It’s hard to know where to start in the remarkable life of Norman Lightfoot. He is a photographer and naturalist whose images capture secret moments hidden in the depths of the wild. His video camera has followed portions of the artistic lives of Canadian wildlife artist Robert Bateman and Canadian author R.D. Lawrence, among others.
Norman has led safaris, has researched and filmed Harp and Hooded seals, and has been awakened by a herd of elephants. He takes all this in his stride – one picture at a time and he isn’t quite sure why I want to interview him.
As a youngster, he traveled throughout Egypt, Kenya, South Africa, England and Ireland which gave him the muse on which to base his life’s work.
“All of my pictures have been for me,” he says. “Always.”
He was born in Dublin, Ireland but was swept away at the age of three with the outbreak of WWII. His father, a British soldier, was stationed in Egypt. Norman’s family was among those to be sent to the safety of South Africa until the war was over.
With the aid of a Brownie camera, Norman’s creative eye began to focus in this exotic place. His brother with their pet monkey; the sandy beach where they played as the war raged; and shots of wildlife, all in black and white, blend with photos of friends Norman still connects with.
They stayed until the war ended in 1945, when his father came home.
“I didn’t know my father at that time,” he says. “I didn’t know what it was like to have a father.”
The family traveled to England and Ireland where they visited relatives never heard of, and never seen again. Those memories of uncles and aunts, grandparents and cousins have now taken hold as Norman searches archives for remembrance. Photos of his father have recently been found. He is refurbishing them for the autobiography he is currently writing.
Stationed back in Egypt, Norman’s father would leave the army and take his family to Nairobi, Kenya.
“We lived in a house made of cattails with an earthen floor,” Norman says. “If the dogs heard something, they would run through the wall beside the door.” He chuckles at this memory.
Much of Norman’s education was in Nairobi, Kenya where an underlying danger sifted throughout the area with the Mau Mau Uprising. Alone, walking to school, the young Norman felt a bullet whisper past his head. Then he heard the rifle shot.
“I couldn’t see anyone. Thankfully, they only took one shot at me,” he recalls. “So, that wasn’t a good place to stay.
After “toddling” through Ireland, the family would settle near Liverpool where Norman would finish his education and later find work with the the world renowned Cunard Steamship Company, founded by Canadian, Samuel Cunard. Norman’s father joined Home Guard, a post-war organization on alert in case of attack.
Norman isn’t completely sure how his father was killed. He knows that his dad hadn’t been feeling well the day he died. It was reported that he had been working on a faulty Sten gun – a type of submachine gun. His father was shot in the stomach with a burst of bullets. He made it up two flights of stairs to call for an ambulance.
“When they asked my dad where the gun was, he said, ‘In the bloody basement.’”
The family would move again. It was the marriage of Norman’s sister to a soldier from Kitchener, Ontario that would lead them to Canada. Cunard Steamships gave the young man a berth on one of their liners for a mere 10 pounds.
Now almost 17, the young man arrived in Canada and saw something he’d never seen before – ice and snow. He searched for a job to no avail. About to join the army, he checked the Want Ads one more time before enlisting. His course changed with a two line ad. This lead to a job at a rubber stamping company in Kitchener where he stayed for 12 years.
For two months of every year, Norman took advantage of slow times in the organization to lead safaris throughout Kenya and Tanzania and meet up with old friends. His still photos depict the exotic wildlife he had grown to love during his childhood.
He was used to the noises in the wilds of Africa. One night, however, he and his buddy, Muff, would be awakened by rumbling. Curious lions, Norman thought. When he peered from his tent, a herd of elephants trundled past.
Norman made the move to the University of Guelph Audio Visual Department at the suggestion of a friend. There, he would learn the art of video.
“I had been doing my nature photos all this time,” Norman says. “But this was all new to me and it was great!”
In the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off the coast of Ellesmere Island, Norman researched and filmed Harp and Hooded seals for the University. He was the first to film divers sinking into the water to investigate these huge mammals. These images have been shown worldwide via Broadcast Television.
In 1977, his first independent documentary film, Images of the Wild, was produced by the National Film Board of Canada and followed the work of Robert Bateman. Interested in the wildlife of Africa, Bateman painted his way through Kenya. The two men share a love of nature and have remained friends.
Through the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, Norman met and filmed many wildlife artists, many of these on safaris in Kenya and Tanzania, and produced over 12 powerful films.
“I learned a lot from those artists, “he says. “Much about composition. But the art itself just came to me.”
His venture into self-publishing has produced his book The Royal Bird. Norman followed the habits of Mute Swans for two years to capture the magic and grace of these majestic birds. Colourful and magical, the book has been given as a gift to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to commemorate their recent visit to Canada. For centuries, the Royal Family has been the “Keepers of the Swans.”
At times, his art reaches beyond nature. His photos of graffiti in and around Cambridge, Ontario – where he makes his home – stretch the limits of creativity. Norman’s ideas don’t stop there.
Recently, his exhibition titled “Driven to Abstraction” was featured at The Cambridge Center for the Arts. Using normal photos, he adds abstract images to create another unique genre.
It can take years to get that one perfect shot. There is a quiet patience about Norman.
“I find a place and go to it at different times of the year,” he says. “I see what the reflections in the water would look like during different lighting. Then I wait for a duck or Canada Goose to swim into that reflection. The V made by the bird changes the blues and browns, the reflections of the trees. It swirls and creates abstract designs.”
Norman calls these pictures his Watercolours.
Each picture in his vast portfolio tells a story, a tale – if you will – that ignites the imagination with colour, light and symmetry, and gives his audience something remarkable to reflect upon.
“I like life cycles,” he says. “That’s what I focus on.”
Tags: Blue-headed Green Frog, Broadcast Television, Canada Goose, Cunard Steamships, documentary film, Ellesmere Island, England, family, friends, Home Guard, Ireland, Kenya, Kitchener, Robert Bateman, something, South Africa, Tanzania, video camera, Want Ads, water, work, young