."

 - A photo entitled “Beggar’s Breakfast” from Mitch Hippsley’s Art of Life series demonstrating the supremacy of lighting in creating dramatic photographs -

A photo entitled “Beggar’s Breakfast” from Mitch Hippsley’s Art of Life series demonstrating the supremacy of lighting in creating dramatic photographs

The other slight change is always shooting in colour and converting to black and white when required, although, Hippsley said, that hasn't changed the way he thinks.

"I think in black and white and I light in black and white, but I shoot in colour," he said. "The weird thing is, it's more flattering in black and white because you lose the information of the nuances of clothing and you start noticing the eyes and the lips and just the emotion to the person's face. It's great for men and women."

All of that is not to say digital photography has not changed the business, however. It has, Hippsley said, "drastically." So much so, in fact, when digital imagery finally reached professional quality around 2001, their business reached a crossroads.

"We had another decision to make, do we get out of photography now, or do we go digital?" he said.

They jumped in, but it was costly. Their first camera body cost $28,000. Actually, make that $56,000 because while the imagery had caught up to film, the cameras themselves were not that dependable.

And, he said, contrary to popular belief, while the cameras themselves have since become "cheaper, better, faster" running a photography business has not gotten any less costly.

"It's gone way the other way; that's the myth about professional digital," he explained. "The support mechanisms that you have, your computers and all the RAM you need and always upgrading every two years, the software's expensive and now you have to rent it on a monthly basis."

That being said, it was a good move for Photography by Mitch.

"You don't know what you're doing at the time because ignorance is bliss, but there was maybe 10 photographers or less in the province that actually went digital at that time, so it ended up being my protection," Hippsley said.

Initially, the business grew because people wanted the immediacy of digital and the equipment was out of reach for ordinary people, but that changed rapidly by the latter part of the 2000s.

"Everyone's a competitor," Hippsley said. "Your next door neighbour is a competitor to me. Anyone who has a camera that can take a little slice out of the pie becomes your competitor. Whether they know what they're doing is irrelevant, but they're competitors, so yes, it's affected the whole industry, including our own studio drastically."

Perhaps longevity is now Photography by Mitch's protection. While small-scale shoots have declined, the long-term relationships he has developed over 30 years keep the business going.

A lot of colleagues are not so lucky.

"It's not uncommon to get a phone call and find out they're done and they're done and they're done, incredibly talented, gifted, quality shooters," he said. "That's kind of scary."

And it is not getting any better according to studies done by professional photography associations that are monitoring the phenomenon of online semi-professionals.

"In the world of digital right now we're told the average Facebook photographer— they call them the "mamarazzi,"—they last about two years, and when they say, 'this is way too much work, I don't have the time, I'm missing out on my kids' time,' when they perish, so to speak, from the ashes, three arise," Hippsley said. "They're out there and it's an ongoing concern."

As his business enters its fourth decade, he is not sure what the future holds for photography.

"Digital is just a whole new tool, it's not the ultimate," he said. "There'll be something else after this, I don't know what it is, but I'm sure they said the same thing 150 years ago."

Regardless of what is to come, Hippsley will adapt because of one overarching theme.

I love people, I really do," he said. "There's so many different ways you can earn a living with your camera, but I really enjoy the experiences with people. I've had so many doors open for me just because of their trust."



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