My First Beakerhead Experience (It Won’t Be My Last!)

Last week the amazing team at Beakerhead HQ offered up a program of dazzling events. Despite unseasonal snowfall, Calgarians embraced the opportunity to immerse themselves in engineered art, witness artists getting technical and get hands on with science on city streets.

My favourite photo from the first Beakerhead Photography Workshop.

My involvement with Beakerhead dates back to early April, when Neil Zeller (who did almost all of the Beakerhead 2013 photography) led an evening photography workshop for people like me – photographers interested in supporting Beakerhead through their own smash-up of technical skills, artistic vision and willingness to embrace the #nobarriers approach to making great photographs for Beakerhead 2014.

Over the next few months, members of the Beakerhead Photography Team (BPT) embraced the challenge, making and sharing photographs of the Eco-Graffiti promotion, the official program launch, sidewalk and LRT platform promotions and more. Neil also ran a night photography workshop for those looking to develop the skills needed to showcase Beakernight and other evening events.

The night photography workshop was also when we received our official Beakerhead photo assignments, our official “Photo Team” garage shirts and our media passes (my first media pass – very cool IMO).

Then, the day before the start of Beakerhead 2014, Environment Canada posted a snowfall warning for much of Alberta, including Calgary. On Day 1 of Beakerhead 2014, the city woke up to extensive power outages, broken branches, toppled trees and the general chaos that results from up to 30 cm of heavy snow – in summer! I’m sure there was a bit of scrambling behind the scenes at Beakerhead HQ, but by about 9:30 a.m. they’d calmly announced that all Day 1 outdoor events and activities were cancelled.

Fortunately, my assignments for the day were indoors, so I donned my winter boots, added some pocket warmers and gloves to my backpack and headed out via LRT and on foot to undertake a self-guided art tour of several Calgary galleries. Six hours later, I’d walked about 15 km, visited all six galleries (of which only 4 were open), stopped in at Little Big Street (closed and quiet, due to weather), checked out the location for the Net Blow-Up and observed the extent of the tree damage in several Calgary neighbourhoods.

The late afternoon event I was assigned to photograph was cancelled due to the fact that the materials for the workshop were trapped inside a house that suffered extensive damage from fallen tree branches. So that gave me a chance to head home for a couple of hours, charge up my camera batteries, take a quick look through my photographs from the day, tweet some of the highlights and plan a few tweets for the next morning before I headed back downtown with our youngest son in tow.

Our destination was the Tremendous and Curious World of Beakerhead – kind of an engineering/art/music/science variety show, hosted by one of Beakerhead’s founders, Jay Ingram. One 90-minute show was all it took to change K’s mindset; at the start of the evening he was pretty indifferent to the whole idea of Beakerhead, but by the time the show ended he was a Beakerhead enthusiast! I attended as an audience member, not a photographer, but when everyone around me started pulling out their smartphones and point-and-shoots, I couldn’t resist turning on my camera, too…


I had some personal commitments on Day 2, so my Beakerhead participation was limited to a single official assignment for the day: photographing inspirational speaker/sword swallower Dan Meyer’s visit to a middle school in southeast Calgary. I’ve done a fair bit of school-related photography in my capacity as parent volunteer on outdoor education trips, but this was the first time I was doing school-based photography where I was asked not to photograph the students’ faces. It was definitely a change (and a challenge).


Friday (Day 3) was another big day for me. I had one official assignment in the afternoon, but I boarded the LRT about 10 o’clock and headed to Little Big Street where I encountered bus loads of students enjoying the exhibits. What a difference from Day 1…

One of the most popular areas was Antyx and Aspen’s Play on Wheels project (which, BTW, is still seeking funding – if you can help, details are here).


I also enjoyed the opportunity to see an artist at work using the camera obscura exhibit hosted by cSPACE Projects. My failure to record the artist’s name highlights one of the big lessons I learned over the course of Beakerhead. ALWAYS make note of people’s names (and contact details, if appropriate), so you can give proper credit and/or follow-up.


