It is particularly interesting to present the series of images that Robert Walker has made on the subject of the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve neighbourhood – where he was born and currently lives – in light of the festivities for Montreal’s 375th anniversary. The focus of these celebrations – optimistic and perhaps a bit facile – appears to simply highlight major achievements that should make us all proud. Not everyone sees things the same way!
In contrast, the works that we are showing in this issue – Walker’s, but also those of other photographers who have made notable images of Montreal – are rooted in neighbourhood life and in what forms the very fabric of the city. They bear testimony to ways of life, the splendour and decline of institutions and companies, the importance of small businesses and services, the colour and composition of residential streets and commercial arteries, the omnipresence and importance of advertising in urban culture, cultural and social pluralities, and more. Together, these aspects form the wealth and diversity of a city. They also provide evidence of residents’ desire to form ties within communities, and they sometimes generate resistance to developments that create upheavals without any regard for their living environments.
Walker approached his neighbourhood with the particular gaze and style that he has developed throughout his career, including during his time in New York: superimposed planes, unusual juxtapositions, strong colour contrasts, an interest in advertising and graphic representations, and a strong attachment to street life. Hochelaga-Maisonneuve was once a thriving middle-class and industrial district; after suffering serious decline and becoming a working-class enclave, it is now the subject of debates over the difficulties of redevelopment and gentrification. For Walker, this neighbourhood, imbued with memory, offers a trove of treasures and complexities.
Other photographers have also highlighted dimensions of life in working-class neighbourhoods with striking images. For instance, Gabor Szilasi’s series on the façades of St. Catherine Street revealed the special colour of the commercial displays on this central Montreal artery. A number of photographers have also set the goal of simply witnessing the life of ordinary people. The Groupe d’action photographique was an important representative of this photographic concern. Szilasi, who was such an eloquent witness to Quebec culture, was a member of the group, as were Michel Campeau, Roger Charbonneau, and Claire Beaugrand-Champagne, whose images are included here. During the time of the destruction of the Milton-Park neighbourhood, Clara Gutsche and David Miller were also eloquent witnesses, painting a portrait of residents and recording their mobilization and resistance. More recently, Patrick Dionne and Miki Gingras also portrayed citizen engagement by producing, with people active in their communities, a series of gigantic murals that composed portraits of different Montreal neighbourhoods.
Translated by Käthe Roth
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