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Nancy Tousley

The Banff Purchase [Robert Bourdeau, Lynne Cohen, Charles Gagnon, Tom Gibson, David McMillan, Nina Raginsky and Orest Semchishen]
The Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff, Alberta, July 14 - August 5 [1979]

Vanguard, Vol. 8 #8, October 1979 [reprinted from The Calgary Herald].
[ 1,387 words ]


Considerable energy and ingenuity has gone into the photography project undertaken jointly by the Walter Phillips Gallery and the Photography Department at the Banff Centre, only one part of which is the current exhibition, The Banff Purchase.

Seven photographers: Robert Bourdeau, Lynne Cohen, Charles Gagnon, Tom Gibson, David McMillan, Nina Raginsky and Orest Semchishen, are represented in the exhibition by as many as 18 photographs each. The title refers to the fact that the Walter Phillips Gallery has purchased for its collection over 150 photographs by these photographers.

One hundred and twenty photographs comprise the exhibition that will also be shown at The Glenbow Museum, the Edmonton Art Gallery and other institutions across the country. Another part of the project, a series of seven master classes, is in progress at Banff for advanced photographers. A major publication reproducing 64 of the photographs with a critical essay by Penny Cousineau, a photographer and critic, will be published this fall.

What seems most extraordinary about this project, however, is its funding — $120,000 — and the fact that this much money has been spent in the service of only seven photographers at this point in the development of photography in Canada.

The funding represents a package drawn from several sources: the Banff Centre, the Visual Arts Branch and the Photography Section of the Canada Council, a matching grant from Art Bank's now defunct purchase assistance program, two grants from the National Museums' Corporation, and Canada Council assistance channelled through the Glenbow, the Edmonton Art Gallery and the Walter Phillips Gallery.

The seven photographers were chosen by the exhibition's curators, Lorne Falk and Hubert Hohn, 'as artists who have been producing, exhibiting and contributing to the development of photography in this decade.'

While this generality accurately describes these photographers in terms of Canadian activity, the weight of this endeavour and its selectivity suggests the curatorial canonization of a new Group of Seven — this one for Canadian photography.

All seven are skillful, technically expert, 'straight' photographers, although artistry within the group is not at a consistent level. There is apt to be some discussion as to how representative of photography in Canada the exhibition really is. For one thing, the many Canadian artists who use photography as a basis for their work but are not classified as 'photographers' in the purest sense have been excluded and a great deal of interesting and exciting work has been appearing on this front.

A major aim of the project is to create support and greater public awareness of the importance of the medium of photography as well as to bring national and international recognition of the fact that 'significant photographs are being made in Canada.' While there is much merit to this proposition, the 'purist' approach of the exhibition and individual selections could raise many quarrels inside and out of the photographic community. Individual taste notwithstanding, the resulting dialogue could be very healthy.

The exhibition itself may be the least interesting part of the Banff project. For a group of what we must assume the curators felt to be the best work available, the visual chemistry of the exhibition is curiously flat and unmoving. This would seem to be more than a function of the monotony of 120 works of similar scale mounted uniformly in nondescript metal frames.

A strong feeling of deja-vu is pervasive and, indeed, one of the most striking aspects of the exhibition overall is the extent to which the influence of American photographers such as Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander is visible. There are, however, few remarkable photographs here.

One part of the burden under which The Banff Purchase seems to labour is the difficulty of establishing a significant Canadian tradition in a new medium, within the limited confines of one decade (1968-78), and from such close range. A more inclusive gathering presented simply as a progress report on the state of the art might have had more value than what seems here to be an ambitious attempt to formulate the beginnings of a contemporary history.

Charles Gagnon's earlier work in the exhibition is beginning to take on a classic look cued perhaps by detectable influences and his photographs' formalist structures. The cogent emphasis of his fine architectural images, however, seems to be slipping away in more recent work and what will replace it is not quite clear.

Robert Bourdeau's intricately detailed landscapes, which both present and flatten space with overall pattern and texture, have an absorbing beauty, clarity and sense of quietude. Intimations of time and time's mysteries permeate his most recent photographs of ruined Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka in images that are almost dissolved by increased emphasis on texture and surface patterning of light and dark.

Tom Gibson's able social landscapes of the urban street often turn on a provocative note of ambiguous significance or narrative, but his work at this juncture still seems arrested somewhere in the middle of the territory claimed with such authority by Winogrand and Friedlander.

More and more, Nina Raginsky's clever time-plays, orchestrated by hand-tinted colour that gives her images of contemporary people the look of old photographs, seem the product of a good gimmick rather than original and significant personal vision. Her use of colour — everybody gets rosy cheeks and pink lips -— tends to turn ordinary people into 'characters' in a manner that often borders on condescension.

Her portrait of Charlie Abbott Going for a Walk Along Dallas Road (1975), however, catches the figure's diffident vulnerability with gentle effectiveness. Of all the work in the exhibition, Raginsky's is bound to have the strongest popular appeal.

Aside from two or three images in which colour, subject and composition mesh with a particular clarity of intent (one of these is a parking lot), the colour photography by David McMillan appears to be a relatively hit-and-miss affair. McMillan's pictures are pleasing to a degree but unexceptional in the light of colour work being done elsewhere with a more emphatic raison d'etre.

One of the largest disappointments of the exhibition is the body of recent work by Orest Semchishen recording small Alberta towns. His Byzantine Churches of Alberta, admirably edited by Hubert Hohn, is an exquisite document imbued with richness and stamped by place. In the new series, which seems unaccountably leached of Semchishen's major strengths, these qualities are present only in small measure.

Lynne Cohen emerges as one of the strongest of these seven photographers. Although her earlier work was uncomfortably close to that of Diane Arbus, it seems increasingly clear that Cohen is developing her own forceful personal vocabulary in images of commanding presence. Wedded to her considerable photographic talents, Cohen's point-of-view towards her unpeopled, kitsch interiors makes a poignant statement about human aspirations and shortcomings that is large in its humanity.

The seven photographic portfolios that comprise The Banff Purchase have been collected to provide a resource for photography students at the Banff Centre. As a study collection, the purchase will undoubtedly be of value if somewhat limited in range. It seems more doubtful, however, that the large size of the seven-person collection is totally justifiable when viewpoints are consistent enough for individual statements to be represented by half a dozen images.

Nevertheless, this is a firm basis on which to build the acquisition of other work and the Walter Phillips Gallery intends to continue to form a collection of contemporary Canadian photography.

Perhaps the various energies and ambitions embodied in the photography project will come into clearer focus when the book documenting The Banff Purchase makes its appearance in September. According to Falk and Hohn, every effort is being made to insure that this approximately $33,000 production will be of the highest quality in reproduction and design.

Hohn's expert guidance has been responsible for several excellent smaller photography publications and there is every reason to believe that The Banff Purchase will be a beautiful book despite the philosophical and aesthetic debates that might surround its contents.


Vanguard, Vol. 8 #8, October 1979 [reprinted from The Calgary Herald]


Text: © Nancy Tousley. All rights reserved.

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