The Canadian Art Database

Avis Lang Rosenberg

After Civil War: Marian Penner Bancroft

Vanguard, Vol. 9 #1, February 1980.
[ 2,716 words ]

Marian Penner Bancroft started photographing seriously twelve years ago; now, she says, 'I always have my camera with me...almost always.' She spent five years as a student in three places — University of B.C., the Vancouver School of Art (where she wasn't allowed to take photography her first year), and Ryerson Photo Arts Centre in Toronto — and since then has used the camera for quite a range of jobs, projects, and collaborations, in addition to the continual simultaneous participation in and shooting of the events, non-events, and interactions that make up her life. Presently her life is taking place in Halifax, where she is now teaching at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Within the last decade, Bancroft has done museum, medical, and prison photography; researched early B.C. photography with a group at the Vancouver Public Library; been camera assistant for Emigrante, a film about racism in Vancouver, and camera operator for Revolve, Nancy Holt's remarkable videotape of Dennis Wheeler speaking about his dying of leukemia; been part of the media group Isis / Women and Film and part of Vancouver's 13 Cameras. Various kinds of support for much of this work came from various public sources (OFY, NFB, The Canada Council, the B.C. Attorney General's Office), and Bancroft has also held a six-month Artist's Grant from the City of Vancouver and a Canada Council arts grant. Thus there has been a substantial cumulative public investment in this photographer and her humane, personal, and attentive work.

Bancroft has extensively photographed her women friends and her three sister-friends (especially Susan, who is the youngest); in 1976 she set about shooting pairs of women, partly because 'more often than not there were three of us sitting in a group' and she was 'enjoying it very much, feeling extremely comfortable and strong but also knowing that the possibility existed of being able to be vulnerable with each other in some ways, wanting to somehow celebrate that sense that women have when they're together, which is good feeling, or anything goes: good feelings, bad feelings, any feelings.' Also from 1976 is a sort of journal of slept-in beds with their covers thrown back; these were the beds she spent her nights in during a six-week trip to Europe by herself. Of this series she says: 'I knew before I left that I wasn't going to have the desire to photograph places and people as a tourist, that the only place I was going to feel comfortable photographing was inside my hotel rooms, in that place where I was by myself. I didn't know until I was there that it was going to be beds. I did it religiously, because I just became fascinated and it was a place where I relaxed, where I unwound.'

Her most serious and still-reverberating body of work, For Dennis and Susan: Running Arms to a Civil War, was done mostly during 1977. It is devoted to Dennis Wheeler, who made such a difference to so many people and so much art, and to Bancroft's sister Susan, who was Dennis's wife, and it deals with their dealing with Dennis's finally fatal leukemia and the experiences that went with it: total body radiation, a bone-marrow transplant, face masks, living in a sterile environment for fifty days, fear, delay, courage, helplessness. The work is loving, factual but not cold.

It happened kind of naturally. I was photographing anyway, and we were together a lot. I didn't set out to photograph anything in particular except that invisible sense of shared space and a consciousness of something difficult. It changes your perception. It's an ever-present thing. Dennis felt good about the photographing. He wanted it, he encouraged it. But it was more as an acceptance of me and the camera than doing a project with me and the camera. Because there were other things going on for Susan. For her it was like, right, it's good for you to be here and I'll accept the camera too. But that's very difficult. It was only afterwards that we began to reel back from all the implications of it. I tried to synthesize what could be made public and hope that some privacy could still be possible. It's been very hard for Susan — trying to remake her life, and there are these photographs to remind her. People have looked at the work and are amazed that the photographs exist. Well, I guess I am too, although it didn't seem so amazing at the time. It was all that I could do. But all of those questions that do get raised are for me really disturbing: questions of what is the photograph after it has been taken, what is that piece of paper, does it contain truth? It contains a truth of some sort, the most obvious being that it is a photograph, and that's the truth...I believe that photographs can resonate with the truth of a situation, but they are not accurate purveyors of it. I've become more frightened of the power of photographs, and I guess I'm wanting to be a bit more careful.

