Field Portraits of Contemporary Western Culture
The photographic portrait has taken a leading role in visualizing Western Canadian people and in the making of regional history, whether we like it or not. A piece of each Western photographic portrait, in its styling of subject and décor within the pictorial frame, in the positioning of its subject and their look of self determination, is in every history book of Western Canada. Even those who don’t know anything about studio or field-based photography know the visual template of the portrait of Western rural inhabitants. It can be a complex reading that emphasizes physicality, the body, forms of masquerade and subtle disguise.1
From the mid-19th and well into the 20th centuries, Western portrait photography had been a refined, mostly indoor craft, geared toward people in their Sunday best outfits stopping by the commercial photo studio for a portrait that would reaffirm their human presence on a fragile frontier landscape. Each portrait was likely to be shared with family and friends and reprinted in regional history books.2 With the advent of Polaroids and new forms of digital image exchanges in the late 20th century, the studio-to-field movement became fluent and interchangeable and the photographic portrait took on other values.
Field Portraits of Contemporary Western Culture, presents works by five artists who focus on the essence of 21st century subjects in mostly rural environs, capturing their subjects in the great outdoors, at work, between rodeos, or in temporary, mobile studios. Their photographs exist both within and beyond the photographic template of Western photographic field portraiture. Jon bowie, Luis Fabini, Blake Little, Collier Schorr, and Sheila Spence are conceptually attuned to traditional portraiture and to the social changes in contemporary Western cultures. Each registers these changes in subtle shifts in visual narrative to delimit the traditional poses, gestures, costuming, looks, settings, and compositions. In doing so they direct our attention to a new range of Western subjects and values beyond the mediated average.
Unlike their 19th and 20th century predecessors, who looked at image making opportunities in the building of a ranch or an oil rig, the artists in Field Portraits of Contemporary Western Culture skew lingering perceptions of their subjects and related evidence of innocence, physical defects, cowboy bravado, human bonding, and any relation to the Other or diversity issues. In subtle shifts of perspective, each offers an open, flexible, and unfinished Western narrative of identity, advocating for greater mediation in the illusion of presence.
Field Portraits of Contemporary Western Culture is organized by the Southern Alberta Art Gallery and curated by Wayne Baerwaldt. Funding assistance from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, and the City of Lethbridge.
1. All of which have been examined to Roland Barthes critique of photography, “of identity, of civil status, of what we might call, in all senses of the word, the body’s formality.” Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida (New York: The Noonday Press, 1981, 79).
2. Each new generation comes with fresh eyes to the pictorial styling of works by Geraldine Moodie, Edward S. Curtis, and others, and eventually finds the frontal and confrontational portrait styling of Western subjects attributed to Richard Avendon. With an almost modern sensibility, these photographers were part of a small but growing group of roving photographers who humanized the Western landscape.
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