Daniel Heikalo, photographer/musician, Quebec: Our Beautiful Decay…
“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”
― Dorothea Lange
“To the complaint, ‘There are no people in these photographs,’ I respond, There are always two people: the photographer and the viewer.”
― Ansel Adams
t a time when much of contemporary photography is focused on the extremes, from edgy and confrontational to self-exploitation, Daniel Heikalo is using his camera to record a much different drama.
“All photographs are memento mori,” the writer Susan Sontag once observed, an idea not lost on the Quebec musician-photographer, who ventures into the woods outside his northernmost home to capture with his camera those starkly beautiful reminders of the inevitability of death. And with that awareness, the preciousness of life. Of each fleeting and wholly irretrievable moment.
And it doesn’t get more real than that.
INTERVIEW WITH DANIEL HEIKALO
Saint-Jean-de-Matha, Quebec ~
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Tell me about the importance of stillness for you. How does that reconcile itself with you as a musician?
Daniel Heikalo: Photography is meditation for me. Walking-seeing meditation. I think that it brings me even more joy and connection, stillness, than music, in times of trouble especially. It takes me to the essence of things, in a a way that I cannot put into words. I don’t need to, and really, don’t want to. I just know that it is a way for me, and that it works better than any other meditation. It does not matter whether I am in a field, in the forest, in a city or inside my house.
Daniel Heikalo: As for the musician in me: I play best when I can get to the same place of stillness as I do when doing photography. Be it interpreting a composition or freely improvising, my best work as a player comes when I simply let it happen. It has been said by the greatest players: you have to learn all, scales, theory, etc, and when you play, forget about it! (Said in a Brooklyn accent.) That is stillness. I have recordings of improvisations that are of that species, and they are what I consider my best work as a player. When it happens on stage, it is to be cherished.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: A recurrent theme in your photographs is the fragility of life. Yet within that fragility a tenacity. Self-portraits?
Daniel Heikalo: Possibly. I am very sensitive to a lot, too much sometimes, but isn’t that what allows me to create what I do? Doing the art allows me to survive, to be tough in the face of it all.
I am fascinated how plant, buildings become when they decay.
I can relate this to improvisation. It is “in the moment,” then it is gone. Recording makes it possible to fix it in time, like the camera for images of the impermanent, but the act itself is non-repeatable, fleeting. It is also a very satisfying and life-affirming practice, and an essential part of most musical traditions. It has been lost in western classical music, where it used to have much more importance. Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Lizst, Paganini were all virtuoso improvisers.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Do you think we have an unhealthy relationship with death in modern western society?
Daniel Heikalo: Absolutely. Especially in America.
Isn’t it coming from the same mentality that puts all the focus in magazines and movies on “youth,” “eternal youth at all cost”? Botox, surgery, Photoshop treatment of all images in Vogue, Vanity Fair, Glamour, etc. Death negation, that is what it is. There is beauty in youth, childhood, middle age, old age, but we are given a plastic illusion in the place of this reality, that youth is all there is that is worthy of being called beautiful.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Your wife, Tamara features in much of your artwork. Such a lovely testimony to your relationship. Is she also an artist? Who did the two of you meet? How long married?
Daniel Heikalo: Tamara is a professional illustrator, with eight books in her portfolio. She is a very skilled draftswoman with a wonderful imagination. She also lends a very surrealistic bent to her drawing at times.
We met in 1994. She needed a lift to the city to buy watercolor paper, and a mutual friend brought her to me, who commuted often. Et voilà! Took no time at all to recognize that we were in love. Within a month we were living together. We married in 1998.
We respect and encourage, inspire each other in our work. We help each other.
I help Tamara with sources for illustrations, with history, with Photoshop. She revises my English texts. We also work together on graphic design for our own work and for clients. We design my CD covers and publicity together. We are a fine working team.
I find her very soulful and beautiful, in a non-cliché way. She inspires me to create portraits of her, portraits that become part of collages often, with surreal elements. The collaged elements bringing out a deeper level, a subconscious strata.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Which exploration for you came first: music or photography?
Daniel Heikalo: It was photography. I started to take photos of the old areas of Montreal as early as 1966. I was twelve. Equipped with a Brownie Kodak, I walked the old city’s street with my father, fascinated by the ancient stone buildings. I found the negatives to these recently and scanned them. It was there from the start. I still take architectural photos with the same esthetic approach as then. My technique and camera are better, but the eye is the same. I loved it from the start and understood instinctively how to construct an image.
