Seeing The Big Picture

Joan Sullivan
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Exhibit Christina Parker Gallery presents unprecedented photography show

The new exhibition "The Big Picture" (opening this evening at Christina Parker Gallery) opens a camera eye on the Newfoundland and Labrador arts scene: It is the first commercial exhibition of contemporary photographic Newfoundland practice.

"It's time," said gallery owner Parker. "The world of contemporary photography is changing fast."

Photographs debuted in France around 1826 and immediately ran up against the barriers erected around "Fine Art." How could a photograph be creative when it was simply a mechanical representation of some existing person, place or object? While the likes of Man Ray, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, among many others, amply answered that question, the medium of photography was still not quite ranked with fine art. It was not easily "collectable," because the paper the photographs were printed on degraded. However, about 15 years ago, photographic paper achieved archival quality. It would last. (And, incidentally, remains a very affordable form of fine art.)

Ned Pratt, Evening Bike Trail, St. Vincents, archival pigment base ink photograph on Ilford paper, 36 x 40, 2006. Submitted photo

The new exhibition "The Big Picture" (opening this evening at Christina Parker Gallery) opens a camera eye on the Newfoundland and Labrador arts scene: It is the first commercial exhibition of contemporary photographic Newfoundland practice.

"It's time," said gallery owner Parker. "The world of contemporary photography is changing fast."

Photographs debuted in France around 1826 and immediately ran up against the barriers erected around "Fine Art." How could a photograph be creative when it was simply a mechanical representation of some existing person, place or object? While the likes of Man Ray, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, among many others, amply answered that question, the medium of photography was still not quite ranked with fine art. It was not easily "collectable," because the paper the photographs were printed on degraded. However, about 15 years ago, photographic paper achieved archival quality. It would last. (And, incidentally, remains a very affordable form of fine art.)

This exhibition assembles works from four photographers, all assured and deftly skilled, with very individual means of expression. There are three very big digital photographs from Ned Pratt, from his St. Vincent's Series. "Evening Bicycle Trail, St. Vincent's," looks up at a hill of dirt and grass, topped by a fence, under a dusky, cloudy sky. The raked, tracked ground with its spiky tufts of grass flow like brushstrokes beneath the ladder of the fence and the soft mottling of the sky. "Next To St. Peter's" shows alternating belts of land and water with a wedge of sky, while "The Road To Cape Pine" has a slim river crossing an area of land stretched under sky.

There's a lovely balance to these pieces, with the photograph often blocked or divided into thirds. The earth, water and skies are built from bands of colours, and all the lines, from a wooden post to the horizon, are not ever straight but naturally curved. These are remarkable Newfoundland landscapes, being all about vista and expanse as opposed to any familiar coastal scenes or clustered hamlets.

Marlene MacCallum has 17 photogravures (one of the oldest forms of photography), with most of the works taken from three major series. There are five "Pinholes," which take everyday objects like a hallway ceiling or entwining plants, and render them with fantastic, even hallucinogenic, warps and arcs. There are five "Strange Chambers," all showing an interior locale, manipulated, not in its surroundings but through the observer's point of view.

In one, an amaryllis looms huge in a foreground; in a second, two incongruous plastic Christmas candles stand sentry in an abandoned room with its ceilings falling in; in a third, a honeycombed light falls through an unseen wicker screen onto a floor of crumbling concrete.

There are six "Cloisters," all narrow, vertical photographs set in matting that is often shaped to resemble a formal ecclesiastical convent window. One piece shows a Christmas cactus in gigantic bloom over set of stairs, its riser delicately perceptible under a spill of light.

And, last, "Townsites" is a solo work, of two windows so different in sensibility they create a diptych, with one a window an abundance of plants and hanging kitchen utensils, the second austere with a line of carefully spaced shells over a ribbed, white radiator. MacCallum's photogravures are, technically, black and white, but there is almost nothing purely black or white here. Instead, there are rich creams and velvety grays all playing towards the works' exotic dreaminess.

The dozen digital photographs from Ellie Yonova are taken from her series "Inside Out." These are deeply intriguing. Yonova makes them by setting up still lifes of plants and vessels and coloured glass and water. What she captures is luminous and near abstract, with enticing textures and an opaque, aquatic sense of mystery. They are gorgeously hypnotic.

Peter Wilkins has created 10 digital photographs, variously devoted to Newfoundland sunsets, foreign locales or local beachscapes, among other sites. These include streaks of imagery, of water, or city skylines, or surf, or rocks, which Wilkin shoots and then configures and composes on the computer. Each contains a running sequence of five or more intricate layers. One work has ribbons of St. Petersburg, the Australian outback, the North West Territories, Mexico, Bombay Beach, Prague and Sierra Madre. "Four Bays and A Cove" includes Bonavista Bay, Trinity Bay, Shoe Cove, Bonavista Bay again, Placentia Bay and Conception Bay.

The filmic slivers are sometimes set with defining black stripes, which help us "read" them. The colours are simply beautiful, and for all the complexity of the arrangements the overall effect is of striking minimalism. Yet they are highly cinematic, and somehow they make us feel we are moving; they evoke the feeling of being on a train, looking out at the extraordinary passing scenery.

"The Big Picture" continues at the Christina Parker Gallery until June 9.

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, France, Cape Pine Bonavista Bay St. Petersburg North West Territories Mexico Bombay Beach Prague Sierra Madre Trinity Bay Shoe Cove Placentia Bay Conception Bay

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