Towell grew up in a large family in rural Ontario and studied visual arts at York University in Toronto where his interest in photography first began. Towell volunteered to work in Calcutta, India, in 1976 where he became interested in questions about the distribution of wealth and issues of land and landlessness.
Returning to Canada, Towell taught folk music and wrote poetry and then became a freelance photographer in 1984. His early work included projects on the Contra war in Nicaragua, the civil war in El Salvador, relatives of the disappeared in Guatemala, and American Vietnam War veterans who worked to rebuild Vietnam. His first magazine essay looked at the ecological damages from the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
In 1988, Towell joined the Magnum photo agency, becoming the first Canadian associated with the group and he has had picture essays published in The New York Times, Life, Rolling Stone, and other magazines. His work has included documentation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Mennonite migrant workers in Mexico, and a personal project on his family’s farm in southern Ontario. He always works with traditional film, eschewing digital options: “Black and white is still the poetic form of photography. Digital is for the moment; black and white is an investment of time and love.” He has also worked with panoramic cameras, which allow him to shoot the “landscapes of destruction”–looking at human beings and their place in the landscape.
Towell’s bibliography includes books of photographs, poetry, and oral history. He has also recorded several audio CDs of original poetry and songs. Towell lives in rural Lambton County Ontario and sharecrops a 75-acre farm with his wife Ann and their four children.
“If there’s one theme that connects all my work, I think it’s that of land-lessness; how land makes people into who they are and what happens to them when they lose it and thus lose their identities. ” Larry Towell (Canadian, b. 1953)
Larry Towell’s business card reads ‘Human Being’. Experience as a poet and a folk musician has done much to shape his personal style. The son of a car repairman, Towell grew up in a large family in rural Ontario. During studies in visual arts at Toronto’s York University, he was given a camera and taught how to process black and white film.
A stint of volunteer work in Calcutta in 1976 provoked Towell to photograph and write. Back in Canada, he taught folk music to support himself and his family. In 1984 he became a freelance photographer and writer focusing on the dispossessed, exile and peasant rebellion. He completed projects on the Nicaraguan Contra war, on the relatives of the disappeared in Guatemala, and on American Vietnam War veterans who had returned to Vietnam to rebuild the country. His first published magazine essay, ‘Paradise Lost’, exposed the ecological consequences of the catastrophic Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. He became a Magnum nominee in 1988, and a full member in 1993.
In 1996 Towell completed a project based on ten years of reportage in El Salvador, followed the next year by a major book on the Palestinians. His fascination with landlessness also led him to the Mennonite migrant workers of Mexico, an eleven-year project completed in 2000. With the help of the inaugural Henri Cartier-Bresson Award, he finished a second highly acclaimed book on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in 2005, and in 2008 released the award-winning The World From My Front Porch, a project on his own family in rural Ontario where he sharecrops a 75 acre farm.