Three exhibits at the National Gallery of Canada: land and landscape

On November 5 I visited three new photography exhibits at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. In one way or another, all three were tied to the Canadian landscape whether in the past or currently.

For Canadians who were old enough to read books in 1976, the exhibit Between Friends is a reminder of a book of the same name published as a gift from Canada to the U.S. on the occasion of that country’s bicentennial. For this exhibit, photographer Andreas Rutkauskas revisited many of the locations along the 8,891 km border between the two countries. While much of the geography has not changed, the exhibit contains reminders that crossing the border has become more difficult and formal in recent years because of the rise of protectionism and isolationism in the U.S., and the new geopolitical reality throughout the world. The pictures are subtle and often beautiful and the boundary they point to can seem an artificial and arbitrary one. Why should the living situation of people leaving a couple of hundred metres apart be so different?

A similar theme is evoked in Frontera, a drone’s-eye view of the U.S.’s southern border with Mexico. These pictures, however, do not contain the open spaces and lightly-patrolled woodlands seen in Between Friends. The Mexican border is lined by a steel scar that runs across the landscape for many hundreds of miles through inhospitable wild places, sometimes broken by poor settlements on one side and wealthier communities on the other. More often, though, it is difficult—if not impossible—to tell which side of the frontier is which: the land is the same and it is a political negotiation that has traced a line through it. Looking at many of the pictures by Mexicans Pablo López Luz and Alejandro Cartagena, Canadians Mark Ruwedel and Geoffrey James, Swiss Adrien Missika, American Kirsten Luce and German Daniel Schwarz, it is easy to imagine that one day the land will absorb the border and all human traces will be forgotten.

The third exhibit, Gold and Silver: Images and Illusions of the Gold Rush, provides a photographic record of the stampede for California and Yukon gold in the late 19th century. While we cannot help but wonder at the bravery and greed that drove men and women to seek their fortunes in unforgiving locations, it is impossible to miss the impact on the environment that was the result of unchecked exploitation. Many of the worst cases—deforestation, slag heaps and diverted watercourses—are still there to be seen. The collection is a fascinating set of posters, daguerrotypes and tiny, vintage contact prints but, while image-making technology has moved on, it seems our care for the land has not evolved at the same pace.

Cold evening at the marina

Mucking about down at the Aylmer Marina while doing some visual exercises for school. It's mid-November and I shouldn't be surprised if ice is forming in the water of the Ottawa River. But there is. And I am.

Like I am every year.

DSCF5346.jpg

A rainy evening, 1922

Well, not really. But close.

I took a few days off this week and used a couple of them to visit Prince Edward County in Eastern Ontario. Although the early fall weather wasn't the greatest, the mini-trip gave us some time to see more of this region that is rapidly building a reputation as a wine-producing centre and destination for economic development.

The town of Picton is the largest community in the county and many of its buildings shows their small-town Ontario origins. The Regent Theatre, opened in February 1922, is one such building. Here it is in all its glory on a rainy evening:

DSCF5056.jpg

Toronto. At night. In the rain.

I always try to fit in a little photography when I travel and my recent trip to Toronto was no exception. The weather wasn't great, but I've learned that my little Fujifilm X100T will stay fairly dry if I tuck it under my palm as I walk (having the camera on a wrist strap makes this fairly easy). And rainy nights in a city give means lots of mist, reflections and vivid colours.

Here are a few shots in those conditions taken around Toronto's City Hall at Nathan Phillips Square.

The Louvre: from Mona to Marianne

What could I say about the Musée du Louvre that hasn't been said often and better by others? The scale of the collection is staggering and it is impossible to take everything in in a single visit. I soon found myself trying to move through rooms too quickly, aware of how much more there was to see. After a short while I realized that I was doing the gallery a disservice by rushing and decided to slow down again. Better to see fewer things well than to consume the art of the centuries like fast food. For the remainder of the four hours of my visit I wandered at a comfortable pace.

And I found that not all the sights were on the gallery walls: I also found it fascinating to keep an eye on my fellow visitors who were there in their thousands. You can learn a lot about human nature from the way people act in crowds—some of it touching, some of it puzzling, some of it comical.

I would have to place people's behaviour around the Mona Lisa in the 'puzzling' category. By the time I had followed the signs to the gallery where da Vinci's famous piece hangs behind protective glass, it was obvious that I was going to visit a celebrity. Few works in the museum have their own signposts so that you can find them from several galleries away. I could have waited my turn in the long line to see the painting from a couple of metres away, but it seemed to me that the crowd itself had become the story. I could not believe how many people, having queued up to see the painting, immediately turned their backs on it so that they could take a selfie.

