Nigel Dickson only intended to spend a couple of months in Canada. However, life had different plans for the well known Canadian photographer.

Interview & images by Bill Hornbostel

When he had arrived in 1974, Dickson had some experience with photography. An amateur photographer since the age of fourteen, he worked in darkrooms in London and New York. When he came to Canada, he worked  in a photography studio and then began to work as a photographer himself.

“In black and white photography, printing is half of the photograph. I just got tired of making photographers look good,” he says with a smile.

In 1979, Dickson struck out on his own doing advertising and editorial photography. His number of clients and projects soon grew. Much of his work was doing still lifes. Dickson says, “I trained as a still life photographer, doing food and drinks, stuff like that. I earned a living in advertising doing anything – people and still lifes, hundreds of beer shots, foodstuff. Even in editorial, I started out doing food.”

What Dickson has became known for are his portraits. “I’m known for portraits, I suppose; the awards and things like that have been mostly (for) portraits. I guess I just got pigeon-holed as a portrait photographer, editorially. It didn’t bother me, I like every aspect of taking pictures.”

His portraits include photographs of celebrities, artists, businessmen, and politicians such as photographer Edward Burtynsky, actor Christopher Plummer, musician Oscar Peterson, business leader Bill Gates, former American First Lady Michelle Obama, and Liberal leaders Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin.

Whatever the subject, Dickson loves a challenging shot. “Basically, I love to solve problems, no matter what the subject is. It’s like, ‘This is the idea’ – and it’s easy for an art director to have an idea – and he or she sells the idea, and they come to me and say, ‘Do it.’ Anything that was a challenge I loved to do, and even now when I’m taking pictures, I still come across situations that I haven’t come across before. It’s never been boring. It’s always something different.”

Some of his favourite photographs were also some of the most challenging, such as those involving animals like owls and elephants.

Other photographers have inspired Dickson’s own shooting style.Henri Cartier-Bresson used to be my hero when I did street photography, but I found that ever since I got into the business taking pictures, I can’t really go out and wait for something to happen.” Since then, his favourite has been Irving Penn, whose work he sought to emulate in his early years as a photographer. “I had this book, Moments Preserved, with all these portraits he did of tradesmen – and they’re really high contrast, and it took me ages to try to emulate that effect. I always thought it’s a great way to learn photography, if you see something you like, to see if you could do it. And then I was in New York and I saw this Irving Penn show, and his prints were really flat. I realized that the style I was trying to emulate was just the way the book was printed,” laughs Dickson.

Over Dickson’s long career, he has seen the digital revolution sweep through photography. He still shoots with a Hasselblad camera body from the 1970s, but now uses it with a digital rather than a film back. “The Hasselblad to me was always my favourite format. Especially for people. I do still lifes with it now, because it’s just so convenient. It’s a slow camera to use, and even now with my digital back I still take photographs in groups of twelve, as if I’ve just finished a roll. It’s just ingrained. It’s just a slow camera that makes you think.”

Even using modern digital equipment, Dickson still maintains other habits ingrained from the film era. “I don’t really retouch stuff that much; I’ll take out spots and hairs, and things like that, but I still believe in getting it right in the camera, rather than after the camera. ‘Pretouching,’ I call it.”

Although mostly retired now, Dickson still shoots.

Many of his works are still lifes. “I’m doing more still life now. It’s relaxing, I can take as long as I want, if I wanted to do it again I could do it again. So, it’s sort of become my hobby again, in that respect.” Among the work that he is doing now is a series of bottlecaps, inspired by the designs of the 1930s and 1940s, which he exhibited on the Northumberland Studio Tour last year.

To see some collections of Nigel Dickson’s work, visit nigeldickson.com.