Toronto artist Robert Burley is currently documenting the fate of chemical photography, recording the abandonment and demolition of various Kodak plants. The films, papers and processing chemicals these factories produced will soon be obsolete, although Burley himself is still physically printing images from negatives, albeit ones he edits digitally. The most notable of Burley's large, highly detailed colour photographs shows the implosion of buildings 65 and 69 at Kodak Park in Rochester, N.Y., where a crowd that includes people who worked in the plant busily snap pictures of its demise on their digital cameras. Whatever sacrifices it may demand, technology is irresistible.
A giant mural of this hugely ironic image - created thanks to digital technology, of course - now greets anyone who enters the courtyard of Toronto's Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art on Queen Street West. It is there for Contact, the month-long, city-wide photography festival that launched this week, and it serves as an introduction to the issues MOCCA is raising in an international group show entitled Between Memory and History: From the Epic to the Everyday. Photography, the family historian, court painter, official scribe and crusading journalist of the 20th century, has penetrated the 21st century in ways that Kodak founder George Eastman himself could hardly have dreamed. In MOCCA's second year providing a focal point for Contact (now the largest photography festival in the world), curators Bonnie Rubenstein and David Liss address this year's festival theme of memory and history, provocatively asking where exactly photography is leading us, cellphones and Coolpix in hand.
The answer provided by the German artist Thomas Ruff is a dark one. He is represented by three huge, heavily pixelated images of familiar scenes identified only by such uninformative titles as JPEG BD01. One is a massive skyscraper in some sprawling new city - Dubai, perhaps? Another is an iceberg, melting too precipitously, one would guess. A third is a building in some Middle Eastern city, collapsing, violently, one assumes. These photos, which Ruff lifts from the Internet before he exaggerates their disintegration into pixels on the one hand and enlarges to the size of monumental history painting on the other, speak directly to the false relationship that the ubiquitous image can create between the viewer and actual experience.
On a lighter note, the British photographer Martin Parr also investigates the effect of photography's banality on lived experience in an amusing but increasingly misanthropic series featuring various camera-toting tourists pictured everywhere from the pyramids at Giza to Las Vegas, where they have their picture taken by a fake gondolier in front of a fake Venice.
In direct contrast to these approaches, demanding we see rather than pointing out that we don't, the French photographer Luc Delahaye positions himself as something of a super-journalist, recording in penetrating detail the whole scene. He is represented here by a photograph of the Jenin refugee camp on the West Bank shortly after the Israeli attacks of 2002. The photo records the rubble of concrete and steel with both impressive sweep and minute detail. In an age highly skeptical of journalistic objectivity, perhaps it is a picture that will inevitably be read as an indictment of Israel, but in truth it shows nothing of the motivations and little of the suffering on either side of the dispute. The people in the photograph, seen from a great distance, are not tearing their hair nor weeping, but rather walking, rather like tourists themselves, through the ruins of their city. In recalling the grand painting of centuries past, the image points to the mercilessness of history itself, rather like Brueghel's famed image of a tiny Icarus falling from the sky as an oblivious peasant below goes about his plowing.
Has photography then completely supplanted painting in the role of historical and political record? In much more emotionally directive work, the Israeli photographer Adi Nes answers with a resounding yes, posing friends and neighbours in the guise of famous figures from art. With Hagar, he mimics Dorothea Lange's famed image of a migrant mother in the Depression, perfectly reproducing the original's notion of nobility in suffering. If that exercise seems a trifle artificial, with Abraham and Isaac, the image of a homeless man pushing a young boy in a shopping cart, Nes achieves something more moving: making their plight seem real and important by imbuing it with the grandeur of art.
These images speak to great events and communal experiences, but at the other end of the spectrum photography not only makes the far-flung instantly accessible, it also makes the intensely private instantly recordable. Perhaps, as we all erect our personal webcams, the future of photography lies much more in the direction that the American artist Nan Goldin has pioneered with her impromptu portraits of herself and her friends. The MOCCA exhibit includes Heartbea t, a 14-minute slide show of various couples, mostly straight, one gay, some with children, often naked, in bathtubs, smoking cigarettes, nursing a baby, travelling by train, swimming and making love.
