For anyone who ends up in St. John's, whether by chance or will, visiting Signal Hill is almost a rite of passage.
Whether it's a tourist taking the family for a walk to learn about the history of the first telephone signal, or a local driving up to its pinnacle in the evening to reflect on their day, week, or an entire lifetime.
Being on the hill gives visitors a mix of distinct emotions between feeling so connected with the world while watching the big city of St. John's sprawling out as a blanket of twinkling lights at dusk, yet feeling isolated and at one with nature as the fog rolls in from the narrows at the break of dawn. Its history and majesty captures the imaginations of all who visit.
Zach Bonnell is a self-taught professional photographer from Gander who is a victim of the beauty of Signal Hill — it has kept him going back since 2007 when he moved to St. John's and started dabbling in the world of photography. He said he doesn't drive, but he would sometimes get up at four in the morning to start the seven-hour trek from his apartment to capture that perfect picture of the sun rising over the city.
When Arch Bonnell, Zach's father, a lawyer from Gander and a writer of poetry, started noticing Zach's work, his unique panoramic angles and use of various photographic techniques, he got an idea.
“Looking at these photos I found they were very inspiring and very unique kinds of photos, so the idea of doing a collaboration started to percolate,” Arch Bonnell told The Beacon. “I've been wanting to publish some poetry and I really wanted to get Zach's pictures out there so people could see them.”
The father-son duo started working on ideas for the book that would be later called The Hill in September of 2009, and now just over a year later, The Hill has been released and available in stores as of last week.
The Hill is a hardcover book of 26 full colour original photos taken by Zach Bonnell of Signal Hill over a three-year period, carefully laid alongside Arch Bonnell’s original poetry.
The poems aren't what one would expect, they don't describe the scenes they share their pages with, but grasp at something totally different.
“The photographs and the text are connected in a very subtle way. Each of the pictures is taken in the same location, but they're so different. It's like those pictures sort of represented a place in time that many people visit, and then you might imagine what goes through the mind of a person as they visit these areas,” said Arch Bonnell. “A lot of people go to Signal Hill to escape, they want to escape the city, they want to escape their own lives, or maybe they just want to go up and look at the ocean and the rocks. So we have 26 poems that might represent the thoughts, what's running through the mind of 26 different people as they visit Signal Hill.”
Zach Bonnell said he began taking pictures of scenic areas in the capital city when he moved to St. John's from Gander in 2007.
“When I was going to college there was a pond, Kent's Pond, which was a place across from where I was going to school and I used to walk around there every day at lunchtime,” said Zach Bonnell. “I just thought I needed a camera so I bought this little digital cheap one and I started taking pictures every day, and I just got more and more interested.”
He said he originally stated taking pictures of Signal Hill because he enjoyed walking up there. He started playing around with different settings and techniques, and found it was one of his favourite places to photograph. His father has been writing poetry for over 30 years, and said while he wrote some poems specifically for the book; many are ones he had written years ago he thought would be a good fit.
Though neither are new to having their work published — Zach Bonnell has had photos used in various magazines and in advertising and Arch Bonnell’s poetry has been published in compilations — it is their first time publishing their own book.
“There was quite a few obstacles, you don't realize when you try and publish a book what you have to do,” said Arch Bonnell.
“A lot of people go to Signal Hill to escape, they want to escape the city, they want to escape their own lives, or maybe they just want to go up and look at the ocean and the rocks.” Arch Bonnell
According to Arch Bonnell, one of the biggest challenges was getting a printer who could accommodate the wide panoramic shots his son favours without much of the picture being lost in the crease where the two pages meet, they had to seek a publisher in China when they found no one in Canada could print the book in the fashion they wanted.
“It took a large measure of time, and, of course, when you're doing a book you have to make sure you've got it right, that you feel good about it,” said Arch Bonnell. “Both Zach and I had to feel good about it, and our graphic artist has to feel good about it, but we finally got it straightened out.
Arch Bonnell said it was worth the wait, and that he is pleased with the finished product from the graphic design he described as phenomenal, completed by graphic artist Gabriela Altman, to the quality of the pictures and the printing. He said, however, he thinks the photos take the cake.
“The book really turned out with the photos as the main element,” said Arch Bonnell. “The book is structured so that if you want to read the poems you can do that but you can also enjoy the book and experience what’s in it without even looking at the poems, you can just look at the pictures and form your own conclusions and your own thoughts.”
Both said working on the book together was a rewarding experience.
“We've always been close but this is the first time we've worked together on something like this,” said Zach Bonnell. And while it might have been the first, Arch Bonnell said it is likely not the last time they will collaborate
“Zach has so many photographs and so many different ideas, there's a likelihood we'll probably see another book in the future,” said Arch Bonnell. “It was very rewarding being able to work with Zach, he and I are very close and we have in common I think a respect for creative processes, we're able to work together very closely, it's been a real joy to work with him.”
The Hill's official release was on Nov. 23, 2010 and is currently available at several bookstores in St. John’s. It is also being worked on to make the book available in Gander.