The crowd thinned out shortly before noon, so I took advantage of the lull to eat lunch and then walk to Net Blow-Up, which had a long line-up. I confess I took full advantage of my media pass and went to the front of the line (for the first time ever, that I can remember). I’m not sure who was having more fun inside the big bubble – the kids (aged 4 and up), their parents or the young adults who alternately bounded, flopped and climbed the giant net structure. The best comment I overheard was “I want one of these in my bedroom” and I can absolutely understand why there was always a long line of people waiting to climb inside. As a photographer, one of the things that most fascinated me about the Net Blow-Up was the way its lines and shapes constantly changed with the movement of the people inside.


From there, I crossed to the north side of the Bow River to take care my official assignment for the day: Unveiling the Universe. For months, students at Langevin Science School worked with artist Charlie Johnston to create a mural that will serve as a colourful welcome to the neighbourhood for decades to come.

After six hours I was ready to head home, relax for a bit, and then get to work processing and posting photographs.

I had other things going over the weekend, but I’d heard that Beakernight was absolutely not to be missed. I heard right! Again, I used LRT to the nearest station and then walked a few blocks into Victoria Park. Although I arrived about 30 minutes before the official start time, people were already starting to arrive for the massive outdoor spectacle of art and engineering. Highlights included El Pulpo Mecanico (a 7.5 m/30 ft tall 8-eyed, 8-armed fire-shooting mechanical octopus), Laser Cat (a mobile party complete with dance music, a laser light show and projecting a massive collection of artworks submitted by artists from around the world), art cars, a human-sized nest, DJs from Bass Buss, theramin music, amazing costumes and more.

I really took the #nobarriers theme to heart, commandeering a ladder to get a clear line-of-sight to many of the exhibits and (for the second time I can remember) cutting to the front of the line to don a safety harness and climb into a bucket to be lifted high into the sky by a mobile crane.

Here’s a fun series I took of the giant disco ball that on display thanks to the same company that offered the mobile crane bucket rides (again, I should have made note of the name)…

And that was a wrap for my photographic efforts on behalf of Beakerhead 2014, which came to a close on Sunday. Since then, I’ve spent several more hours processing and posting photographs. I’ve also taken the opportunity to reflect on my experience as a member of the Beakerhead Photography Team. This was my first experience as an event photographer and although a lot of the technical skills transfer from my usual world of nature photography, I learned a lot by serving as a Beakerhead photographer:

  1. There are perks that come with having a media pass!
  2. Set aside any nervousness and just ask people to help you out in terms of creating the composition you envision; everyone was really cooperative every time I asked.
  3. Just as in nature photography, if you pay attention to details no one else notices, you’ll come away with unique images to tell your story.
  4. It’s less scary to share the responsibility for photographing a major event with a team of photographers, than it would be having sole responsibility. Neil, I don’t know how you did it last year!
  5. Always make note of names and contact details. I’m going to have to scrounge around a bit to get the details I want for a couple of other blog posts I’m planning to do.
  6. There is a wealth of photographic talent in Calgary…not only was I blown away by photographs made by other members of the BPT, but also by many of the photos shared by event attendees via social media as wells as photographs on exhibitors’ websites, in local galleries and more.
  7. I definitely want to do this again next year. Where do I sign up for September 16-20, 2015?
  8. There is a wealth of artistic and scientific/engineering talent in the world. Imagine what would happen if STEAM became the new STEM!!

Finally, I spotted this sign on my way to Little Big Street last Friday:


To Mary Ann Moser and Jay Ingram: Thank you for chasing your Beakerhead dreams!!

PS – You can see more of my Beakerhead photos on here and photos from the entire Beakerhead Photography Team here.

16 thoughts on “My First Beakerhead Experience (It Won’t Be My Last!)

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    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, JF.

      One other lesson I learned (and forgot to include in my post) is that I found myself using my smartphone to take photographs a lot more than I expected. I don’t have wi-fi or bluetooth connectivity on my camera, so in order to get photos out on social media while still on the scene, I had to use my smartphone to feed Twitter and Instagram. So glad I upgraded from an iPhone 3GS to a Samsung Galaxy S5 earlier this year!

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