John Magnet Bell: Photographer


suddenly (cropped) | Dec 5, 2006 | All images are © John Magnet Bell. All rights reserved


John Magnet Bell

John Magnet Bell | @StartYourNovel

John Magnet Bell is a writer, translator and blogger, and many of you already frequent his blog, “Start Your Novel.” This is the first writer-prompt site I ever discovered and I find his philosophy refreshing: “an adventure in open-source storytelling.” John freely gives away his ideas and encourages writers to run with them.

“Go wild,” he says. “I have tons of ideas. Why keep them all to myself?”

You will be amazed at his terrific prompts.

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of meeting John online and, carrying his generosity forward, he agreed to write a guest post for “Creative Flux”—the intriguing “You Hate to Love Them, But You Can’t Help Yourself.” Then, last month he honored me with a request to fill the opening spot in his new author interview series “5 Questions.” I extend my thanks to you, John, for your friendship and the opportunity to be a part of your community. You can check out my interview here.

Now, what some of you may not know is that John is also a published photographer. His work on Flikr  demonstrates impressive talent and remarkable imagination. A number of his fine works—my favorites—are included below, along with a brief Q&A of his creative process.

Click here to view his entire portfolio.

Q & A

What are the roots of your images?

In a nutshell… Eastern Bloc and Canadian animation. I was brought up on that stuff. It was (and is) far richer, in visual terms, than most commercial western cartoons. So three cheers for NFB-funded shorts, I say.

I didn’t fully realize it back then, but those short films, many of which did without any form of spoken language, were planting multiple seeds in me, the seeds of a visual vocabulary. As an adult, I came to enjoy the visually challenging work of the brothers Quay and their own idol, Jan Svankmajer. Thanks to YouTube you can now see plenty of their work online. I recommend Svankmajer’s tma/svetlo/tma (Darkness/Light/Darkness), it’s a wonderful little piece.

No less important was my mother’s influence. She earned a degree in Art History, so I always had access to art books. I was entranced by color-plate reproductions of Max Ernst’s paintings before I even knew what “oil painting” meant. There were also these Art Nouveau prints around the house which made quite an impression on me.

Why do you create them?

I need to. Can’t always explain why. Every human being has access to a part of themselves where verbal language breaks down and only symbols will manifest themselves. Some of us have a window on that landscape, others have a door and can step through it. (Max Ernst and Dali certainly had doors; contemporary painters Judson Huss and Siegfried Zademack have doors of their own, too.)

Stepping through that door and walking out into the unknown is exciting. You find unexpected things about your inner world. The joys of exploration — they’re the reason anyone creates anything, I guess.

What are the digital/traditional processes you use in creating your work?

More often than not, it’s a simple process. I keep a sketchpad on my nightstand. Sometimes I’ll have an odd dream or an image will… assault me. I sketch it roughly just so I won’t forget the concept, and save it for later, whenever I have time to work on it.

Once I have the concept, there comes the part where I either shoot stock for it, or go through the library for material I can use in my collage. Most of my pictures are photographic manipulations, after all. When I finally have all the assets I sit at the computer, fire up Photoshop and move this bit here, that bit over there, resize a thing or two, mask a bit, darken a bob. You know. Like the cut-and-paste you do in grade school, only slightly more time-consuming.

Kherson Oblast, 8 September 1965, 2:23 AM

Kherson Oblast, 8 September 1965, 2:23 AM | Aug 8, 2011


Awaken | Feb 19, 2011

box 34

box 34 | May 6, 2010


( | Jan 4, 2009


Kindred | Dec 13, 2008

one would take long walks in the morning

one would take long walks in the morning | Sep 28, 2008

evil, evil, evil

evil, evil, evil | Sep 8, 2008


Adagio | Jun 18, 2008

red vs. yellow

red vs. yellow | May 14, 2008

feast or famine

feast or famine | Apr 24, 2008

in the garden of gehenna

in the garden of gehenna | Apr 9, 2008

all things that live

all things that live | Nov 1, 2007

strings attached

strings attached | Aug 24, 2007

within her there are no words

within her there are no words | Aug 11, 2007


Offering | Aug 4, 2007

essence : light

essence : light | Jul 16, 2007


suddenly | Dec 5, 2006

vesica piscis

vesica piscis | Oct 24, 2006

Haunted nine

Haunted nine



John Magnet Bell is a translator, photographer and blogger with an MA in Comparative Literature. He intends to write 5,000 copyright-free story prompts and post them on his blog, Start Your Novel.

