INTERVIEW WITH JOSHUA MCMILLAN
by Alice Oliver
Joshua McMillan is a Canadian photographer whose practice focuses on the regions that surround him. Throughout this interview, he talks to us about two projects, Midnight at Sixty-Four which documents the summer solstice in Dawson City, Yukon. The work was made on the First Nation territory of the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in and for the few weeks surrounding the Solstice, the sun dips low in the sky but never quite sets. Casting a warm and quiet radiance over the midnight town. In his current project, “From Dawn ‘Til Dusk, Then Dawn Again,” McMillan has turned his focus towards the gold mining of the Yukon.
AO: Could you tell us a little bit about your early life, where did you grow up and how did that environment shape you and subsequently your practice?
JM: I grew up in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. For some geographical context, it's about an hour from Toronto and 15 minutes from Niagara Falls.
I’m not sure that specifically growing up here played a part in my photography today. I photograph it often when I am home, but my interest in the place itself really only started in 2019 after lots of traveling. I wanted to get out of here badly, so I did, I went all over the world, but when I got home I found a new big appreciation for the region. Since then, I’ve been much more intentional about photographing home.
I think a more prominent thing is that growing up, I played a lot of sports. It’s what I spent most of my time doing, and although I’m not involved in any organized sports anymore, I do think that has played a role in my life in photography and life as a whole still. By playing, practicing, and competing, it taught me a lot of lessons that can still be applied today. I didn’t think as much about it at the time because at the heart of it I was just a kid having fun with friends. But learning new sports, competing, winning sometimes, but also losing lots. I think it was important to learn well, how to learn something, and go through the challenges and adversity that comes with that. I didn’t learn how to skate backwards in a day, it took a lot of practice, trying, failing, then trying again to figure it out and improve. Just like photography, you won’t make a good photograph on your 1st, 100th, 1000th try, and so on. So I guess all this to say, learning that things take time, in a world that feeds us “3 step hacks” to mastering this and that was something important when first getting into photography and continuing it. For every good photo, there are countless bad ones. There always will be.
As far as inspiration/influence artistically that derives from this, I do love photos that depict the playfulness of youth, especially when sport is involved. The Players by Mark Steinmetz is one of my favourite books.
AO: Can you tell me a bit about how your photographic practice started? What were some elemental moments in your photographic education that helped or hindered the shaping of your practice?
JM: Near the end of 2016, my friend showed me a photo that really stuck with me. It was just of someone documenting a night camping in their car. It really opened up my eyes to the fact that you can make interesting photos by just documenting your life. I started to take my dad’s digital camera with me everywhere I went, lots of hikes, time with friends, and just documented and tried to make good photos. I haven’t done any formal education in my photography. It just stemmed from that and lots has taken place since that led to where I am today and the way in which I work. Now 5 years into it, I feel like this last year was the first time I felt a sense of my natural “voice” as a photographer. I have a long way to go, but 2021 felt like a good step in the right direction.
One hindrance that I can think of from early on was that so much of what I knew about photography was just from Instagram. I really did love photography for photography’s sake, but one of the main intentions I had when photographing was to do what I thought would get me likes. It’s a crappy intention and thankfully I’m far removed from that headspace when I’m making photographs.
I’m certainly not an advocate for that at all, but maybe a benefit that came from it, was that I was led to believe I needed to post something everyday. So I was shooting a lot that first year. Naturally, the sheer volume led to learning basic photography functions relatively quickly.
AO: Can you tell us a bit more about your body of work Midnight at Sixty-Four and the starting point for this project?
JM: It was a really fun and simple project that came really out of nowhere. In the summer in Dawson City, it just never gets dark throughout the night. So every night in the weeks before and after the summer solstice, I would walk out of my door at 11:30 pm with my camera on a tripod and a few rolls of film. I would just walk around the town for anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours out in the midnight light and make photographs of whatever would catch my eye.
I had no intentions on a project of this sort. On my very first night in Dawson City, I was staying in this cheap hostel-like place. It had a shared bathroom and to get to it you had to walk outside. So at around 1 am I walked out to use the bathroom. Though I knew it was a thing, the light that was still available at the time was really fascinating to see.
When I got back into bed I couldn’t stop thinking about it and the idea of doing a small project simply based around the fact that it stays light out through the night.
I had brought colour film and black & white film with me. I figured I would likely use both together in one project, but it made sense to designate photos of what is a very colourful town with colour film. Only a few days prior I had decided I would be doing the project on gold mining, which I had a sense balck & white on its own would suit much better. Everything for Midnight at Sixty-Four came together in a span of a few minutes. It was spontaneous and intuitive from start to finish.
AO: Another project you have been working on is From Dawn 'Til Dusk, Then Dawn Again, is this a new step within your practice, or something that evolved out of earlier concepts or themes that you had worked with in the past?
JM: It definitely is a new way of working. The idea of finding a subject, or a group of people/place to really immerse myself and dive into is something I was interested in for a little while before finally doing it myself. My introduction to this came from a book that had a tremendous impact on me which is Isle of Man Revisited by Chris Killip.
