by Pierre Dessureault
For ten years, Robert Walker has been working on a project called Hochelaga-Maisonneuve: Observations and Recollections. The subtitle conveys the two aspects of his approach. Observation is involved with things seen and corresponds to the spontaneous aspect of his undertaking, conducted without a pre-established plan. Above all, as in his previous works, Walker is a flâneur who goes where his eye takes him. The other aspect has to do with memory. This neighbourhood is where Walker was born and lived a good part of his life. Familiarity becomes, in a way, the guide for his wanderings through these districts tinted with memories.
In a layout for a book1 produced in 2013, Walker grouped his images in four chapters, presenting loci of interest that stood out in the mass of accumulated photographs: public buildings, churches, and the botanical garden; industry; street life; and history on a movie set. The images grouped together this way and organized in a coherent whole paint a complex portrait of the neighbourhood, in which Walker’s depth of vision and personal choices are obvious. The overall impression that emerges from this vast “work space” is that of a once-prosperous neighbourhood, as evidenced in the public buildings showing social progress for a rising working class – until the industrial decline in the second half of the twentieth century sounded the knell for such utopias.
Today, Hochelaga-Maisonneuve presents all the signs of a district marked by deep social fractures. Boarded-up storefronts covered with graffiti, industrial vestiges, gaudy shop windows, and buskers are as typical of neighbourhood life as are the Maisonneuve market, the Olympic Stadium, and the churches. Walker neither establishes a hierarchy nor takes a position: he observes and captures the present. He could easily have been described in these words by James Agee, who collaborated with Walker Evans (a photographer with whom Walker identifies) on the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a classic of the documentary style: “I am interested in the actual and in telling of it, and so would wish to make clear that nothing here is invented. The whole job may well seem messy to you. But a part of my point is that experience offers itself in richness and variety and in many more terms than one and that it may therefore be wise to record it no less variously.”2
Another characteristic shared by Walker and Evans is a passion for vernacular culture – the set of identifying traits revealing a popular wisdom resulting from a unique relationship with the environment and the organization of activities in living space, the tools and manners that structure daily life. Walker obviously takes pleasure in detailing the abundant imagery of motorcycles, skulls and skeletons, effigies of Marilyn, and film stars fighting for public space with a motley multitude of ads and displays…
2 James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), 216.
3 The works of GAP and its members were reproduced in numerous issues of Magazine OVO between 1971 and 1975
4 “Photographie quebecois,” Impressions [Toronto] 5 (August 1973): n.p.
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