Connect with John Magnet Bell

Start Your Novel Blog | Twitter: @StartYourNovel


Please join the discussion below

37 thoughts on “John Magnet Bell: Photographer

    • I’ve always felt that Carroll gave precious little of his attention to the rabbit hole. There are so many unexplored warrens and galleries…

      Maybe I should change my pen name to John Twisted-Magnet Bell. (I’ve always wanted a hyphenated name.)

  1. Dude is right. As in DUDE. (Period)

    And Stan is almost right- Twisted, yes! Haunting, yes! Wonderful…. well….ye..ah… ok.

    Uncharted courses through the rabbit hole? I think the rabbit is following you, not the other way around.

    Wow. Your answers, touched me more or at the very least, as much as your photos. I am really glad I came over… you may understand what I mean (you may think I am just strange), but the pictures…I have to think about them… Do you know?

    Oh! and FYI- My little was crawling all over me when I reached your picture above (of you!) and she stiffened and leaned into me, whispering to me, not taking her eyes off the screen, “he has crazy eyes momma” (Snicker-snicker)

    • Three explanations for the crazy eyes:

      1. Taking self-portraits is a bewildering experience. There’s nobody behind the camera to direct you.

      2. I’m short-sighted, so my eyes look… crazy when I don’t wear glasses, because I’m not trying to focus on any particular thing.

      3. The white rabbit’s chomping at my ankles.

    • Hi Amber-Lee, welcome to CF *smiles* “Haunting,” yes. I even think “vesica piscis” is both soothing and haunting in a disquieting, sublime way.

      I think John’s appearance is an admirable reflection of his arresting originality and talent: open, penetrating, and discerning. With eyes that listen. And you won’t forget him easily.

  2. Terre thank you very much for having John on your site and giving us a glimpse of a hidden side of this talents. I knew of his talents in writing, but I had no idea of his talents in the visual arts.

    John, I am humbled to be in the presence (albeit online) of someone so deeply and broadly talented.

    Stan nailed it. Your photos are haunting but also multi-dimensional. Some are bright and cheery, yet each one sends a powerful message.

    Thank you for sharing another one of your crafts with us, John!

    • Thank you, Carolyn.

      My philosophy, after some time, became “think more, shoot less.” I don’t put an image out there unless I’ve asked myself what it means, and whether there’s some kind of narrative to it.

      If you browse my Flickr portfolio and notice the tags, you’ll notice that I’ve labeled several of my pictures “I write photos.”
      That’s because each one started as a story. There’s almost always a fictive world behind my images. I’m not sure where that world lies or how I’ve managed to ‘channel’ its mysterious denizens — these moonlit forests where the trees are nails and translucent moths hide in shadow, these headless fish escaping a frame, these interstitial visions have always been a part of me.

      • I love that we agree that a good photo tells a story!

        I have a similar philosophy when shooting: Understand and capture the understanding in the shot. Alas, I am truly noob in photographing things and, worse, I have a shakey hand.

        • In which case a tripod would be your best friend.

          Most compacts and/or SLR lenses come with image stabilization features now, that should help you too.

        • I know it looks like a koi because you have no size reference. It was in fact one of those outsized goldfish you see in ornamental pools. The pool itself was too small, it would have given koi the fish equivalent of cabin fever.

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  4. You are one of the few who seems to use more of his brain than the rest…I’m amazed and inspired. And what a childhood! To be surrounded by talent and opportunity.
    Thank you for being you…completely you!!

  5. Dude, you are one sick pup……….I love it. We think so much alike but you are able to express it creatively. I see I have only scratched the surface of one Mr JM Bell.

    Sorry for the late arrival; somehow I’m not getting my Triberr messages. Don’t be afraid to call me out when I need to show up somewhere.