Dennis Wheeler died in November 1977: reconstruction cannot be easy after such a war. The artist began writing on the printed images and arranging them in grids. She began to be somewhat more recognizably autobiographical, still working with her feelings for her sister ('In summer we go through motions...') but also finding a way to do something with feelings for men ('I just met the fastest Morse coder of his time...'). The 13 Cameras group got going in 1978. None of the images in their 1979 book (of the same name) is labeled, but Bancroft's work is unmistakable, a piece of her heart, 'In this last series of me and Susan, for susan / seasons after, I was saying goodbye to what happened because she and I have both moved on. When one round of the four seasons pass and you are no longer saying that last year at this time Dennis and I were doing this or that, then you can move on. And my life has changed.' Change / Position, the exhibition Bancroft mounted at Nova Gallery this past October, is work from seven months of a changed life. I asked her if it felt like a document of resurfacing.

It's more a document of change, of a transition period. In this series, certainly, if I was wanting to change something, it was to be more in the photographs myself, to give my family a break, you know. It's starting from primarily my own experience, rather than someone else's experience that I shared. Living alone, that's where this stuff comes from. I could have turned the camera around and made images of myself, but it's not the same as being in the world with the camera, facing out. Here I'm behind the camera, and there are very few people in front of it. So you don't get to leap into someone else's experience the way you normally expect to or think you are in looking at a photograph of other people. I'm becoming much more conscious of the camera as something I use to respond to ideas and events, and that the resulting translations are peculiar to that machine. For Change / Position, I used recorded sounds and written words to increase access to the images. I attempted an integration of camera syntax with my own emotional momentum: I stood still, I moved, the subject stood still, the subject moved, we both stood still, we both moved.

Change / Position was just that: shift and reorientation, different investigations, other intentions. Two or three works jumped the synapse between wall and viewer in a way that one had come to expect: the rest stayed in place and pointed. The word-categories posted by the artist — close and far — were essential as directives to comprehension, the disparate images being grouped within one range or the other. Access was restricted. Yet some of the work was motivated by new awareness of personal survival, referring to those simple tools and simple actions by which we make it out the door and into the world most days: hairbrush and toothbrush, small bills and house keys. Two image-sets came from well inside the door, several from thresholds, several more from out in the open outside. More will be said later about one work in this group.

Within the same month that Change / Position went up in Vancouver, For Dennis and Susan: Running Arms to a Civil War was being shown in San Francisco at Focus Gallery and in Ottawa at the National Film Board. Robert Minden, another Vancouver photographer, was having a major show at the NFB at the same time — Separate from the World: Meetings with Doukhobor-Canadians in British Columbia — and was very aware of how Bancroft's work was being received. Minden has a great deal to say about her stance. He too photographs people; he too desires the process to be a meeting of subject and subject, not a matter of more grist for the image mill. In the following paragraphs, he speaks first about For Dennis and Susan and then discusses Change / Position largely in relation to it.

I find For Dennis and Susan a huge work, and the more I see it, the more enormous it becomes. One can use the camera to try and delineate one's own experience, as a technique for self-expression, which is the approach that is most often the result of years of art school. Or there's another use that the camera is frequently put to: the objectification of reality outside one's sense of oneself, as if the photographs were made by God and there was nobody there with a machine or a camera, no experience and no experiencer there. The history of photography is full of the pretense that the camera made the pictures and an experiencer didn't. What's really commendable about Marian's work For Dennis and Susan is that the camera comes to be put in the service of something which is larger than Marian and her attempt to come to grips with her experience. It also has to come to grips with other people's experience as well. Whether or not she succeeded completely isn't the issue for me. What's written in all the images is the struggle to take the camera and put it in the service of an enormous experience of death and tragedy and closeness and family, and her own comprehension of that. She neither pretends to be involved in simple self-expression nor does she pretend to be objectifying reality independently of her own experience.

