Although he hates to admit it, these days BD Colen from London, Ontario mainly photographs his three dachshunds: Webster, Edna and Cookie. But there was a time, he jokes, when he was somebody.
He still is, of course. At 76, he’s just retired (for the most part), but remains a man with a long and impressive list of credentials who moved to London from Cambridge, MA in 2016 to be with his wife.
Colen is a former Washington Post and Newsday reporter, Pultizer Prize-winning medical writer, and celebrated photographer who for 19 years taught news writing and his documentary style at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
“The first thing I would tell my students is to always have a camera with them,” Colen recalls. “But the second thing is to remind them that the best camera you have is the one that’s with you.”
If Colen does not film in black and white, he converts his digital photos to black and white. It’s the color of photography, he said, echoing the words of the late Swiss photographer Robert Frank.
Colen has also written ten books and traveled the world for his work.
The thing I’ve probably learned more than anything else is just to shut up and listen,– Comics Colen
His career as a journalist, which began at the age of 17, focused largely on medical writing and often on end-of-life issues. His reporting, along with that of his colleague Kathleen Kerry, won Newsday the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting in the 1980s.
“The thing I probably learned more than anything else is just to shut up and listen,” Colen said. “Let people do the talking. They tend to give you much better interviews, conversations that way, and then approach them with what amounts to a list of questions.”
“For 13 years in my previous life, and in fact for the two years that I commuted from here to Cambridge, MA, I photographed people on the subway in Boston,” said Colen, who is interested in “the isolation of individuals in the crowd”. .”
The result is a collection of photographs entitled “Alone, Together” – eight of the images from the series have just been selected to appear at the first International Festival of Photography and Street Art in Milan and will hang at the Galleria gli Eroici Furori in October.
The day of our life
Later in his career, Colen ran a business off the side of his office, photographing and documenting families. He spent a whole day with them, from the moment they got up in the morning until they went to bed at night.
“It’s those times that you don’t plan for that are the good times,” he said. “You don’t see those moments coming as an observer, me. It’s kind of like being, and that’s what I love about it, is being an anthropologist.”
He says it takes families about 30 minutes to ignore you, and disappearing is his greatest achievement as a photographer.
Offer a workshop this weekend
Colen will be taking part in the Bayfield Fall Festival this weekend, which kicks off Friday night at the Community Center with a talk by Canadian landscape photographer Robert Burley.
Colen’s workshop begins at 3 p.m. Saturday afternoon at the Goderich Library, but he will send participants out onto the streets to photograph strangers, “without asking permission and without engaging with them.”
“Most people are – terrified is not too strong a word – of taking pictures of strangers and photographing in public,” he said.
“[Colen] brings immediate authority and expertise to a subject, street photography, which to most people is at best awkward and at worst intimidating,” said Jack Pal, founding president of the Photography Club of Bayfield.
“His approach is very simple and in addition to teaching street photography, he slips in a whole new appreciation for black and white photography,” he said. “He brings his message in a very assertive way and people will come back from his studio with new creative ideas.”