I understand that people want to document their experiences, but many of them spent no time at all contemplating one of the world’s most famous pieces of art. They were oblivious to the object in front of them, which seemed to have little or no significance of its own. Instead the work was there to validate their importance or experience. It didn't point to anything grander, more beautiful, nobler, more challenging or universal than… me.

So, a short series of images of guys and galleries at the museum, starting with Mona and ending with Marianne ... and a tired fellow visitor.

Paris: Day 2

Day 2 wore me out. But in a good way. I spent about nine hours walking and standing, starting the day in the famous and overwhelming Musee du Louvre (more on this in another posting) and ending it off with a visit to the Sainte-Chapelle.

Sainte-Chapelle is not one of the bigger churches I have visited, but it is far and away the most memorable. It is extravagantly beautiful. Many of the cathedrals of Europe impress because of their rich histories and associations with the pious and powerful. Some churches, like Reykjavik's Hallgrimskirkja, capture attention because of their unique architecture. Other houses of Christian worship are notable for the purity and simplicity of their vision. But, again, Sainte-Chapelle is extravagantly beautiful.

I expect that many medieval churches were more beautiful in their day, but now we see only their bones with the plaster and decorative painting removed. Even so, how many churches of the period had the stained glass treasures that Sainte-Chapelle still enjoys? So much of the wall space is devoted to glasswork that the ceiling is supported by little more than light and dancing colours.

Built by France's King Louis IX (later canonized as Saint Louis) between 1238 and 1248, the church has now been annexed and partially absorbed by offices of the Palais de Justice de Paris.

But nothing can hold a candle to those windows. 

 

FullSizeRender.jpg
FullSizeRender.jpg
FullSizeRender.jpg
FullSizeRender.jpg
FullSizeRender.jpg

Paris: Day 1

I have taken advantage of the fact that I am between assignments at work to spend a few days in Paris. Although the city has the reputation of being very grey during the month of February, I seem to have lucked out with a forecast that calls for a sunny week with temperatures of 10 - 12C. Just a bit warmer and less snowy than the Ottawa Valley at this time of year.

So here I am with only my Fuji X-E1 and X100T for company in a city that is a photographer's dream. I've got some ideas for a project but the challenge, as always, is to say something visually that hasn't been said in Paris a million times before. I'm here for a break, though, so I may just let the challenge go and enjoy myself. We'll see.

Here are some night shots from my first evening in the city. All were taken handheld at ISO 3200 beside the Canal de la Villette in the city's 19th arrondissement. 

 

FullSizeRender.jpg
FullSizeRender.jpg
FullSizeRender.jpg
FullSizeRender.jpg
FullSizeRender.jpg
FullSizeRender.jpg

At the sheepdog trials—windy and wonderful

It's not often that I get to attend a sheepdog trial. Ok, let's be more accurate: I had never been to see sheepdogs put through their paces before this summer. But mid-way into our house exchange with a couple from Kirkmichael, Perthshire, we learned that the Strathardle Sheepdog Trial was being held in nearby Enochdhu.

This was not our first trip to Scotland, so we were open to doing more local things off the usual tourist trails and weren't looking to spend a lot of time in the bigger centres. A sheepdog trial promised to tick all the boxes. And it did.

Watching the shepherds and dogs work together was a wonderful experience. I was surprised at the intelligence of the dogs, the lack of intelligence of the sheep, and the unbroken chain of shouted and whistled communication—even when it broke down. Done well, herding sheep with a dog is a delight to watch.

The shearing competition was probably more fun for the audience and judges than it was for the sheep (some of which were clearly nicked), but you have to admire the strength and skill of the men and women who make a quick and clean job of it. There may not be a lot of room for sentimentality in farm life, but a deft hand is to be respected.

These were clearly real contests, not demos put on with a wink for tourists (apart from a family from Belgium, we were the only tourists there). The competitors obviously knew each other and seemed to be on on friendly terms, but they were all there to win in their categories, from beginner to old hand. The sky threatened and the wind never let the refreshments tent have an easy minute, but the roll and sausage was hot and the whisky was welcome.

All in all, a glorious afternoon out in Highland Perthshire.

All pictures taken with the Fujifilm X-E1 and 18-55mm and 55-200mm lenses.

DSCF2895.jpg