Larry Towell

​Larry Towell, photographer (born 1953 in Chatham-Kent, ON). Winner of the prestigious Hasselblad Foundation Award for photography and the first and only Canadian member of Magnum Photos.

Larry Towell, photographer (born 1953 in Chatham-Kent, ON). Winner of the prestigious Hasselblad Foundation Award for photography and the first and only Canadian member of Magnum Photos (the world’s premier agency representing documentary photographers), Larry Towell is among the most distinguished photographers of his generation. Author of 13 books, his photographs and photo essays have regularly appeared in The New York Times, Life, Rolling Stone, The Walrus and many other publications.

Education and Early Career

Towell grew up in a large family in rural Lambton County, Ontario, where he continues to live, and studied visual arts at York University in the early 1970s. He soon, however, moved on to poetry and music he has published several volumes of poetry and continues to perform his own idiosyncratic, politically-charged folk songs, accompanying himself on the banjo.

Towell’s lifelong concern with wealth, the poor and the dispossessed was in part inspired by work he did as a volunteer in Calcutta, India, in 1976. In the early 1980s, after living off the grid teaching guitar and tending to his garden, he made his first trip to Central America. Travelling with a human rights group, he began taking photographs in order to illustrate the testimonies of Nicaraguans who rose up against the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, eventually leading to the Nicaraguan Revolution in 1979.

Central America and Mexico

Towell’s career as a documentary photographer essentially began with his coverage of the civil war in El Salvador, eventually leading to his 1997 book El Salvador. Shot in traditional black and white film stock (he has refused to convert to a digital format), these photos are distinctive for their intimacy. Rather than shooting chaotic combat scenes, Towell has always focused on the human impact of war. In San Salvador, 1989, for instance, there are the elongated shadows of civilians fleeing down a rocky slope from the corpses of guerrillas executed by government soldiers. Mother at Grave of Son Killed by Death Squads, 1991, is a pietà of a mother swooning in her daughter’s arms, flanked by simple white crosses, a rolling landscape in the background. In addition to his work in conflict zones in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, Towell has also photographed the poor, exiled Mennonite communities in Mexico and South America, resulting in his book The Mennonites (2000).

September 11th, 2001

On the morning of 11 September 2001, Magnum Photos had a board meeting in midtown Manhattan. When it became clear that what was happening at the World Trade Center towers was a terrorist attack, Towell and the other Magnum photographers present grabbed their cameras and headed downtown. As a result, Towell produced one of the most iconic images from that tragic day. Typical of Towell’s work, New York, September 11, 2001 is not a dramatic image of a plane exploding into the building or of bodies falling from the burning skyscrapers or of one of the towers collapsing, but of a man in a business suit standing in the middle of a debris-strewn street in lower Manhattan, dust still hanging in the air, calmly reading a piece of paper.

Palestine

Towell has spent years documenting different phases in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, many of which are collected in Then Palestine (1999) and No Man’s Land (2005). In Shati, Gaza, 1993, for instance, teenage boys crouch in an alley clutching rocks in their hands, waiting for Israeli soldiers to pass by on patrol. Gaza City, February 12, 2003, on the other hand, offers a close, panoramic image of masked men carrying the corpse of a Hamas militant who was killed while attempting to enter Israel.

In addition to his photographic work, Towell has also documented life on the West Bank and Gaza through sound and video recordings. Indecisive Moments (2001) is a video diary of the photographer wandering through the rubble and checkpoints of the West Bank under siege; the title, which alludes to French photographer Henri Cartier- Bresson’s idea that photographers seek the “decisive moment” to shoot, indicates that Towell views video as being wholly distinct from photography.

Panoramic Cameras and the Aftermath of Katrina

In addition to shooting with traditional cameras, Towell also works with panoramic cameras that allow for a horizontal sweep that works especially well for landscapes. Many of the photographs published in his book In the Wake of Katrina (2005), which capture the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina along the coast of Mississippi and Louisiana, were shot with a panoramic camera. In an image shot in Waveland, Mississippi, for instance, there is a battered statue of the Virgin Mary in the foreground, and behind is a pedestal littered with debris. Another, shot in Pass Christian, Mississippi, is an image of a garbage-strewn clearing where homes and a Walmart used to be.

Afghanistan

Between 2008 and 2011, Towell travelled to Afghanistan five times, resulting in his book Afghanistan (2014). In these photographs and accompanying videos, Towell documented the lives of ordinary people trapped in a conflict zone. In an image from Kabul in 2009, for instance, there are men and women on a dusty street haggling over the price of cotton. Another image from the same year shows heroin addicts crouched in the ruins of the old city, which was destroyed in the civil war following the withdrawal of the Soviets. As with his early images of the civil war in El Salvador, Towell never photographs violence directly, only its human cost.

Kiev

In February, 2014, Towell travelled to Kiev, Ukraine, and photographed the clashes between protesters and police in Maidan Nezalezhnosti square that left 98 dead and led to the ouster of then president Viktor Yanukovych. Towell was in the centre of the action. In one image, a young woman with long hair touches the metal shields of riot police; in another, a protester stands atop a barricade with a lit Molotov cocktail in hand, the air an orange haze of smoke.

The View from My Front Porch

In addition to his politically-charged international work, Towell also takes more personal photographs of family and friends in and around his farm in Lambton County, Ontario, many of which are collected in his book The View from My Front Porch (2008). In one, from 1995, Towell’s wife is seen from behind holding their infant son, their older son peering out from a window in an old oak door; on the porch wall is a huge water buffalo skull Towell bought during a trip to Vietnam in 1990. In another photograph, Towell’s young daughter swings out over a river on a rope tied to a tree limb, other children looking on.

Honours

Towell is the recipient of numerous major, museum-level exhibitions, including ones at the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography in Ottawa (1994 and 2001), the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland (2001), the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson (2005) in Paris, and the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York (2008). His awards include the W. Eugene Smith Award (1991), the Premier Photo of the Year, World Press Photo (1994), the Alfred Eisenstadt Award (1998) and the Hasselblad Foundation Award (1999).