Initial attempts at this would be from work I’ve been making around the Niagara Region in the last few years while I have been home. But that’s a little more broad in its subject. Being on a small camp where the crew of miners live, work & sleep 24/7 is incredibly exciting for me. Making work of everyday routine that is confined to such a small area is a really fun challenge. It’s fully immersive with no way to work other than head on. It also lends the time to just be present and be ready for whatever may happen.
I’ll be living on the site full time this year when I go back to continue the project in March. Words can’t quite fully express how excited I am for it. My heart is fully invested into this project. It’s an incredible feeling.
AO: How has the Pandemic affected your photographic practice, were you still able to roam as freely as before?
JM: I would say to an extent it affected it, but it’s tough to put into words how it did from a non straight-shoot/practical sense. Right when the pandemic hit, I was laid off from the job I was working. It was a really hard time for everyone mentally, financially & from a health standpoint, but I was very fortunate to find a job that was more than full-time hours nearly right away after the initial 2 weeks at home. The few months before the pandemic hit I wasn’t photographing all that much. Mainly just snapping pics with friends here & there. I had been home nearly a year with no huge itch to get travelling or start any grand endeavour. So from a photography standpoint, it didn’t feel like I was brought to a halt. Those first few months of the pandemic were used as an opportunity to allow myself to not think too much about photography, just go to work everyday and find a sense of routine in that regard. I certainly felt the weight of the pandemic, but spending my days working 10-14 hour laboursome days, it was to my benefit in a number of ways for that season I believe. I knew eventually I’d get back to it, but it was nice to just not force anything. I knew that season could help me be a little better prepared financially when it was time to jump back in, whenever that was going to be.
Additionally, I had only really got into buying photobooks in 2019, and in 2020 I definitely took a bigger jump in that. I did photograph a number of times around Niagara later on in the year, but I spent a lot more time consuming/researching photography than practicing it. I beat myself up about that at times in the midst of it, but I believe it ended up for the best. I learnt a lot about the medium and what qualities or characteristics in others’ photographs tend to be moving for me. I owe a lot of that step in finding my own photographic voice in 2021, to the time I spent looking at photography in 2020.
AO: Some photographers prefer to work with photobooks and publications, while others feel that exhibiting their work is the most effective way to resolve and expose their work. Based on your own personal practice, what do you think suits your work best, and how have you come to this conclusion?
JM: Well aside from a small run zine I did 4 years ago, I haven’t really showcased my work in either facet so I’d certainly be open to both! But I do just really love the photobook and everything that can bring as an art form and experience. I recently was fortunate to attend an online workshop with Paul Schiek, founder of TBW Books. It was about photobooks of course and man, I mean, I’ve never been listening to someone speak where I honestly felt someone is literally a genius at their craft.
All this to say, it had a profound impact on how I view the photobook and has me so excited about it. And ways in which my project From Dawn ‘Til Dusk, Then Dawn Again could one day come to be as a book. When I’m there photographing this year, gathering work in different capacities that could find its way into the book will constantly be on my mind.
That being said, I love the idea of an exhibition as well, and having the photographs live as big beautiful prints. But I think at least for now, the book form is top priority, then it’d be cool if exhibitions end up as a by-product to a good book.
AO: What is next for you? Where do you see your practice taking you next?
JM: Well, as I’m writing this I’m actually sitting in my terminal about to head back to the Yukon to continue my project. I’ll be there until mid-December so the next 9 months will be dedicated to working on this project! I’m so excited. I do have some plans for what will come after all this, but I’m trying to keep all of that in the back pocket for now and just stay focused and present while I’m here for these next 9 months. Having this amount of time to commit to this singular project is just so exciting. My words aren’t doing justice to how I feel about it haha.
AO: Please can you share with us some of your favourite photobooks or bodies of work that have influenced your practice?
JM: Absolutely. I’m worried I’ll miss some because there are so many. But off the top of my head, as I mentioned earlier, Isle of Man by Chris Killip, Open Range by John Langmore is one of my favourite books. I have it with me and will continually be looking at it for inspiration while I’m out here making my own work. Other books that made the cut are Jasper by Matthew Genitempo (that book is ridiculously captivating), Opening The Sky by Larry Fink, Infidel by Tim Hetherington, Blackwater River by Robbie Lawrence, and of course the aforementioned Isle of Man. Bryan Schutmaat’s work has had a huge impact on me. All of his (ongoing) projects just blow me away. Josh Neff and his ongoing project The Outer Limits is fantastic so far. Farland by Lewis Ableidinger, Dormant Seasons as well as Home Is Where The Garden Grows by Erinn Springer are amazing. Bryan Birks and his project Articles of Virtu. Gosh, there are so many I know I’m forgetting a bunch. But I’ve spent a lot of time with all of the photographers mentioned here and each of their work has had an incredible impact on mine. I thank them for the work they’ve done and continue to do.