By Richard McGuire
When Stewart McLeish photographed a grizzly bear running in his direction at close range, he admits now that he should have been more scared.
That photo is one that the Osoyoos photographer is showing in a solo exhibition at Jojo’s Café, that opened July 29 and runs until Aug. 25.
“We were standing slightly behind a bush,” McLeish recalls, describing the episode on a bear photography tour on the Alaskan Panhandle.
“It wasn’t exactly cover, but one of the things I was thinking about later on was I realized the most frightening part of the whole trip was we weren’t afraid,” said McLeish. “That taught me a lesson that just because you feel comfortable in your environment, it doesn’t mean you’re safe – especially with bears.”
He admits he took a risk, but said he trusted the experienced bear guide who accompanied them.
The bear photo, he said, “was a disaster” because the action happened quickly and there wasn’t time to find the proper camera settings.
He looked at the photo a couple times a year for several years, but considered it a lost photo. But then, as he was learning to use Adobe Photoshop software, he decided to practice his new skills on the bear image.
“That was the result and it’s actually one of my favourite photographs,” said McLeish, pointing to the framed photo that now hangs over his mantle.
He likes the action of the advancing bear and also the way the light strikes it.
McLeish, now nearly 69, dabbled in black and white photography in his early 20s, printing photos in a makeshift darkroom in his bathroom.
He had to give that up when his children grew out of diapers and needed to use the bathroom.
After a career in retail, McLeish, then living in Airdrie, Alta., was sidelined with an illness in the early 2000s. In 2005, he rediscovered photography and found it therapeutic.
Now embracing digital, he took up landscape photography in the national parks of the Canadian Rockies.
Soon he evolved to photographing flowers, but after a while he decided to take up the challenge of photographing wildlife.
“I’d never done any wildlife,” he says. “It’s a lot trickier, because the light’s unpredictable and so are the movements of the animals.”
For about a year, he practiced by spending a few hours each week at a friend’s dog daycare, taking photos of the dogs in a basement with poor lighting.
“That taught me quite a lot about lighting and the unpredictability of animal movements,” he said.
Unlike many amateur photographers who take up landscapes and wildlife, McLeish then went on to photograph people.
Two of the photos he planned to show at Jojo’s are of indigenous women he met in Quito, Ecuador.
“The people shots I like taking are people with a lot of character in their faces,” he says.
He called one woman “Mother of the Earth,” but when the photo appeared on the National Geographic website, a woman with knowledge of the Inca culture suggested he should name it “Pachamama” after the Earth mother goddess of the Andes.
“I know it sounds weird, but I look at her every day and she says something different to me,” he said, gesturing to the large photo hanging on his wall.
McLeish has shown his work in Osoyoos before as part of collective exhibitions with the Osoyoos Photography Club at Jojo’s and at the Osoyoos Art Gallery.
But this is his first solo show since moving to Osoyoos in May 2016.
He wants viewers to take away emotions from his photos.
“When I look at a photograph, it brings back the feeling for me that I had when I saw it,” he said. “I want to do that for people who are looking – to build emotion. It won’t be the same as mine, but I want them to be involved.”