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Terrence Heath

The Confident Eye: Michel Lambeth, Photographer (1999)
The Art Gallery of Ontario, Fall 1999.

BorderCrossings, Vol. 19 #4, Nov. 2000.
[ 1,352 words ]


There is a line in Michel Lambeth's short autobiographical piece, 'The Confessions of a Tree-Taster,' that arrested my attention. In the midst of meandering remembrances of planting a tree as a boy, of destroying trees in the War, of loves and deaths, symbols and searchings for meaning, of teachers and parents, he states quite baldly: 'In Paris, I learned one thing: one doesn't study art, one lives it.' The line stopped me because it is the statement of an entire era. There was a time not so long ago, fifty, forty, thirty years ago, when would-be artists believed in the interchangeability of their lives, their art-making and community and national life. They were all one and accessible, not through spin-doctors and salesmen, but through a sort of personal commitment which would also be a public revolution. The black walnut tree he plants when he is twelve is the symbol of a small, tangential event that becomes a towering gift to future generations. This same belief in the far-reaching power of his work can be clearly seen in the photographs assembled for the recent exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

In these photographs I can see Michel Lambeth living Art; James Reaney, Av Isaacs, John Boyle and Joyce Wieland attest this total merging of life and art in their catalogue statements. Maia-Mari Sutnik, the curator of the exhibition, sees his work as the striving of a very talented photographer to live his life in the making of images. And yet it is difficult to recapture him even though his photographs may be all about the man. There is a matter-of-factness, a documentary, objective quality to the photographs that hides the photographer. Somewhere in her essay, Maia-Mari describes Lambeth's personality as 'mercurial'. It is not a word I would have used. His art, it is true, is very varied, ranging from straightforward street scenes and portraits to formalist experimentation, but there is a 'solidity' to everything he did which contrasts with the frustrations and despairs of his life. His eye gives confidence in what he shows you.

The exhibition has been organized into two large categories of work, Toronto street scenes and portraits of artists and writers, two smaller categories, landscapes and formalist experiments, and a few photographs from his work as a photojournalist. Lambeth had a long-time fascination with the streets and the people of his city. Very early on, he came across the photographs of Arthur Goss, who in 1911 had carried out a photographic commission for the Department of Public Works, and published a small book of these images. Goss's photographs include people of the city but they are really about the physical situation in which these people live. Lambeth's photographs are clearly about the people. They are front and centre; they often stare directly out at the viewer. The people he sought out were not the successful and wealthy but the poor, the immigrant and the seedy. Although I guess his banner-carrying Orange Parade woman would hardly fit these categories. They are a remarkable series of photographs, often catching people in the midst of action, at the exact moment when the entire scene is about to change. St. Lawrence Market, Allan Gardens, the Canadian National Exhibition, the Royal Ontario Museum, Hayter Street, Baldwin Street, King Street East — these are places where he sought out his subjects. What struck me about these photographs most forcibly was how much they escape their time. The Macedonian women still turn to see what you are doing on a corner somewhere in Toronto; the Amish men still stand outside a shop window talking earnestly to each other, and, of course, the children still play on the abandoned Eastern Avenue bridge.

Lambeth's photographs of artists and writers, mainly during the 1960s, in contrast to the street scenes, are very much enmeshed, enclosed in their time. Most of the artists who look out from these prints were associated with The Isaacs Gallery (and indeed this exhibition was largely made possible by Av Isaacs's large gift of Michel Lambeth's photographs to the AGO). They are all there in their youth and that era of high energy in the arts: Michael Snow (posed, it is stated, in a mock-up of the famous artist in his studio), Robert Markle (standing by one of his strippers from the Victory Burlesque), Greg Curnoe (wearing a German pickelhelm and glaring impishly at the viewer), Joyce Wieland (shot over and over in poses ranging from the sophisticated society woman, to the working artist, to the model, to the waif), Gordon Rayner (sitting in his studio with a huge painting and his cat), Gershon Iskowitz (cramped into a mirror image reflecting his cramped work space), Dennis Burton (in front of — guess-what? — a lingerie store window), Masha Teitelbaum (looking ascetic and ethereal in almost silhouette). For me, the most moving of the portraits was of Gwendolyn MacEwen and Milton Acorn. They look out forlornly, close to each other, dependent on each other it seems, unsmiling, but very much of an earlier time.

In both the sections on landscape (views of the Scarborough Bluffs) and the close-ups of the body, I see Lambeth as straining to purify or perhaps rarify his photography as art. In these, most of the documentary vision that informs the majority of these works is abandoned and the images move dramatically toward the formalistic. Even though they seem like something of an aberration in the exhibition, they actually hold their own very well. The nude close-ups, called by Lambeth Nuescapes, are particularly striking as formal patterning of the folds and flesh of the model. They too become a part of a certain time in Canadian photography when the argument about whether photography is an art or not still raged. Perhaps it rages even now, but art is no longer defined as formal and this broadening leaves works such as these by Lambeth looking like one part of an old argument. Even then they still hold their own as engaging images.

The small sampling of Lambeth's commissioned photojournalism in the exhibition whets the appetite for more. He not only gives people and places strong interpretations, he also has taken a good deal of care in the construction of the photographs. In the case of a series taken in the Gaspé region of Québec, the images were apparently too political for the Star Weekly, for which they were commissioned, and Maia-Mari Sutnik has chosen to show prints taken from his negatives. At first sight they look like images from the Appalachians in the 1930s, which may merely show how little Canadians have looked at their own woes and how potentially important the work of Michel Lambeth is. I say potentially because Lambeth obviously had both a keen and searching eye and a compassion and revolutionary fervour that we have much need of.

The question that comes to mind after viewing this small exhibition of photographs is why are they not available in book form? A few statements and a skeletal chronology accompany the exhibition and these are interesting and useful, but I found myself wanting more, to know more both about his art and his life. In addition, the catalogue for the exhibition has a substantial essay and around seventy illustrations of his work and Michael Torosion published a selection of his photojournalism for the Public Archives in 1986. There is much more though that we need to know. Lambeth's death at the relatively young age of fifty-three in 1977 prevented him from seeing the disappearance of some of the difficulties he had had earlier in the presentation of controversial images. The most powerful images are undoubtedly from the late 1950s and early 1960s, but at the end of his life he was moving in a new direction through his involvement with the Toronto Free Theatre, the cultural politics of Canadian Artists Representation, and an intensification of his commitment as an artist. The 'new' Toronto and the increased market for photography in the 1980s might have allowed him to reach the audiences and the recognition he deserved.

BorderCrossings, Vol. 19 #4, Nov. 2000.

Text: © Terrence Heath. All rights reserved.


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