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Claire Beaugrand-Champagne, Elderly Actors, C’t’à ton tour Laura Cadieux, Montreal (1978). © Claire Beaugrand-Champagne
Does anyone know Quebec as well as Claire Beaugrand-Champagne? In her 40-year career as one of Canada’s first female photojournalists, she seems to have been everywhere and seen everything that we think of as “Quebec.” The McCord Museum’s retrospective of her work has the dazzling breadth of a Balzac novel.
Some of her images are quintessentially Quebec: the Montreal Olympics, a notorious Mafia trial, a guy trying to jumpstart his car on a frozen winter morning. But there’s more here than just a social history of La Belle Province.
Beaugrand-Champagne’s photos also show us the private lives of refugees, the elderly, and the mentally ill—people from whom we sometimes avert our eyes. By aiming her camera at them, as well as at workers, farmers, nuns, and housewives—people invisible to our modern celebrity-obsessed culture—she invites us to stop and think about each one of them.
Her photos, many of which can be found in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, say: “This is a person worth your time, worth considering.” Despite (or perhaps because of) her immense technical skills, the photos often feel like intimate snapshots: the sorts of pictures you only take if you care about the people in them.
It certainly mattered to Beaugrand-Champagne whom she was photographing. The names of her subjects are neatly written across the photographs in her own hand: a nod to the collaborative nature of seer and seen.
Taken as a whole, these images become about much more than just the story of modern Quebec. They range across the entire human condition: joy, despair, boredom, love, pain, all of it.
An old woman shows childlike delight in holding a kitten, while an elderly man slumps in front of his 101st birthday cake. Young furriers work with dead things in dark rooms. A farm boy cuddles a pet rabbit that will likely end up in stew. Female army recruits learn to hold rifles. A mother holds her newborn baby.
By being highly specific, the images become universal. They become immensely powerful art.
Of course, that was never the intention. Beaugrand-Champagne always called herself a photojournalist. She worked for a newspaper, and took what she thought were documentary images. She doesn’t have a fancy artist statement. But what is an artist, if not someone who sees and intuits what the rest of us overlook, and who puts things together in unique, highly personal ways?
Whatever her original intention, she created something that goes far beyond any journalism assignment. Maybe that’s what happens when you hand a camera to a born artist.
The McCord Museum’s slogan is “Our People, Our Stories.” Claire Beaugrand-Champagne’s photography delivers both.
Claire Beaugrand-Champagne: Touching Reality. Photographs from 1970 to 2013 is on view at the McCord Museum in Montreal until 13 April 2014. For more information click here.
Lisa Hunter is a screenwriter and arts journalist in Montreal. Her book, The Intrepid Art Collector, was published by Three Rivers/Random House Canada.
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