Serge Clément (born in Valleyfield, Quebec, in 1950), Valleyfield, Qc, from the series “Affichage et automobile” (1976, printed 1980), gelatin silver print, 27.6 x 35.2 cm. MMFA. Gift of Serge Clément. © Serge Clément / SODRAC (2013)
Quebec loves to look at itself, especially in art. It’s like a teenage girl with one eye on the mirror, always mulling over her place in the world. That’s partly why I find Quebec art so interesting. Even the most personal works of art tend to be about something bigger than just the artist. Even the slightest pieces have a sense of historical context: Is Quebec defined by its past? Is progress good? Or does it destroy identity?
The exhibition Auteur Photography in Quebec, at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, is filled with those kinds of questions. Featuring the works of 11 photographers from widely different backgrounds, it’s one of the best-curated photography shows I’ve seen in ages. It has so many layers it’s practically a mille-feuille.
The most obvious layer, of course, is the content of the pictures, most of which were taken in the 1970s and 1980s. Like a family album for an entire society, Auteur Photography is a pastiche of iconic Quebec imagery: nuns, mafiosi, secessionist graffiti, crucifixes, English signage hovering over poor French neighborhoods . . . everything but poutine. The memories these pictures evoke aren’t my own—I come from someplace else—but other viewers in the crowded gallery pointed and whispered among themselves: “Remember this?” “Remember that?”
Brian Merrett (born in Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1945), Demolition, Baile and Fort Streets, from the series “Ville-Marie Autoroute” (1971, print 2010), pigmented ink-jet print from a scanned negative, 2/7, 35.6 x 28 cm. MMFA. Gift of Brian Merrett
The Proustian nostalgia is inevitable. Nearly all of the photographs show the push and pull of old and new. In Brian Merret’s work, historical houses are torn down to make way for the Autoroute. In Clara Gutsche’s, nuns incongruously watch a sexpot actress on TV. In Norman Rajotte’s, a traditional Quebec barn is covered with a tacky McDonald’s billboard. In Alain Chagnon’s, men-only taverns have their last hurrah before feminism.
It’s a curiously depressing vision of progress, especially compared to all the can-do excitement of the 1960s. (Quebec cinephiles joke that, as a matter of pride, every film made here must include a clip of Jackie Kennedy at Expo 67.) But I suppose that having your house torn down for an exit ramp doesn’t have quite the same glamour as hosting the Olympics.
Many of the pictures have a sense of documentary urgency, as if the photographers were feverishly trying to capture something before it was lost. But they are not all “documentary” in the way that photographers define the term. That’s where Auteur Photography in Quebec gets conceptually interesting.
The exhibition includes three types of photography: auteur, which starts with an artist’s vision and arranges images to suit that vision; photojournalism, which tries to capture the “transformative moment” of an event; and documentary, which strives to show things objectively, without a photographer intervening.
Gabor Szilasi (born in Budapest in 1928), At the Houdes’, Lotbinière (1977, printed 2011), gelatin silver print, 27.7 x 35.5 cm. MMFA. Gift of Gabor Szilasi
But art isn’t so easily categorized. No matter how objective a documentary photographer strives to be, the work will always be, in some sense, auteur. Photographs don’t take themselves. The choice of what to shoot and how to shoot it inevitably shows the hand of the maker.
All of the pictures in the exhibition have a distinct voice. They’re visions of a world that’s been lost—but lost only in the literal, physical sense.
As William Faulkner said about the American South, in Quebec “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Auteur Photography in Quebec: A Collection Takes Shape is on view at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until 10 November 2013
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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