May 11, 2020

Get to know Elizabeth Hesp, the photographer behind Bach Goldberg Variations

Photographer Elizabeth Hesp and her image, Nautilus Twirl

We recently chatted with Elizabeth Hesp, the photographer behind the mesmerizing image for Bach Goldberg Variations. In keeping with our 2019/20 Season theme of “old meets new” we are thrilled to share the work of some of Canada’s and the world’s most exciting contemporary artists as part of our season campaign. These stunning images were chosen to complement both the season theme and the theme of each individual concert.

Get to know more of Elizabeth and her work with our Q&A.

Tafelmusik:  Tell us a little about yourself, and how you started in your field of art?

Elisabeth Hesp: "The eyes seek what the mind knows, and the heart feels” is my philosophy for looking out through my lens at my environment, which makes me reflect, question, and find answers within myself. The camera and lens are my tools to make vital connections and create both artistic and personal awareness. I am drawn to a minimalist and contemplative photography style which is a fusion of the East and the West: in essence, composition and subject matter. Immersive experiences with different cultures around the globe during travels with my family have informed my cross-cultural artistic vision.

I was born, raised, and educated in Calcutta, India, by middle-class parents who supported and created an environment to expand my interest in the arts, but not necessarily to follow as a chosen career path. That shift came later in Canada, while grieving the passing of my parents. This personal loss made me realize that the time had come to pursue what I love. As a mother of two talented teenage daughters, I thought it best to show by example that you only become in life what you focus on and work persistently towards.

In 2012, while working in research at Queen's University, I had my first fine art photography exhibition in Kingston, Ontario. In 2014, I received my first Ontario Arts Council grant and dared to call myself a visual artist (after first having taken a few very deep breaths). That ownership helped me to start conversations within my community and visually comment with my camera and lens through collaborative art projects. Visual Rhythms Architecture Dance Music was my first project with youth performance artists, culminating in an exhibition and the book Finding Rhythm in the City—a celebration of Kingston, the city and the community. My next project is about exploring the connections between Textiles and the Female Cultural Identity. I have embraced my freedom to explore and create, and I am enjoying the support of my family and community. Life is beautiful!

TM: Tell us more about the artwork featured in our season campaign and your concept behind it. What was your process while creating it?

EH: Nautilus Twirl was the image selected by Tafelmusik from my portfolio of Nautilus Rhythms, to visually represent their 2019/20 concert season’s Bach Goldberg Variations, directed and arranged for the orchestra by Music Director Elisa Citterio.

Shapes, forms, and patterns found in nature intrigue me. I reflect on their connection to fundamental truths and ideas about ourselves and our environment. If you check in at any museum or open a book of prose or poetry, you will see plenty of evidence that many before me have felt the same way.

I have a cross section of a nautilus shell sitting on a shelf in my living room. I often like to make its luminous presence the focus of my daily meditations. It is fascinating that this cephalopod, found at great depths along the coral reefs of the Indo-Pacific Ocean, outgrows its living quarter only to make a new chamber each time, spiraling outward in perfect geometry. Each chamber of the pearly nautilus represents a step through time, similar to the beat of musical notes separated by pauses in time, travelling through space to reach our ears. Just as music keeps sync with time and space, to create audible rhythm, so the Nautilus marks its shell interior with spiral chambers, marking the passage of time and in turn creating visual rhythm.

I am not a musician but I enjoy the immersive experience of listening to music. Listening to the pure harmony of classical music often evokes reflection and brings us closer to the inner architecture of our thoughts, emotions, and spirituality. Similarly, the spiraling spatial harmony of the internal architecture of this mollusk becomes a metaphor for our life paths as we spiral through our experiences and grow from one moment in time to the next to find our own spiritual rhythm. Almost mystical in presence, this “living fossil” brings us closer to our personal truths, connecting us to concepts as old as time.

I photographed the Nautilus Twirl image on a windy afternoon in May 2016. The shell sat on a small table in my backyard, bathed in the diffused light from a cloudy sky with my camera secured on a tripod. My macro lens opened at an aperture of f5.6 was focused sharply on a section of the spiraling lines, blurring the rest of the image with the lens’ shallow depth of field. Reflected light from large whiteboards set up around the shell illuminated shadow areas and dark spots to eliminate contrasts. The center reflected the natural light in iridescent hues of green and blue, much like the shifting lights of the Aurora Borealis.

The homogenous lighting and soft focus were deliberate in creating an image of reflection and contemplation, highlighting the mystical essence of the nautilus in my mind’s eye. As I held my breath and pressed the shutter-release, I felt that I had joined the philosophers, painters, photographers, architects, writers, and poets from the past, who had paid homage to what the nautilus represents with their art. At that moment something old evolved into something new through my lens—in this case, a different perspective of an ancient shell, much like Tafelmusik's objective for its 2019/20 season to merge the old with the new.

TM: Tafelmusik’s 2019/20 season theme is “Old Meets New.” How do you feel your art fits with this theme?

EH: I believe my art aligns well with Tafelmusik's 2019/20 season theme. The world-acclaimed baroque orchestra is bringing forward musical compositions of old master composers and rendering it to its audience through new instruments, new arrangements, and world premieres of new orchestral pieces. Tafelmusik’s season theme mirrors my objective to create contemporary fine art photography based on timeless concepts with objects from our environment, in the process saying something new with the old.

The nautilus shell, a surviving relic from antiquity, displays 30 chambers of outward growth, creating the visual momentum or rhythm in my image, the Nautilus Twirl. Tafelmusik is presenting Bach’s 30 Goldberg Variations in a whole new performance rhythm for orchestra under the artistic direction of Music Director, Elisa Citterio. I found the similarity to be a remarkable coincidence!

Whether you are a performance artist or a visual artist, the past can be the source of your creativity and it can be brought forward to make a whole new body of work for your audience today. Brilliant!

TM: What is your favourite music to listen to when making art? Doesn’t have to be classical!

EH: When creating photographic art, I like to support my creative flow state by listening to classical instrumental compositions that are calming, reflective, and meditative. This helps me in maintaining my intuitive focus for long hours at a stretch.

My music choice is eclectic. I listen to what I grew up with while living in India and what I have experienced here in Canada. Mian Ki Malhar (Monsoon Raga) by Pandit Shivkumar Sharma on the santoor, Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia’s Raag Bhairavi on flute, Maestro Zakir Hussain’s tabla renditions, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s Raag Desh on sarod, Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes, Pachebel’s Canon in D, Chopin’s Nocturne No. 2, Peruvian folk music, and Flamenco dance music are just some of my favourites.

TM: What shows or exhibitions have excited you recently, and is there anything you’d love to see?

EH: I would love to see Peruvian photographer Martin Chambi’s black and white photography, Mrinalini Mukherjee's fiber art, and celebrated Bengal Renaissance painter Jamini Roy’s paintings in a museum exhibition here in Canada.

TM: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

EH: The best advice I have ever been given is from my grade 10 Bengali language teacher. As she was signing my yearbook she wrote, “your quiet and observant disposition will lead you to your destination.” Interestingly, 30 years later my mindfulness practice has helped the creation of my photographic art. The potential for change always comes from within!

See more of Elizabeth's work at and follow Elizabeth on Facebook and Twitter.

Bach Goldberg Variations
Elizabeth Hesp
Old Meets New
2019/20 Season