09 Mar Nina Laflamme
SA Artist Interview Series: Nina Laflamme
Written by Graham Zell
Nina LaFlamme is a photographer and artist living in Squamish, British Columbia. Her work includes high-resolution panoramic landscape photography, large format custom prints, and candid photojournalism for non-profit organizations. Her latest exhibition is at the Squamish Medical Clinic on Cleveland Avenue, and runs until June 2023.
Let’s get into it right away! Tell me about your first camera.
I got my first camera when I was about 12 years old, and it was a funny little pink digital camera with a built-in lens, and I took photos of just about everything. Before that I had a film camera, where you’d send the film off to get developed. That’s where it started, just taking photos of plants and the stuff in my parents’ backyard, and I quickly maxed out the capabilities of that camera. I really wanted to take macro photos and styles of photos that a little digital camera couldn’t really handle, so from there I jumped up to a DSLR camera with a kit lens, and then for Christmas one year my mom got me a 50mm f1.4 lens, and that was the groundbreaking thing for me – having a nicer quality lens on my camera that allowed me to take better photos.
Has your interest in subjects changed over time?
Yeah, a lot. Initially when I started out I was obsessed with macro photography – plants, and mushrooms, and little tiny things that you don’t really see. Then I played around with taking portraits of my friends, and I enjoyed the responses I got by taking photos for people who didn’t really normally have access to a really nice portrait of themselves, so to get that response from families was really positive for me. Diving into it more and more, I went to photo school and thought about the genres I didn’t really imagine I would have an interest in, like food photography, but then I found I love taking photos of food! So through my career it’s been a lot of jumping from one subject to another, and I think my particular style travels across a lot of different subject types.
And it’s really hard to describe style in a way that makes sense in words or text.
It is! I would say it’s more of a documentary style of shooting, a style that translates soul to a visual medium…
Like you’re trying to represent the spirit, the liveliness of what you’re shooting?
Yeah, I really like to represent the heart of a subject. It’s a matter of taking the time to get to know the subject really well. If I’m taking food photos, it’s because I’m obsessed with food and I love food, so when I see good food I really want to take a photo of it!
That’s a popular instagram genre!
For sure. My instagram is kind of all over the place… it’s hard to want to advertise the work that I want to be doing, but at the same time there’s so many different types of work that I want to be doing?
What kind of work? Where do you want your energy to go?
I really love shooting landscapes, and the printing process, selling prints. I really love the nonprofit sector, and shooting what’s called “solutions journalism”. That means learning about a certain type of work in the nonprofit sector, and telling a really interesting and compelling story about people making action, people who are on the ground doing work, photographing it in a way that really highlights it so that they can get more funding to do their work better. So there’s that, and then highlighting the small businesses around Squamish that need to tell their story.
How did you make the dive into printing? From film to digital to large prints?
I went to school for photography for two years. It was a really intense program, and when we presented each of our projects for critique we would print them, mount them, and put them up on the wall for the class to gather around and discuss. There was a certain value and professionalism associated with being able to take a photo and have it be compelling at a larger size.
What’s the difference between a photo that looks good at a large size and one that doesn’t hold up when it gets bigger than a phone screen?
I think a lot of it has to do with the technical aspect – if there’s any editing, how that shows up at a larger scale. There’s much less room for error at a larger scale, because as soon as you blow it up you can look at it much more closely and pick apart any errors. Composition is also important, especially at large scale… if it’s a successful photo it can give you the sense that you’re in the landscape because it’s printed large, but to print it large you need to have the technical skill to do that. The way I learnt that was through another photographer in Vancouver, Chris Collacott – his whole thing is panorama images, and I thought that was so cool… he stitches many, many photographs together and the whole idea is for the result to be high res, but that means you can also play around with your lens choice. Is this too technical?
We’ll find out. Let’s get into it!
Let’s just say I get really nerdy about pano photography, and that’s why I love printing large format. When I shoot a pano (and most of my work on my website and most of the work that I print is a pano, even when you can’t really tell) it gives me the ability to compress a landscape and allow the foreground, middle ground, and background to be larger in the frame, and then obviously because it becomes very high res, it lets me go quite big and print on really nice paper. In the whole gallery I have for the next few months it’s printed on really nice paper and there’s no glass in front of it, so it’s as raw as possible.
