PhotoLab 1: Window as Metaphor in PhotoLab’s Inaugural Exhibition

Eugène Atget, Boulevard de Strasbourg (detail), 1912, printed c. 1935, gelatin silver print, 23.3 x 16.9 cm. NGC. Gift of Dorothy Meigs Eidlitz, St. Andrews, New Brunswick, 1968

On October 28, the Canadian Photography Institute (CPI) of the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) was launched, marking the inauguration of an outstanding international resource on the study of photography from its inception to the present day.

One of the most exciting exhibition spaces in the new CPI Galleries — located on Level 2 of the National Gallery in the former Prints, Drawings and Photography temporary exhibitions space — is the PhotoLab. Conceived as a venue for smaller-scale revolving exhibitions of a more experimental nature, the space launched this fall with PhotoLab 1, an intriguing exhibition around the theme of the shopfront window, or vitrine. 

In keeping with the collaborative concept for the PhotoLab, this first exhibition was put together by new CPI director Luce Lebart, with members of the NGC Photographs curatorial team, including Curator Lori Pauli, Associate Curator Andrea Kunard, Assistant Curator Jonathan Newman, NGC Senior Designer Ellen Treciokas, and NGC Chief of Conservation and Technical Research John McElhone. Featuring works by Eugène Atget, Phil Bergerson, Pascal Grandmaison, Clara Gutsche and Nathan Lyons, the exhibition explores the notion of photography as a window on the world.

As Lori Pauli explains, “With their ability to both reveal and obscure, to challenge ideas about the viewer and the viewed, or to dissolve the boundaries of inside and outside space, windows have been used as a metaphor for the act of looking itself.”

Inspired, in part, by the CPI’s groundbreaking new exhibition on Czech photographer Josef Sudek (1896–1976) himself famous for his photographs of windows — this exhibition also pays tangential homage to the first known in-camera photograph, taken from a window in Burgundy in 1826 by French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce.

“Windows have fascinated artists for centuries,” says Pauli. “In photography, the transparency and reflectivity of glass — as both subject and symbol — have made windows a particularly popular theme. Since the invention of the medium, photographers have been attracted to the subject, whether as an exploration of still life, portraiture, popular culture, or even abstraction.” 

The PhotoLab is tailor-made for exhibitions such as this. Measuring approximately 5 by 12 metres, the new space was a response to the CPI’s desire to have photography on view at all times. Ellen Treciokas suggested the space and its configuration, which can easily accommodate small rotating exhibitions. Two large glass showcases embedded in the wall have magnetic back panels, making it possible to prop up photographs on shelves, or display them on the showcase walls with magnets.

“This method of display means we don’t have to necessarily frame work to display it,” says Treciokas. “It also gives visitors a different way to look at photography — to see edges exposed, to experience and draw attention to the photograph as an art object, and not solely an image. With so many of our pictures viewed on digital devices, it’s very rewarding to experience and carefully consider the subtle differences between the different photographic print mediums.”

The 42 works on view reflect two different centuries and two continents, as well as markedly different approaches to both photography and the window motif. The three photographs by late-19th-century French photographer Eugène Atget (1857–1927), for example, feature randomly captured Paris shop windows and their reflections.

Large glass vitrines such as this were quite new at the time the images were made. “Reflections were challenging for documentary photographers who generally tried to avoid them,” explains Luce Lebart, “Atget, on the other hand, seems to have deliberately sought them out. His images look like ‘natural photomontage,’ and since Atget’s time, this interest in reflections on glass has continued.”

Phil Bergerson, Martinsville, Indiana, 2006, chromogenic print, 50.6 x 40.9 cm; image: 39.4 × 39.4 cm. NGC

In the exhibition’s four photographs by Canadian Phil Bergerson (1947– ), the occasionally bizarre nature of shopfront windows is taken even further. In Tennessee (1996), a slightly haphazard array of animal etchings is accompanied by a taxidermied centrepiece depicting a bobcat leaping at an escaping pheasant, above the prone and empty skins of a bobcat and a fox. In a similar vein, in Martinsville, Indiana (2006), a cracked and fogged storefront presents four wall-mounted bucks and some disembodied horns, in front of a photograph of the rock band KISS, while an adjacent display features a stuffed wolf grinning over the skull and horns of a small deer.