    Thanks so much for sharing this.

    • In all honesty, Bill, I don’t work hard enough. I see that now but it took me a long time to that particular conclusion.

      It’s good to know that there are people like you out there. Born communicators, great minds with a zest for life. Thanks for dropping by.

      • Adagio would be my number 1; All things that live for 2; and the box for 3.

        When I took the time to really look at them and see some of the nuances also going on, it gave them much more depth and really gave me a wow moment.

          • Yes, I can.

            I’ve been “off-world” so to speak – I was working on a huge translation project and my computer decided to eat up one half of two days’ work. I was forced to catch up in half a day. Yes, it’s as insane as it sounds and I didn’t quite make it.

            The last 3 days were totally nuts, it’s a good thing my post on Calvin & Hobbes was ready a week in advance.

            Insights to follow soon.

        • Adagio, then.

          – Why call that picture “Adagio”?
          For starters, the many ways that water moves have always suggested music to me. Water flows, drips, meanders, splashes, bursts and crashes. Water fills. Water even floats, in gaseous form.
          That said, there is a certain liquid quality to music.
          As a tempo, adagio indicates that a particular passage should be played slowly. Slowing things down is either a way to manage tension or lead toward an ending.

          At this point I should explain that Adagio is a picture of a 3-foot bronze statue of a little boy near the city center of Bergen, Norway. There is something very profound and melancholy about that statue, something that suggests slowness and invites meditation.

          All Things That Live pictures the withering stems of early summer clovers. The blossoms have done their thing by now, and have begun to die out in the sun. All things that live go through the same: from seed to bloom to fruit to death. And this is beautiful, because in dying they help other living things prosper, either providing them with food or just making room for more living beings.

          Box 34. I don’t want to overdetermine the implicit narrative. You can see it as a fantasy photo-illustration dealing with conspiracy theories and/or alien abductions. Or, you could imagine an interstitial narrative connected with Orwell’s 1984: there’s Room 101, but there’s also a Room 34. Each one with a different purpose.

          You can interpret it as a more personal, yet covert narrative – a fraction of a story about the ways we box ourselves in.

  6. John, forgive my tardiness and hello to all you fine commenters.

    Thank you, John, for rising to the challenge of this short-notice interview. I, too, am a lover of the NFB. My all-time favs are Richard Condie’s “The Big Snit” and Robert Flaherty’s famous documentary, “Nanook of the North.”

    I’m so glad you talked about your influences. I’d never heard of Huss or Zademack, but after a quick search, I can certainly see their influence in your work. Thanks for the introduction. However, your images are fresher and less grotesque than Huss and less “Dali” than Zademack.

    And I have to agree with Carolyn, your range of ideas is wide and diverse. This makes your entire body of work engaging as a whole, in addition to each individual piece carrying its own influence. You run a broad gamut, from mysterious (“vesica pisci” and “Awaken”) to macabre (“evil, evil, evil,” which is arresting, I might add) to fragile (“all things that live”) to vulnerable (“box 34”) to enticing (“essence”) and to the temporary (“suddenly”).

    The distressed nature of “all things that live” plucks the piece from our known reality and causes it to resonate on some ethereal plane, like the quivery, gossamer top notes that rise from the violin of Lisa Batiashvili, in Giya Kancheli’s V&V in “The Space Between” (at 37:27). There is an innocence, even a type of Holiness, about it.

    I think the most penetrating image is “Adagio;” the fleeting nature of “suddenly” is absorbing; and, I’m very curious, what is the story behind “box 34”?

    Actually, I have questions about them all.

    I’d like to see them slotted for production in a really large format, so they might fill a couple of galleries where the viewer can be embraced by the experience.

    And I have to say that I find your statement regarding the dependence on symbols when verbal language breaks down to be most perceptive, and can easily be expanded to include sounds, gestures, as well as the written word.

    I am so pleased to have discovered this side of you, John, and thanks for sharing your work.

    • The best works of art all provoke some estrangement, if you ask me. They’re supposed to jolt you out of everyday, filtered consciousness.

      Art is the original mind-hack.

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