How do you make your prints?
It’s all printed at a commercial print lab. I would love to be able to have the space to do the printing myself, and in the future I probably will, but it’s really expensive to have your own large format printer, plus ink and everything. I used to manage a print lab, so I have the technical background to talk to them and get exactly what I want for paper.
Where do most of the pieces in this exhibition come from?
The photos are shot in the Squamish area, on Vancouver Island, and one of them is from Cortez. I think one thing that links all the photos together is that they were all shot in challenging circumstances or places that are further away and take some effort to get to. I really like to push myself into further places to get these unique points of view. I do a lot of hiking in the alpine. But then again, one of the photos is of the Chief, which is such a common photo, but this one I shot from a paddle board in the middle of Howe Sound in choppy weather, so there’s a lot of effort that went into getting that shot.
A photographer used to be a person with a camera, but now that basically everyone carries a camera in their pocket all the time, that’s transformed. What, today, separates a photographer from a person with a camera? Is it the amount of effort that goes into a photo? The creation of a print?
I think for me, the differentiating factors are the planning or goal setting that happens before I go to a place to get a photo. I do a lot of staring at maps and mountains that are far out there, thinking “can I get to this place?” There’s a lot of planning that goes into getting a photo. And a lot of the time it doesn’t end up being a good photo, or the weather doesn’t cooperate, so there’s a lot of luck as well. This year I’m focusing more on local iconic views, and photographing them in more interesting ways. I think I take these views for granted every day and I slip into the habit of thinking “I don’t need a photo of the Chief, that’s easy” and I want to focus on, for example, getting a really good photo of the Chief, or a really good photo of Cleveland with Diamond Head in the background.
Have you had any epic misadventures in your quest for really out there photos?
I can’t think of any off the top of my head. A lot of sudden weather changes, but I’ve never had to call search and rescue or anything.
Can you think of anything that I haven’t asked you, that I should?
Another avenue of my work is that I really love to teach. I’ve taught some photography courses in the past, and I really love teaching people small skills that open up their brains to a new way of shooting. I did a little landscape course a while ago and taught people about lens compression.
Could you explain lens compression?
The best way is to explain it visually, but I’ll try. If there were a person with a mountain behind them, and I took a photo with a 24mm lens, a wide lens, I would get a picture where the person filled the frame and the mountain appeared quite small. But if I took a longer lens, say a 85mm or a 100mm, and I align the person so that they’re filling the same amount of the frame, then the mountains are going to appear larger and much closer to the person. So it can be big because it changes the mood and the composition on the photo. When you have that in your tool belt you can make all kinds of different decisions. I can use a long lens if I want to make the mountains appear massive and towering, or I’ll use a wider lens if I want to open things up.
How many people will you take on a course at once?
I think I had 8 people with me, but it was kind of a one time thing. I love when people reach out to me and ask about tips and advice, and I’m always happy to talk to people about processes and tricks. When I ran the print lab I loved talking to other photographers about how to prepare their files for print.
Is there an active photography community in Squamish?
I think there’s a ton of people here who are into photography. I think it’s a funny thing where you run into people on the trails all the time, but I don’t often go out and actively shoot with people.
For the record, where is your exhibition, how long is it running for, and how do people get in touch with you?
It’s in the Squamish Medical Clinic, 37979 Cleveland Ave, next door to Parkside Cafe. It starts on Friday March 10, and runs for three months. If you’re in there and there’s something you’re interested in, or you check out my work and there’s a certain photo that resonates with you, I do a lot of custom print enquiries and I do a lot of one-on-one consulting with people to view their space and find prints that fit their space. If you’re working with me and saying “I’m thinking of a forest print,” I can get a gallery of forest photos together and talk about what would look best in your space. Email is a great way to get in touch, and I’ve got a form on my website that’s a great way to get in touch.
Any last words?
We went on a lot of tangents, let’s see if I can tie some pieces together! I think the piece that connects my work in the nonprofit sector, small business sector, and landscape photography is that these are all beautiful things that I care about and advocate for, and I hope that through my taking quality images of these things people will feel a drive to support and protect them.
Exhibition: Squamish Medical Clinic, 37979 Cleveland Ave, 10 March 2023 to June 2023
Website & Online Shop: http://www.
Custom Print Enquiries: http://www.