Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 19, 2012
Carol Payne and Andrea Kunard, eds. The Cultural Work of Photography in Canada McGill-Queen's/Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation Studies in Art History, vol. 4.. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2011. 296 pp.; 90 color ills. Cloth $49.95 (9780773538610)

The Cultural Work of Photography in Canada is an invaluable contribution to critical scholarship on the social history of photography in Canada and, more broadly, to methodological and conceptual issues involved in researching photography. Editors Carol Payne and Andrea Kunard have produced a volume that is essential reading for scholars, curators, archivists, artists, and photographers studying the role of photography in the changing topography of national identity. The contributors examine collections of photographs in Canadian archives and galleries that have contributed to the visual legacies of Canada’s past and continue to shape the country’s “imagined geography” (a concept from Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism [New York: Knopf, 1993], which Joan M. Schwartz develops in her essay, “Felix Man’s ‘Canada’: Imagined Geographies and Pre-Texts of Looking”). The volume thus is not as much concerned with photographs as records or explorations of aesthetic form as much as with the “cultural work” that photography performs in producing as well as challenging what constitutes Canada as a nation.

While The Cultural Work of Photography in Canada provides a valuable historical study of photographic practices in Canada, the essays in this volume also belong to a growing field of research in Canada that is in dialogue with memory studies (see, for instance, Martha Langford, Scissors, Paper, Stone: Expressions of Memory in Contemporary Photographic Art, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007; and Gerald McMaster, Reservation X, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999). Research in this field focuses on the work of contemporary artists and curators who experiment with historical images to generate new ways of perceiving/knowing and reframe our relation to the past and present (see E. Van Alphen, Caught by History: Holocaust Effects in Contemporary Art, Literature, and Theory, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997; Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997; and Jill Bennett, Empathetic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006). Thus this volume also includes essays on photographic work that challenges national tropes, excavating Canada’s past as an oppressive colony and its little scrutinized military role as an international player in nuclear geopolitics.

The volume considers photography since the 1860s, the post-Confederation period when large tracts of unceded Indigenous territory were viewed as outposts of the British Empire. In addressing “the cultural work of photography” from the 1860s to the present, the essays focus on practitioners that include well-known photographers like John Vanderpant (Jill Delany’s chapter), internationally recognized Aboriginal artists like Dana Claxton and Shelley Niro (Sherry Farrell Racette’s chapter), and studio photographers like Hannah Maynard in the nineteenth century (Carol Williams’s chapter), as well as photojournalists, ethnologists, and military officers. The essays discuss corporations and government departments that commissioned photographers (Schwartz’s and Delany’s chapters), along with popular cultural practices like centennial celebrations (Lynne Bell’s chapter) and photo albums (Kunard’s and Robert Evans’s chapters). As a result, this volume studies a rich array of photographic practices working at the level of the individual, provincial, national, and international that have both produced and contested what we understand as Canada today.

The collection’s authors go beyond textual analysis and provide detailed social histories that explain why photographs were commissioned by companies like the Canadian Pacific Railway (Delany’s chapter). They present the ideological practices and conventions involved in the composition and layout of photographs in anti-communist advertising campaigns (James Opp’s chapter), national magazines (Sarah Stacy’s chapter), and local newspapers that constructed immigrants as sources of anxiety and objects of curiosity (Sarah Bassnett’s chapter). They provide insight into how individuals combined scientific and domestic practices of collecting and arranging photographs in albums (Kunard’s and Evans’s chapters).

Rather than selecting only photographs in wide circulation, Schwartz and Opp have chosen to analyze the little-studied and/or unpublished collections of German photojournalist Felix Man and Canadian portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh, respectively. Their investigations reveal the extent to which popular ideologies determined the images produced by these highly respected photographers. For example, Schwartz makes the case that Man’s 1933 photo-essay of Canada propagates novelist Karl May’s popular “Wild West” imagery, which exists in sharp contrast to how Canadian photographers presented the country during the Depression era. And while Karsh is known for his heroic images of workers, Opp reveals his lesser-known role in Canadair’s Cold War anti-communist advertising campaign. Through detailed research Opp reconstructs the logistical and technical challenges Karsh faced in his determined efforts to transpose this ideology into images that clearly identified the Communist threat.

At a conceptual level, John O’Brian and Patrick Fitzpatrick focus on Canada’s involvement in “global nuclear affairs.” They examine how photographs can operate as traces of nuclear events, circulating not just as spectacular images of disaster but also “memento mori” (187) in the form of seemingly innocuous images in history books, scientific bulletins, and local newspapers that taint the edges of our consciousness with the threat of annihilation. As images bearing the potential of nuclear apocalypse, these photographs raise epistemological questions about the medium of photography and its ability to register forms of temporality where the future is obliterated. Here the authors turn to artworks (O’Brian) and exhibitions by the Atomic Photographers Guild (Fitzpatrick) that experiment with the possibilities of perceiving and knowing the reach of radioactive contamination in the Canadian imaginary.

On another level, The Cultural Work of Photography in Canada is a valuable resource book on Canadian photography. It is published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, a Canadian academic press with a reputation for lush, beautifully illustrated and designed publications on visual media. This book is a treasure trove of color and black-and-white reproductions that provide detailed documentations of a rich sample of archival photographs and photographic art in Canada. While Payne and Kunard indicate that the volume does not cover exhaustively the history of photography in Canada, it nevertheless presents one of the main streams of scholarship, especially from English Canada, including essays on and by highly respected Aboriginal photographers, curators, and writers. Vincent Lavoie is the sole representative from a Quebec-based university; with analytic precision, his contribution delineates the aesthetic and ethical criteria for Canadian photojournalist contests, which underlie the “normative precepts of the press picture” as they are linked to the technical, cultural, and institutional developments in the field of photojournalism (154–55). In terms of Quebec’s distinctive political and cultural reality, Stacy compares the Weekend Magazine (1951–79), a nationally distributed magazine insert containing “brightly coloured photographs of faces, places, innovations and issues . . . about being Canadian in the 1960s and 1970s” (137), to its Quebec version, Perspectives. Using Benedict Anderson’s concept of the “imagined community,” she tracks the increasing political and cultural divides played out on the pages of Weekend and Perspectives. While initially Perspectives was little more than a translated version of the Weekend, it soon began to take on its own character, distancing Quebec from Canada’s centennial celebrations and muting “the concepts and images of Canadian nationalism on display in the Weekend issue.” By 1972, with the growing momentum of the Quebec sovereignty movement, Perspectives no longer even used the word “Canada” in its stories (148). Thus while both magazines were driven by ad revenues, Stacy shows how national ideologies split Weekend and its Quebec “sister magazine,” signaling “the inevitable collapse of the Anglo-nationalistic paradigm as a comfortably accepted fiction” (150).

Given the breadth of work on photography in Canada, there are many directions Payne and Kunard could have followed in mapping out the social history of “the cultural work” of photography. A volume on the links and distinctions between photography in Quebec and English-speaking Canada, for instance, would have necessitated a separate volume, considering the conceptual work required to navigate the cultural, linguistic, and political borders and interchanges, especially given the breadth and sophistication of both photography and scholarship on photography in Quebec. Instead, the editors draw the essays together using a narrative on the role of photography in imagining Canada as a settler nation with military and economic ties to other centers of power, including Britain and the United States. To “unsettle” this narrative (Paulette Regan, Unsettling the Settler Within, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010), Payne and Kunard turn to the innovative work of Aboriginal scholars, artists, and curators in the broader political context of Indigenous land claims and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools. While many of the essays discuss the dehumanizing colonial depictions of Aboriginal people in the construction of Canada (see chapters by Schwartz, Williams, Kunard, Evans, and O’Brian), Farrell Racette, Bell, and Jeff Thomas discuss the visually breathtaking, the playful, the technically and conceptually complex, the community-based, the politically provocative, and emotionally disturbing photographic work of Aboriginal artists like Thomas, Ed Poitras, James Nicholas and Sandra Semchuk, Rosalie Favell, Greg Hill, Arthur Renwick, and Krista Belle Thomas, to name only a few. Farrell Racette, for example, brings to light the simultaneously playful and disturbing staged photographs by Dana Claxton’s Momma Has a Pony Girl (2008), where “Mother is a ringmaster . . . [standing tall], her body . . . completely covered and visually extended by her extravagant red clothing and [feathered] accessories . . . [while] Pony Girl is a young blonde woman . . . poised mid-prance” (88–89). Farrell Racette gives an incisive analysis of this image: “Representing the relationship between Aboriginal people and history as mutual and sado-masochistic is risky but gives visual form to the notion that colonized and colonizing subjects are tethered together” (89). In contrast, Jeff Thomas discusses the exhibition Emergence from the Shadows: First People’s Perspectives, which he guest curated for the Canadian Museum of Civilization in 1999. Aboriginal artists were invited to work with photographs of Indigenous people that anthropologists took around the early to mid-twentieth century. Thomas set up one gallery with the anthropologists’ photographs, highlighting the control the subjects exerted over the photographic process as well as their encounter with the anthropologists. In a facing gallery, he presented the work of the Aboriginal artists, which “[speaks] to the self-determination, to the reality of today’s urban First People and to the body that exists . . . [to their ancestors]. Together the galleries demonstrated how “time travels through [Aboriginal people], creating links between past and present” (214–15).

In addition to the fourteen essays by Canadian and Aboriginal scholars, curators, archivists, and artists, many of whom have made key contributions to the study, practice, preservation, and exhibition of photography in Canada and internationally, the editors’ concluding chapter provides an insightful overview of the institutions, publications, galleries, and critical writing on photography in Canada since the 1960s. Here, Payne and Kunard write about English and French Canada as well as Aboriginal work. As they point out, there are few books entirely dedicated to critical scholarship on photographic practices across Canada, although there are critical writings on the subject in academic journals, exhibition catalogues, publications by archives, and edited volumes from particular regions in English Canada and Quebec. Here, The Cultural Work of Photography follows Raymonde April’s Thirteen Essays on Photography (Ottawa: Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, 1990), the first volume published by the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography that promoted scholarship on Canadian photography. The Cultural Work of Photography was also supported by the museum (though it was permanently closed by the federal government as a stand-alone institution and absorbed into the National Gallery of Canada in 2009), which points to the important role that national archives, galleries, and programs have played in developing research and scholarship on the social history of photography in Canada.

With the involvement of archivists, curators, artists, and scholars, The Cultural Work of Photography in Canada presents readers with a groundbreaking study of photography in Canada. It is ironic that this volume was published in 2011, just one year before the federal government announced that it is making massive cuts to local and national archives across the nation. In this context, the volume points toward the cultural work of photography that awaits in archives and art galleries; it also urges us to do whatever is required to ensure the survival and vitality of these institutions. It highlights the work of professional staff and programs that have preserved and continue to build the country’s rich and diverse heritage, reimagining it across regional, racial, economic, political, and international divides.

Kirsten E. McAllister
Associate Professor, School of Communication, Simon Fraser University, Canada