Sylvie Dials in the 411 on Ian MacDonald’s 613-ROCK

The Ottawa XPressMarch 6, 2008

Private faces, public places

Local photographer Ian Flynn McDonald gets up-close and personal with Ottawa’s indie rock scene

Ottawa’s indie rockers and their fans are the focus of Indie 613, an exhibit by photographer Ian Flynn McDonald.

Ian Flynn McDonald

At one time a perennial fixture on the Ottawa music scene, McDonald photographed bands back in the ’80s before he dropped everything to become a single dad. He has since picked up a new camera and resurfaced to shoot some of Ottawa’s hottest acts, including Tokyo Sex Whale, The Bible All-Stars, The Reverb Syndicate, The Rookers, Manpower, Ninety Pounds Of Ugly and Gun Smoke, to name a few. This will be his first art show in more than 20 years.

In today’s digital age, McDonald’s photos are shared across the Internet, from MySpace to Facebook. Never satisfied with aiming for the high-kick guitar poses coveted by bands for press kits, McDonald steers clear of commercial shots and appeals to the viewer with the artful “not-on” shots that tell a story. He focuses on the inaction he observes during the downtime before and after shows or songs.

“When I go to a show, I’m there from start to finish,” McDonald tells XPress, explaining how he compares to some professional photographers who show up to a gig long enough to take the required press picture and leave. His commitment is noticed by the musicians and comes through in his pictures. Like a hunter who waits patiently for the perfect moment to shoot, McDonald seizes upon the secret moments that others miss.

“The three seconds in between songs or when someone breaks a string and they’re not performing, or ‘on,’ that’s when you get pictures like mine,” he says.

McDonald catches private moments in public venues, exposing a side rarely seen. Over the years, he has become friends with many of his subjects, which has given him access to rehearsals, recordings and off-stage moments. These intimate settings have increased his understanding of the nature of Ottawa’s underground scene.

The exhibit photo of drummer-vocalist Angie Neatby (a.k.a. Angie the Barbarian from Ottawa’s Muffler Crunch), hunched over in a prayer-like pose at her drum kit, demonstrates McDonald’s talent for exposing the essence of public figures. He captures moments in which those performers, whom we perceive as powerful “rock stars,” feel their most vulnerable as they simultaneously drink in an audience’s appreciation and wonder if they possibly have any more to give.

It’s largely owing to McDonald’s own vulnerability that he can see it in others. His introspective approach has been a way for him to get over his innate shyness. Similar to someone who takes flying lessons to overcome his fear of flying, McDonald throws himself in front of the crowd and stage.

“Taking photos forces me to get out of the house,” he says. “Feeling compelled to do it overrides whatever fears I have [about crowds].”

Mick Rock, a rock photographer in the ’70s whose shutter transformed Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and the Sex Pistols into larger-than-life icons, said, “To survive as an artist, it helps if you psychologically have absolutely no option.”

McDonald quietly echoes that sentiment: “I have no choice,” he says. “Once I start taking pictures, I start getting more ideas and then it gets worse and worse.” Where most creative artists welcome the influx of ideas to nourish a fertile mind, McDonald says it can be frustrating because there are so many photos to take and so little time.

“I usually see pictures or I’ll get images in my head before I take them,” he explains. “Then I have to go and find them.”

Capturing the perfect shot is terrifying, and would probably mean stopping photography altogether if he ever accomplished the feat. His subjects, however, make that goal nearly unattainable. McDonald’s appreciation for Ottawa’s music scene owes much to the latter’s diversity, and every rock show allows him to catch a different atmosphere, moment or emotion. His dedication has nothing to do with securing a paycheque or achieving any kind of notoriety, but rather with simply beholding a captivating subject in an interesting light – and, more often, within a passing shadow.

Indie 613 at the Mercury Lounge begins March 16 and ends on March 23 with a live performance by Ottawa’s irreverent alt-country rockers The Bible All-Stars, and with Max Cossette of Six Six Six playing a solo “hillbilly” banjo set. Doors 9:30 p.m.