People sometimes ask me why my projects don’t all look the same.
I take it they mean they are a bit perplexed when my projects go from (for example) drug addicts to federal infrastructure to the suburbs.
Well, I only photograph what I’m interested in learning about and I believe that you don’t learn that much by just plugging some preordained approach or style into what you’re photographing. That’d be called consistency. And while certain consistencies are important in photography, other consistencies are just a way of going through the motions without really thinking (too much). The world is so complex, so multifaceted, that looking at it from just one angle really doesn’t do it justice.
Of course it goes without saying that the stress of our years since birth boxes us in, creates our biases and informs how we see and understand the world. But within that box (which is always reinforced by the powers that be) there is a lot (or, maybe, some) wiggle room.
I bring this up because I’ve been looking at Bryan Schutmaat’s new book, Good Goddamn.
Bryan’s first book, Grays the Mountain Sends, is a classic. One of those rare beasts that is easy to like, popular and worthwhile. A beautiful collection of Western landscapes, interiors and portraits of men (except for the very last image, a photograph of a woman), all shot in atmospheric light. It’s impossible not to sense the feelings accrued in this book: lonesome, desolate, lovelorn, melancholy.
His subsequent book, Good Goddamn, is different in a few ways:
• The images here were shot “in Leon County, Texas, over the course of a few unseasonably warm days in February, 2017”.
• Those images show us one thing: a slowly (but not too slowly) unrolling event (or what many, especially those not connected to it, might consider to be a non-event).
• The photos are black and white and not always entirely sharp.
But Good Goddamn only looks different from Grays the Mountain Sends. The underlying feelings remain the same: mystery and melancholy, lonesomeness and desolation. They (those feelings) are just rendered in a different way, using a different approach. And in Good Goddamn the approach feels right and honest.
It’s great to come across photographers who don’t always fall back on the tried and true. Because so often what is tried and true for one thing, for one subject, for one time of your life, will not be true for another. It’s only by trying (present tense, as opposed to “tried”, past tense) that you have a chance of approaching some truth. When you try instead of settling, that’s when honesty has a chance.
This week we have Daniel Sharp writing about Christian Villemaire’s show at Exposure Gallery. And at the bottom of this post is an update about my call for recent photo school grads (with a bit of editorializing). But before we get to that let me tell you a story . . .
. . . I met Lordish Lewis in Rosedale, Mississippi. We talked for a while, she made us lunch. Afterward I asked if I might take some pictures of her.
While we were shooting a man crossed the street, came toward us. Lordish said, that’s my father.
She introduced us. He stretched himself to his full stature, looked into my eyes and told me, I’m 68 years old, I got 12 children, I been a man.
I replied, you’re wife must be quite a woman to have borne so many children.
Still looking right at me he said, took two wives.
There used to be a city called Hull. But in 2002 it was merged with some adjacent municipalities and that whole shebang was called Gatineau. Hull was gone.
These recent photographs reflect Christian Villemaire’s ongoing fascination with the streets, buildings and people of old Hull. Undertaking something like a project of exploration of his personal history and examination of his own identity, Villemaire ventures through the streets of Hull, taking pictures. He is curious but does not really know what he is looking for. He says, “I don’t belong to Hull. I don’t live there. My parents are from Hull. I always visited. I am taking pictures as an outsider, but not as a tourist. I visit these places over and over again, looking to capture these pictures.”
Villemaire’s larger project is titled HULL ( ), from which the photographs on display are selected. The title is inspired by the highway sign announcing the border of GATINEAU (HULL).
The parenthetical bracketing of HULL is a poetic notion of displacement. The old Hull is almost an afterthought, a sign of a former location, but the bracketing can also grammatically indicate that HULL could be considered separate from GATINEAU. A key image in the series, the photograph of the road sign GATINEAU (HULL) marks the entrance to the uncanny, awkward spaces of this exhibition.
Villemaire shows us photographs of places in Hull, in winter, mostly on overcast days. There is an odd feeling of emptiness in these spaces. People have come and gone. Of course there is the implied presence of the photographer, the viewer, the observer. To some people these spaces will seem familiar, if you know Hull. But there is an ineluctable strangeness to Villemaire’s choices of where he is looking. Curiosity and wonder inform his view, more so than estrangement and disaffection.
The E.B. Eddy building is photographed centred and square, on an empty street, with a grey luminous sky above and an empty field of snow in the lower part of the picture. Villemaire says this photograph shows a little about what we do with our heritage in Hull. The old factory is a beautiful building but it is not currently being used. It is a part of the heart of the history of Hull. Villemaire remarks that at least it hasn’t been destroyed. The mood of the scene as a quiet grey moment in winter shows the viewer this beautiful, lonely, seemingly abandoned historic industrial building in a place that used to be called Hull. The image is a eulogy for the past but somehow also conveys hope.
