THE REAL WEST
Runs until June 30
Stone Fish Gallery
(1403A - 9 Ave. S.E.)
Stone Fish Gallery in Inglewood is, appropriately enough, hosting an exhibition of photographs from the archives of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Appropriately, because the historic Inglewood neighbourhood has strong ties to the railway, dating back to when the first steam engine rumbled into Calgary in 1883. Ever since then, the CPR and Calgary have enjoyed a long, and mostly beneficial, history, with the company, now headquartered in the city, playing a central role in the development of Calgary from a cowtown to one of Canadas economic powerhouses.
That kind of development is exactly what the CPRs William Cornelius Van Horne had in mind when he pushed the railway across the plains on its way to the West Coast. And it was also Van Horne who was instrumental in creating a photography unit within the CPR when he was appointed general manager of the company in January 1882.
With his usual business savvy and forward thinking, he conceived that photography could be used as an effective way to promote the railway. And so a group of talented photographers was commissioned and later hired by the CPR to capture picturesque views of the places where land and steel horse intersected.
The result is an archive that today contains more than 800,000 negatives, making it one of the most important photography collections in the country. Although the CPR photographers did the bidding of their masters, they also strayed beyond that mandate to capture moments in time that have since grown in importance as historical records.
The photograph entitled Chuck Wagon Races, 1938, by Nicholas Morant, is as good a visual record of a place as you are likely to see. With a broad point of view that takes in the entire scene, this skilfully printed photo depicts a raw energy that elevates it to a work of art.
In fact, all of the Morant photos collected here demonstrate that this was a photographer who brought a journalists vision to his work. Perhaps not surprisingly, he left the CPR to be a photographer with the Winnipeg Free Press and Canadian Press, before returning to the CPRs photography unit in 1937, where he worked as its "special photographer" for more than 50 years.
A legend in Canadian photography, Morants work has been reprinted on Canadian currency and collected across the world, including at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, which last year received a donation of his freelance work from his widow, Margaret Morant.
Although there are only 30 prints in the exhibition at Stone Fish, you can quickly see the talent of the nine photographers represented here, with prints made available in a limited edition of 50.
The only sticking point in this exhibition is that the titles of the photographs have been pencilled on to the mats. Its a no-no in photography, because often mat and photo become separated for unforeseen reasons. For example, on the day I visited Stone Fish Gallery, located in a 1911 building, it had experienced a leaky roof. Several of the mats of the CPR prints were ruined, reinforcing the point: put important information about the print on the print and not on the mat.