Daniel Heikalo: I started music in 1970, during a year-long sabbatical from the dread of high school. School was, and has always been, hell for me. I cannot be contained. It drives me positively mad. I learn from others who know more, or different things than what I already know. I have no time to waste doing papers on useless topics, or anything that is of no value to my life. I am appalled by the education system’s hierarchical structure, by the immense amount of time spent on useless subjects and tests, or shall I say, badly structured studies of disciplines of dubious use at the expense of what should really be taught.
Daniel Heikalo: I learned guitar first, and junk percussion. The only instrument I studied formally is classical guitar. I took private instruction in theory and music calligraphy. Other instruments were added through the years: mandolin, bass guitar, drums and hand drums, percussion, mandolin, cittern, dulcimer, banjo and recorders. I learned audio engineering so that I could put all these instruments to use without having to pay for studio time. I found early that I had an ear for mixing, recording and mastering, and have produced and recorded all of my CDs and soundtracks at home. It allows me a great freedom to create when and how I want to, and to get the sounds I want.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Who have been your greatest inspirations in your life?
Daniel Heikalo: I’d have to say my grandfather, Émile Côté. He was a quiet man with a grade-four education who could do anything with his hands: building, mechanics, electrical work, welding, building row boats, canoes, motor boats, etc. He was a staunch atheist in a society, the medieval Québec of the twenties up until the late fifties, that viewed men like him as evil. He hated the clergy that had, I am certain, physically abused him. A priest had also suggested his barn be burned to the ground because he had harvested on a Sunday. And the parishioners did just that! He left the country and became a policeman in Montreal. He would sometime arrest some young thief, bring them home, give them a meal and a second chance, saying: ‘Don’t let me catch you again!” He understood poverty and was highly respected in our sub-working class neighborhood.
Émile is the one who made me discover the old city, the ancient stone architecture of the countryside around Montreal. He had no education, but wanted me to have one. One day, he took me to the Touthankhamon exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. On another excursion, it was Canaletto. He also took me to the museum of natural history to see the collection of insects, fossils, minerals, all things that stayed with me and reappear in my photographs, and in my drawings. He also encouraged me to draw, and wanted me to learn piano, music. I wish he had lived long enough to see that what he had taught me had borne fruits. He died when I was twelve and left a big hole.
Daniel Heikalo: The other obvious inspiration is my wife Tamara. She has showed me what true trust and friendship really is and has helped me acquire a higher sense of respect of myself. She has taught me to have higher standards, not to settle for mediocre in friendship and how wise choices reflect positively on a person. I used to be more trusting of people who did not deserve it, and it has been painful. I have a tough radar now, and the friends I have are deserving of being called friends. Tamara has also helped me see through the exploitative nature of galleries, agents, venues, etc, and to demand fees that show a respect of the artist.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Do you think we now are lacking in mentors? Musicians and artists especially?
Daniel Heikalo: Absolutely! I have no degree, but have been teaching music, mostly privately, for thirty five years. I have taken photographs since the mid-sixties. I find it distressing that I cannot bring my knowledge and insight in these fields to the classroom because I don’t have a degree. My experience should be sufficient to open us the doors of institutions, to offer my skills as a mentor. My education is partly the fruit of mentors. And it does not get any recognition. Unions are important, but in this case, they are the ones imposing the dictatorship of the degree in educational institutions. It is because of a union rule that I lost my teaching post in a university. It is happening to many musicians. Recently, a large school board’s union made it impossible for any musician without an education degree to even teach an instrument in their school. Not classes, instruments! So what happened is that musicians from a world-class institution like the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and other astounding instrumental ensembles, some of them with a PhD in music, are now forbidden to teach in the schools of Laval, a city of 300,000 just across the river north of Montreal. Unexperienced and much less skilled ones are allowed because of the tyranny of the education degree.
Mentors are so needed. And they must be remunerated well. We need to eat, pay the rent, mortgage, etc. And experience has taught me that often, people do not appreciate what they don’t pay for, especially from artists and musicians. We are very often asked to do things for free, for charity, etc. Time to re-evaluate the importance of artists and musicians, and their mentorship.
Daniel Heikalo is a photographer, composer and instrumentalist living in Quebec.
To explore more of his work, visit: