Ten renowned local and international contemporary artists reflect on how photographic images speak to us in this exhibition assembled by Canadian curator Christopher Eamon exclusively for Capture Photography Festival. The artists have developed innovative methods to disrupt how we “read” photographic images, often through techniques that retool the very mechanisms of print production. The array of artworks, some made specially for the occasion of this exhibition, showcase artists who tear away and supplant the legibility of photographs, in the process opening up provocative new avenues of meaning.
Each artist in Images that Speak holds in common an expanded notion of picture making that questions the depictive realism of photographs. In the single-slide installation by celebrated British artist Steve McQueen, entitled 7th November (2001), a close-up view of the top of a black man’s shaved and scarred head is intensified by a first-person account of a violent incident involving the police, a fired gun, and a tragic outcome. The veracity of the narration in relation to the pictured subject is ambiguous, yet it is impossible to split the two, to parse fact from fiction. As the story unfolds over time, our apprehension of the projection becomes increasingly complex.
Responding in part to the ubiquity of digital images today, some of the artists forfeit cameras altogether and take inspiration from early modernist photographers and printmakers such as Man Ray, Raoul Ubac, and Max Ernst. Ryan Peter’s “autograms” integrate drawing, painting, and darkroom processes, such as dodging, burning, and solarizing, in relation to these historical precedents. Similarly, Eileen Quinlan’s abstractions allude to early photographers’ fascination with display and advertising culture. In a series of recent prints created through the abrasion of the chemical surface of photographic negatives, Quinlan has recorded the loosened chemical layers of negatives that literally float in the darkroom developer bath. At times, Peter’s and Quinlan’s abstractions appear digitally created, yet they are uncompromisingly analog. Michele Abeles’s collaged images, on the other hand, are entirely digital. Manipulated in a virtual darkroom, her brightly coloured photographs imitate the cacophony of today’s image sphere. With white-noise machines attached—the kind used to block out office noise—she adds an aural antidote to the visual intensity of her images.
Stephen Waddell, Susanne Kriemann, and Arthur Ou can be called “straight” photographers, but they too work with a montage aesthetic. Waddell’s overtly cinematic photographs are tableaux of contemporary life that register the invisible aspects of “captured” moments. For Kriemann, the world’s archives serve as an untapped reserve of potentially repurposed images. In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (a Latin palindrome, also referred to as the devil’s verse, meaning “we wander in the night, and are consumed by fire”) references the use of rare earth elements in early electric light bulbs, an invention that made photography possible. Like a palindrome, Kriemann’s work creates a historical loop, back to the dawn of electricity and forward to our digital age, by exposing images of rare earth elements using only the light from her cell phone. Similarly, Shannon Ebner’s photographs also bring to mind fundamental photographic metaphors of reflection and illumination through a literal mapping in 1:1 scale of large illuminated signs found along North American freeways.
Arthur Ou’s display of over seventy-five contact prints, each representing a place or theme and arranged as an overlapping montage, present an almost cinematic archive. Matt Saunders’s photographs also evoke filmic movement. Working with stills from early silent films from Weimar Germany like G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box and Bertolt Brecht’s Kuhle Wumpe (Empty belly), Saunders unites photography and painting by exposing his paintings on linen onto photographic paper. Ryan Foerster’s cameraless photography forfeits authorial control for chance operations. After his work was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, he began to experiment with exposing photographic paper to the natural elements. He emphasizes the materiality of photographs and, like all of the artists in Images That Speak, offers provocative insights into photography’s limits and its fundamental richness.
Text by Christopher Eamon
This exhibition is supported by a Special Projects grant from the British Columbia Arts Council.
Presentation House Gallery is grateful for the ongoing support from our funders: the Canada Council for the Arts, the British Columbia Arts Council, the Province of British Columbia, the City of North Vancouver, and the District of North Vancouver through the North Vancouver Recreation & Culture Commission.
Satellite Gallery is made possible through the generous support of the Michael O’Brian Family Foundation and is partnered with: Charles H. Scott Gallery (ECU), the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery (UBC), the Museum of Anthropology (UBC), and Presentation House Gallery.