All but one of the photos in this exhibition are exterior images with no people. Most of the photos are square-format prints. Formally, the architecture and roadways contribute to dynamic compositions, forceful diagonals, emphatic horizontals and thrusting verticals. At the same time as these images convey a certain desolation of winter and perhaps an economic despair, there is a peculiar and awkward humour in some of the pictures. In the picture titled “W” the neighbourhood is a bit rundown, but why is that stop sign so short and does the declaration ARRÊT have any reference to the poverty of the neighbourhood?
One of the images that Villemaire says stands more as documentation is the interior of the hockey arena Centre Robert Guertin. The arena represents one of the older buildings in Hull that is destined to be demolished. Even so, Villemaire belies the claim for simple documentation when he relates that this is where his son practices hockey and Villemaire himself worked in the food concessions in the arena as a teenager. So in all these images of the streets and buildings of Hull, Villemaire selects his subjects and his point of view partly with a documentary impulse to preserve how the city looks – a document of this history and culture. But as well, he is always exploring the psychic space of his own life and his memories, and in making these photographs he is demonstrating a longing for beauty and hope for the future.
Last week I sent out a call asking recent local photo-school grads to drop me a line. I want to speak to them about their trials and tribulations. I want to find out how it’s going for them, how their expectations were met and not met.
Aside from 3 SPAO grads who I actually know, and a nibble from the commercial side of the biz, there were no other responses.
Unless, of course, you consider the many emails I received from photo school teachers and students across the country, and in the USA. Great, but it’s the local scene I want to try to understand.
That I received so much interest from outside the city and hardly any from inside suggests to me that the Ottawa Photo Scene is broken. Either that, or the folks here in Kapital City figure I’m a dickweed and don’t want anything to do with me.
I can live with being thought of as a dickweed. Geez, I probably am a dickweed (but, I like to think, not exclusively a dickweed). But the lack of verve, of cohesion, the lack of desire to raise the bar and form community that I see over and over again in this photo scene kind of bums me out. Or at least harshes my buzz.
I’m pretty sure that my definition of (contemporary) photography as art (the serious expression of intelligence) is a bit (a lot) more stringent (limited) that most people’s.
For the longest time I had trouble explaining my complaint. Mostly I fell back on the idea that many of the photographs being put on the art pedestal these days look, to me, more like illustration. You know . . . executing a plan to arrive at a foregone conclusion. Sure, some of them are swell to look at, there might even be some concept and/or happenstance behind them, but not much has really been discovered or disclosed, little risk is involved, nothing seems to be at stake.
Then I ran across an interview with Chris Boot, the executive director of Aperture. While I didn’t agree with everything he said, there was one thing which stood out for me. Let me paraphrase . . .
He said that the common language of photography used to be one of detachment. While the resulting photographs may have had some kind of personal reverberations for the photographer and certain viewers, the photographers’ position was on the outside, looking. (It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway . . . there are exceptions to this.)
He goes on to say that Nan Goldin changed all that. (I’m pretty sure that nothing is ever the result of just one other thing.) Anyway, he says that she combined the personal and the political and the observational, that she made herself, and the medium itself, her subject, and that that pointed to a more modern way of using a camera.
This is not to say that one must only photograph their own circle of friends and acquaintances to be an artist. That’s too literal a reading of what he’s getting at. He’s talking about what you have invested in your work, beyond the time and the money, some looking, a bit of craft and the quest for acceptance/popularity/sales. In business parlance, do you have skin in the game? (When you do really have skin in the game it ceases to be a game.)
I bring all this up because it’s something I think about. But also because I just received All Quiet on the Home Front, by Colin Pantall, a classic example of the potential of contemporary photography . . .
All Quiet on the Home Front is a book about a father and a daughter growing up, it’s about love and landscape, about wonder and wondering and wandering, about the passage of time. It’s tender but not maudlin; measured but emotional; honest and, you can just feel it, true; it’s simple and complex at the same time.
We see Isabel, Colin’s daughter, grow up, we see their house and the land Colin and Isabel walk to and through. We see what she does on that journey, almost always lost in herself. We catch glimpses of Colin’s wife, Katherine. We don’t see Colin, but his presence is felt in every frame. And we can read this thoughts.
The images are not sequenced chronologically. Here time, like memory, jumps back and forth. It’s a long arc, but throughout there are wonderful page spreads that show us moments of time barely separated.
All Quiet on the Home Front touches on something timeless: family, father, daughter, time, the land. It’s quiet but contains layers of resonance where the personal, the political and the observational combine. Colin has made himself and the medium his subject.