As Andrea Kunard points out, although Bergerson’s work is highly formal, his sense of order “is often in opposition to his choice of subject matter. Bergerson seeks out the strange juxtapositions of objects that occur around us on a daily basis [and] focuses on the found elements in society that, through his considered framing, operate as documents and abstract images.”

Pascal Grandmaison, Glass 6, 2004–05, digital chromogenic print on Plexiglas, 180.3 x 180.3 x 7.5 cm. NGC

Montreal artist Pascal Grandmaison (1975– ) is represented by a single large photograph: the conceptual Glass 6 (2004–2005), showing a model holding a sizeable sheet of glass. But is he looking out at the viewer, is the viewer looking through the glass at him, or is it a mutual exchange?

In his description of this work, Jonathan Newman notes, “Metaphorically, the glass references the idea of a window and, by extension, the photograph’s role as a window on the world. Here though, what is on view through the window is not what is out there, but what is inside. Glass is also the material of mirrors, and the reflected image is present here as well, faintly revealing the presence of the photographer and the subject’s own likeness.”

Clara Gutsche, Mme A Courval Inc., 4491 St. Lawrence Boulevard, Montreal, Quebec, May 1976, Gelatin silver print, 25.2 x 20.2 cm; image: 17.2 x 12.5 cm. NGC. © Clara Gutsche / SODRAC (2016)

American-born Clara Gutsche (1949– ), who has lived in Montreal since 1970, is represented by more than twenty photographs of windows for stores, clubs, repair shops, and even an architect’s office. Capturing displays that are markedly peculiar — often featuring such oddities as inflatable plastic Easter bunnies and flying undergarments — Gutsche also frequently includes reflections, adding new layers of meaning by incorporating multiple realities on a single photographic plane.

“On a sociological level,” says Kunard, “she understands her images as reflections on consumer life, where the choice and arrangement of objects communicate the values and preoccupations of society. […] Aesthetically, the windows pose many challenges. Gutsche photographed with a 5x7 camera, contact-printing the image for optimal clarity. Shadow and light are exquisitely balanced to elicit an emotional response. To heighten the disorientation that occurs in consumer culture, Gutsche exploited reflections that fragment the image. […] Her window displays are another type of interior landscape, as well as documents of a certain place and time.”

Nathan Lyons, New York City, New York, 1965, printed before April 1970, gelatin silver print, 11.2 x 16.6 cm. NGC

Rounding out the exhibition are a dozen photographs from the 96-image Notations in Passing series (1962–1974) by American photographer Nathan Lyons (1930–2016). First presented at the NGC in 1971, “Notations in Passing,” says John McElhone, “is a series of images that Lyons began creating in 1962 and added to and rearranged over a period of twelve years. The selection of shop windows shown here refers to a recurring subject in Lyons’ work, and curiously echoes his personal history as the son of glass and mirror merchants in Jamaica, New York.”

One of the most striking images in the series is the chalk outline of a dead body, glimpsed through the darkened door of a tiled lobby. Although the body is long gone, an uneasiness remains — albeit muted by the intervening layer of glass door. Another image in the series features a welter of pop-culture icons from the late 1960s, including the television and music stars, the Monkees; actor Yul Brynner in his Magnificent Seven costume from the 1960 film; and shirtless jazz musician Herb Alpert, nearly dwarfed by the adjacent image of a Chiquita banana. Although ostensibly simple spontaneous shots, the slightly ironic worldview of the photographer is clear throughout.

From Atget’s documentary images of the 1920s to recent conceptual work, the PhotoLab’s inaugural exhibition explores windows in photography as both physical prop and metaphor. In a word, as Pauli comments, windows serve “as a site of visual commentary about the fragmentary, ephemeral and sometimes absurd nature of modern life.”

PhotoLab 1 is on view at the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada through winter 2017. This fall, the CPI Galleries are also presenting two major exhibitions: The Intimate World of Josef Sudek, on view until February 26, 2017, and Cutline: The Photography Archives of the Globe and Mail, on view until February 12, 2017. For more information on the CPI and its exhibitions, activities and programs, please visit the CPI website. 

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