Copyright © 1998 All Rights Reserved.
by Dave Teeuwen
Before the Land, Behind the Camera
Illingworth Kerr Gallery at ACAD
Until October 3
On a poster introducing Before the Land, Behind the Camera a quote reads: "Nature knows nothing of what we call landscape." The exhibit, which is spread out in nearly a hundred different photos, is the very epitome of that idea. They line the walls like a ruler measuring a good idea; a large and powerful display of Canadian work that proves we still hold strongly to the idea which Margaret Atwood made famous, of survival as a constant metaphor in our art.
Before the Land, Behind the Camera contains the work of 23 artists from across Canada, covering various topics and viewpoints. Political, technical, philosophical, visual and blatantly traditional sides are taken in their work, bringing together a show that has various levels to it, and the kind of appeal you can only achieve with that volume of work.
The show stands as a credit to artists working in this country. If it is somewhat on the conservative side, that is an understandable and forgivable flaw. While I wandered the gallery I heard one person whisper something about Ansel Adams, possibly the most famous landscape photographer of the century. That would describe many of the photos, and that's not an insult. Adams built his reputation on noticeably good work, though you might find it hung on too many kitchen and bathroom walls, at this point.
What really lies at the heart of the show, though, is the idea that landscape is not what we assume it to be. Take, for instance, David Bierk's "Sault Ste. Marie/Crystal Falls." This is a photograph with oil painting around the edges, filling in the spaces that the camera could not reach. It is deep with color, and does not stand out quickly. After a minute, you realize that the photograph is of a river that runs into a wooded interior. This could perhaps be called the least conservative piece in the show, as it definitely falls under the heading of mixed media, yet it is not so outrageous as to make the show cutting edge in the art world.
The mix between the traditional black-and-white art photography and the color photography is well balanced. In fact, I expected to see far more black-and-white prints of rocks and forests, etc. Instead, there is a strong color element to the show and a small but important inclusion of people into the landscape - a recognition of humans (and in some cases animals) as part of the world they inhabit. In the conventional idea of landscape, humans are not prominent.
One of the best uses of color in the show comes in the form of Alain Pratte's 25 Polaroids of a single birch tree hanging over a body of water next to a dock. The artist took pictures of the tree throughout the year showing the changing of seasons. While the idea is not original, it is well done by Pratte. The use of Polaroids gives the viewer a feeling of unity with the subject, as if you were seeing this tree from the window of your lakeside home. They are warm photographs, even when the snow is piled up the tree.
Another notch in the belt of conservatism is the way in which very few of the photographers included in the show attempt to distort the landscape, or even blur it. The photographs are often intended to be seen as what they are. Visual tricks are kept to a minimum and clarity is given the upper hand. This is especially true in the case of the more politically-minded photographers, whose points are often to say what is wrong with people more than to make a statement about landscape as a form. While these photographs have a place in the show, I felt that they were outside of the realm of photography as art. They were far more geared towards photography as vindication.
Before the Land, Behind the Camera is easily one of the better demonstrations of Canadian photography (or any manner of photography, really) showing in Calgary at present. The show is designed in three self-guided tours that allow the viewer to be fed certain messages in three self-contained bursts. The statement it makes about photography is worth experiencing, and the statement it makes about landscape is worth seeing.
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