A R.U.B. (Review of Urban Books) of:
Carol Payne & Andrea Kunard (Eds). The Cultural Work of Photography in Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011.
After reading (and reviewing) a book that deals with three American photographers last week, I thought it would be interesting to read about photography in a Canadian context. The result of shelf browsing in GVPL’s photography section was The Cultural Work of Photography in Canada.
The essay in this volume most directly relevant to my interests and the topic of this blog is Carol Williams’ “Economic Necessity, Political Incentive, and International Entrepreneurialism: The ‘Frontier’ Photography of Hannah Maynard.” Maynard was an early photographer in Victoria, and owned one of the first photographic studios in the city. (Also see B.C. Archives information on Maynard here.) Williams argues that in contrast to previously “superficial impressions of Hannah’s domestically concerned portraiture… her images cohere with overarching masculine narratives of settlement and modernization” (23). Based on an analysis of photographs produced by Maynard and her husband Richard, and a critical reading of wide ranging documents, Williams concludes that through her photography, “Maynard… reproduced Eurocentric ideologies for both a local and a distant marketplace” (39). I haven’t been exposed to a lot of critical work on the Maynard’s, so I was happy to start with what claims to be a more nuanced investigation of their work than the apparently “superficial impressions” that have ruled previous interpretations — the caveat being that I am unable to assess how radical this reinterpretation actually is.
Also relevant to my urban interests was Sarah Bassnett’s essay, “Shooting Immigrants: Ethnic Difference in Early Twentieth-Century Press Photography.” She argues “that ethnic difference was central to the way [discourses of surveillance, spectacle and modernism] were taken up in Toronto” (107). She concludes that such “ethnic difference was pictured in the press as alluring as well as threatening” (118). The conclusion that photographs produce multiple effects in interpreting cities is a useful, if somewhat obvious, idea that I hope to apply in my own photographic analysis.
In each essay, I was impressed at how well the text and photographs were integrated. The photos were usually placed on the same page on which they were referred to in the text, and in each case were well-sized and well-placed to serve the function they needed to serve for the essay. This was a welcome contrast to the exhibit catalogue format of American Modern, in which most of the photographs accompanying each essay were presented as a series of plates following the text, leading to a disjointed reading experience. I was also impressed at the depth of research demonstrated by the authors, with long lists of citations to both primary sources and theoretical constructs providing excellent interpretive structures for each case study.
I also read an essay in this volume on anti-Communist advertising during the Cold War, and two essays on Canada’s uncomfortable relationship with nuclear weapons. All three of these essays were on topics of interest to me, and provided interesting analyses of the photographic processes used to create the images they presented. They also integrated photos and text well, and demonstrated a similar depth of research as Williams’ and Bassnett’s essays. There is also a useful historiographical essay by the editors at the end of the book, that details writing about photography in Canada over the past fifty years; a detailed reading of this essay may prove desirable if my interest in photography continues to develop. However, I will limit the extent of my comments on these four essays here, since they are off topic for this blog. I also hasten to mention that there are a number of other essays in this volume that I have not read, many dealing with issues surrounding First Nations, colonialism, nature and photographers with whom I am not familiar.
Overall, I was impressed by what I read of this book, and can offer no significant critique of its content or form. I would recommend it to anybody interested in Canadian photography.
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