In Canadian photography, it tends to be the large-print folks who get all the serious attention, whether they are working in the photoconceptual tradition of Jeff Wall and Rodney Graham, or the big-print colour-documentary genre of Ed Burtynsky or Lynne Cohen. But another, quieter tradition has been ticking along, a trajectory that includes such people as Michael Lambeth, Larry Towell, Richard Harrington, Dave Heath, Fred Herzog, Volker Seding and Lutz Dille – artists who work more in the traditions of street photography and documentary, keeping to the modest scale of that genre.
One of the leaders of this pack is the Hungarian-born Montreal photographer Gabor Szilasi, now 85. His is a classic immigrant story. With his camera in hand, Szilasi witnessed the violent insurrection in 1956 in his home town of Budapest, a rupture that propelled his family to Canada, where he lived first in Halifax and then (after a stint in a tuberculosis sanatorium) in Montreal. The current touring show of his pictures, which has landed at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto for the summer, gives us glimpses of the life he left behind in Hungary – including some haunting images of the traumatic days of the revolution – as well as a body of work reflecting the new life he discovered here, pictures that examined the texture of Quebec’s vernacular culture with the sharp eye of the outsider.
In particular, Szilasi was interested in the cross-currents in play at that moment in Quebec society, succinctly captured in his 1959 photograph of a nun at Dorval airport, her peaked wimple neatly rhyming with the tail of a jet plane. Szilasi recorded, too, the community of bohemian Montreal artists and writers that he counted as his friends (Yves Gaucher, Guido Molinari, Margaret and Philip Surrey, Sam Tata). And he chronicled the rapidly changing look of Montreal in its mid-century glory days: the ramshackle front window of the Association des Pères Noël (a shop specializing in Santa Claus costumes), the burned-out Classy Tuxedo neon sign on St. Hubert Street (its anglo sign a linguistic relic), and the front entrance of Musique Archambault, an elegant wrought-iron portal worthy of turn-of-the-century Paris. He saw it all with the eyes of one who knows how soon such fragile ecologies and urban habitats can be swept away.
It is in his images of rural Quebec, however, that Szilasi dives deepest, delivering the soul of a people caught in cultural flux. “In looking at the changes that have taken place in rural Quebec,” Szilasi said in 1977, “one cannot help but be fascinated by the strange mixture of old and new, sacred and profane. Before us is a society in transition where the giant figure of Mr. Muffler stands beside the statue of the guardian angel, and the television, flashing its images of contemporary life, sits next to the crucifix in the family home.”
The show at Ryerson includes interiors of Spartan rectitude (bespeaking diligence and observant Catholicism) or frothy with the secular dazzle of mass-produced, store-bought decor. One startling picture from 1977 gives us an encounter with an elderly aboriginal woman in her house on the Mistissini Reserve in northern Quebec. Alone in her denatured modern home, she sits near a television that is decorated with a display of plastic flowers. At the right-hand margin of the picture, a battered old tea kettle on a wood stove reads as a memento of the 19th century. With insight, respect and compassion, Szilasi pictures her as a refugee between worlds, just like himself.
Gabor Szilasi: The Eloquence of the Everyday continues at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto until Aug. 25.