Goldin's work, shot in available light with the awareness but apparently not the self-consciousness of her subjects, is often heart-stoppingly intimate. (Not all of these people seem happy, but all of them appear to be happily in love.) And yet, the presence of the camera inevitably raises the possibility that the subjects are not generously giving of themselves, but rather posing for it in some artistic version of the scientific principle whereby the observer's presence necessarily changes what is being observed.
That is the question that the Brazilian-American photographer Alessandra Sanguinetti addresses so directly and so hauntingly in her series The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of their Dreams. Her subjects are two prepubescent girls, creatures plunging headlong into the age of self-definition who seem both joyfully lacking in self-consciousness and delighted to try on roles for both themselves and the photographer. The photographs offer moments as staged as a nativity scene on the one hand and as impromptu as a morning on the porch on the other. Their arresting images are made all the more compelling because the apparently inseparable girls are so physically mismatched. (One is very slight; the other is quite fat.)
The artist whose work might serve to summarize all these directions is the Dutch photographer Bert Teunissen, who has shot a series of large-scale colour images of mainly elderly Europeans posed in their even older houses. The odd bit of jerry-rigged wiring points to their vintage; these are places that predate electricity and the images represent ways of life that will vanish in the face of increasing European homogeneity. These dramatically shadowed pictures recall the chiaroscuro of the Dutch masters and thus elevate their subjects in the same way as Nes's Abraham and Isaac. They are filled with a sense of loss and regret for something that is passing, and yet also some awareness that these are not comfortable places nor easy lives.
Domestic electricity and popular photography both became widespread at the beginning of the 20th century, yet it is 21st-century digital technology that allows Teunissen to easily enlarge his photos to the scale of the Old Masters. Like Burley's Kodak workers recording their loss with the very technology that has caused it, Teunissen relies on modernity to lament the disappearance of the pre-modern. As the digital image and its eager viewer waltz blindly towards the future, these photographers cut in, determined that art can still lead the dance.
The Contact photography festival continues at various venues in Toronto until May 31 ( http://www.contactphoto.com or 416-539-9595).
THE FESTIVAL: FIVE SHOWS YOU SHOULDN'T MISS
by Arnaud Maggs
at the Susan Hobbs Gallery
The veteran Toronto photo artist returns with another of his scrupulously precise yet achingly poignant suites of images of historic paperwork. This time the subject is a blank financial ledger from 1905 on whose pages Maggs's camera discovers not numbers but simply the flowering shape of a watermark and resulting mould.
Srebenica: The Absence
by Roger Lemoyne
at the Toronto Image Works Gallery
In the show perhaps most closely linked to this year's theme of memory and history, Quebec photo journalist Roger Lemoyne displays his shattering record not of the Srebenica massacre itself but rather its aftermath. These photos of uncovered bones, searching relatives and enumerated effects are both memorial and cry for justice.
The Entire City Project
by Michael Awad
at the Nicholas Metivier Gallery
To witness the impressive artistic potential of digital technology, see Michael Awad's sequential panoramas of city spaces from Vegas and Venice to the Eaton Centre escalators on Boxing Day or College Street in its entirety. Awad's digital camera only records movement, either the photographer's or the subject's, to reproduce the kinetic experience of city life in an Eadweard Muybridge-like progression of images.
by Tim Roda
at the Angell Gallery
Do you live in a family like this one? In wickedly funny black-and-white tableaux, the American photo artist Tim Roda replaces the convention of the happy snap with outrageous poses and jerry-rigged settings suggesting grave dysfunction of both the family psyche and the household plumbing.
The Uchronie Fragments
by Osheen Harruthoonyan
With a variety of darkroom techniques, cutting, pasting, erasing and bleaching, Toronto photographer Osheen Harruthoonyan manipulates old black-and-white photographs of men in sombre suits, ladies in puffy dresses and, in one case, the iconic lines of a vintage TV set. The effect is to create a gentle memorial to a fading art form - silver-based photography itself.