For Dennis and Susan comes close to talking about a model for the role of the artist in our time — now — where she is a member and where her membership is part of the making of the images and is on the line equally with her subject. There is a difference between being an observer who is also a participant, whose experience is also included in the event being photographed, and being in the shadows, attempting to use the camera to record a version of reality that doesn't include you. Marian states clearly in For Dennis and Susan that photographing is always a present participle, that it's working rather than a product, that it's a relationship rather than an object that one finishes with.

For Dennis and Susan is like a small philosophical treatise. By doing that work and by the stance that she took, Marian raises issues that still reverberate. What are we doing to our subjects when we use a camera? What is photographing like when we're part of the phenomenon? What's at stake in terms of our own experience when we are so present as image-makers? And further, even after the photographing is done and the prints exist as a work, what kind of object is the photograph?

The difference in Change / Position is important. In terms of the relationship between photographer and subject, it seems more cautious and tenuous, so different from the enormous task that she undertook a few years ago, where photographing became observation itself and Marian was at the edge of her experience. On the other hand, there is one piece in the show, Exchange / Place, which jumps out of the rest of the exhibition, and where you still feel her presence and her interactional perspective of image-making. It feels extremely intimate, and I would argue that it's made more so by the unusual lack of intimacy in the images that surround it.

Minden's and my responses converge at Exchange / Place. It leaves me sighing, with its luminous morning privacy, its excitement and sharing, its unexpected personal camera angles and elliptical revelations, and its dynamic visual trilogue. Exceptional as it is in the cool and distanced context of the Change / Position show, its sense of intimate knowledge without intrusion, the evidence it gives of emotional connectedness among photographer, subject, situation, and moment, and even its declaration of femaleness link it to other work by Bancroft. In particular, she seems to have had for at least several years an especial sensitivity to ways of making images about how a man and a woman can be together, or be apart — drawn close with yearning or made distant by grief and separated by inevitability. For Dennis and Susan is full of the latter, experienced from almost inside the couple, sometimes seeming as if Susan's aura were the agent of the photograph. In the 16th image of this group, we see Dennis's unreachable dissolving paleness from a location close by the lush strength of Susan's body, its curving forms edged in the same light that bathes Dennis in his isolation. It is our bodies that must read this image, it is they that can be accosted by and know desire and deterioration simultaneously. It is what are commonly called our feelings that enable us to comprehend Exchange / Place or For Dennis and Susan, and the same is true of Georgia Viaduct, an emotionally out-front shutter-speed series taken through a car window while crossing the viaduct on 'quite a heady night' in 1978. For the first time, the artist wrote right on the prints and at some length; it was obviously very important to get the message down in an unmistakable way, and the images on their own could not have done that. We don't see the people, only the night they are out in. And we read the artist's feelings: '...Georgia Viaduct. 2 AM flight what a night it is. I just met the fastest Morse coder of his name became a dit dat signal...the soundspun...our lips laughed in dimlight in tropicfade we moon-sooned home overland by bridge, tears springing from the top of my head.'

Marian Penner Bancroft's work is about people: women being together, a woman on her own, a woman finding herself, a woman losing and a woman having a man. I am especially drawn these days to images of woman with man. Images per se — whatever their focus — are more than just information and decoration, They also instruct, inculcate, reinforce, and imply possibility: and we who feel stifled, negated, reviled or revolted by most of those we see are likely looking for some revisions. Depictions of and allusions to male / female couples — whether from past or present and whether easel art or commodity promotion — are more often like declarations of war, deadlocks, impasses, hostage-takings, confiscations of booty and spoils, or temporary truces between battles than they are like (or about) meetings or comminglings or inter-changes. I want to know how these latter situations look and feel and sound to others, I want to see art that comes from there. Marian Penner Bancroft has done some, and like her other work, it was done not as a tourist but as an inhabitant.

The above quotations are excerpted from conversations with Marian Penner Bancroft, recorded on 27 Sept. and 29 Oct. 79, and with Robert Minden, recorded on 8 Nov. 79. I have edited all our remarks, and RM and MPB have themselves further edited theirs. ALR.

Vanguard, Vol. 9 #1, February 1980.

Text: © Avis Lang Rosenberg. All rights reserved.

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