A Photographer’s Holiday

[November 16, 2022]

By Zoë Tousignant

In the summer of 1972, Brian Merrett travelled to Europe for the first time on what would amount to his version of a “grand tour.” Accompanied by photographer Jennifer Harper, he spent a total of nine weeks backpacking around France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Italy, England, and Ireland. Not wishing, in his own words, to “travel as a photographer,” he left cumbersome gear behind and took only a single camera and lens, providing both ease of movement and a simplified means of engaging visually with the places they visited.1 He returned home with eighteen exposed rolls of black-and-white 35 mm film: a dense body of work that offers special insight into the development of Merrett’s distinctive photographic vision. As it turned out, what he encountered during his trip, and the kinds of images he made, would have a lasting impact on his career.

Once back in Montreal, Merrett quickly set about creating a formal series from the accumulated negatives. He made about seventy 8 x 10 prints, thirty-eight of which he showed to William A. Ewing, director of the Centaur Galleries of Photography that had opened in January 1972. This reduced selection was presented as a solo exhibition bearing the title Holiday Pictures of Europe/L’Europe en vacances.2 The title’s ironic tone reveals more about Merrett’s particular sense of humour – and perhaps Ewing’s – than did the photographs exhibited, for these were no mere holiday pictures. Clichéd views of well-known and well-trodden tourist sites were not on offer.

Concurrently with the exhibition, an eight-image portfolio of the series was published in the Montreal-based photography magazine OVO, accompanied by a text and a portrait of Merrett.3 The text, a short Q and A, suggested that the photographs “seem to carry and to merge two visions, each of a different type: one that comes from the past and another one from the present.”4 A similar point was made in a brief review of the exhibition published in The Gazette by Michael White, who wrote, “Merrett’s Europe is microcosmic Europe. It is the old and the new tightly packed together in careful, tasteful good order.”5 The series, remarked upon for its way of going beyond the conventional picture, seems to have been seen as particularly notable for its creative juxtaposition of past and present.

Today, fifty years later, the trip and its resulting images remain a pivotal chapter in Merrett’s own account of his career. For him, this nine-week period in the summer of 1972 was a kind of intensive visual education that sharpened his vision and galvanized his sense of purpose for the work he had already been accomplishing in Montreal. His recent reflections on this early moment of his practice spurred a desire to revisit the series and produce a new take on the material through this photobook. Together, he and I chose to go back to the original eighteen rolls of film, a process that resulted in the rediscovery of images and, for me, a greater understanding of the experience and transformative effect of the trip itself. Although presented here as an isolated series, the photographs in Europe 72 should be viewed as one moment on the continuum of Merrett’s early practice.

An activist photographer. Brian Merrett made the trip at a time when the urgent need for both environmental action and architectural preservation was crystallizing – on the international scene and in his own life. From the very beginning of his career as a photographer, in the late 1960s, he had been involved with grass-roots organizations in Montreal that aimed to raise awareness of the consequences of pollution and the demolition of the built environment. In the year before he went to Europe, for example, his participation in the activities of the Society To Overcome Pollution culminated with his design and fabrication of a “eco-dome” fifteen feet in diameter that could be easily dismantled and transported. The impressive geodesic structure, which featured panels with photographs by Merrett showing the effects of pollution, was used as a mobile information booth that was installed in various shopping centres and public squares around the city.

In 1972, Merrett collaborated with the group Friends of Windsor Station to save this Montreal landmark from demolition. Over a period of several months, he documented all aspects of the exterior and interior spaces of the station and the immediate neighbourhood, producing a body of work totalling about five hundred negatives. His view of the concourse showing the 1922 Angel of Victory monument was reproduced on a poster designed by Gerry Vartan and distributed by the group in its effort – ultimately successful – to build awareness and preserve the building.

Also in 1972, a selection of the photographs he had taken as part of his involvement with the Westmount Action Committee was presented in the controversial group exhibition Montréal, plus ou moins? Montreal, plus or minus?, curated by artist and architect Melvin Charney and shown at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.6 The images exhibited, made collaboratively by Merrett and Jennifer Harper, illustrated the ruinous impact on the city and its inhabitants of the construction of an extension of a highway through Montreal, a project that had been adamantly opposed by the Westmount Action Committee. Merrett and Harper’s contribution to the cause was primarily visual and predicated on communicating the on-the-ground experience of the massive infrastructural changes taking place in Montreal to a potentially unaware audience.7

Merrett carried out these engagé activities alongside his work as a freelance architectural photographer, a professional niche that he had carved out for himself at the start of his career. It would be difficult to overestimate the influence of his father, architect J. Campbell Merrett (1909–98), on the shaping of this aspect of his approach.8 He is fond of telling stories about his childhood introduction to such architectural concepts as alignment, but aside from aesthetic theory, his father clearly instilled in him a deep respect for the artistry and innovation needed to create buildings. (It is not surprising that senseless demolition – the result of an overt lack of respect for the profession – would become Merrett’s permanent bête noire.)

The grand tour. The trip to Europe, undertaken partly as a traditional grand tour in which key landmarks are visited as a form of artistic pilgrimage, served to complete his education. Yet, beyond the beauty of the sites visited, what drew his eye were the signs of a grappling with modernization that was not always peaceful. As Merrett puts it, upon arrival in Paris, the first stop on the couple’s itinerary, he quickly realized that “Montreal was not alone in its confrontation with mid-century progress.”9

In France, perhaps more than anywhere else, he recorded evidence of social unrest and activism in the form of the graffiti and political posters that adorned the walls of big cities and small towns alike. He took almost a dozen photographs of posters published by the Parti communiste français, often framed closely to render specific messages legible or juxtaposed with painted notices warning that posting was forbidden under the law of 29 July 1881. These posters, mainly calling for citizens to attend meetings at the party’s local chapter, also display explicit political stances through slogans such as “American imperialists, get out of Vietnam!” Other signs documented by Merrett allude to social struggles that would have resonated directly with his earlier experiences at home. For example, a poster in Paris signed by a Marxist group urging people to fight against “speculative demolitions” by forming local residents’ committees has been photographed against a backdrop that includes at least six cranes. Whether this particular poster was aimed at preventing or criticizing the massive construction site that lies beyond is not clear, but Merrett’s composition makes their interconnection unavoidable.

An image taken on a platform at the Paris Métro’s Gare Saint-Lazare illustrates another category of poster that Merrett recorded throughout his trip, in France and several other countries: what might be described as the environmental awareness advertisement. “What if there were no more green” asks the large banner, pictured behind a crowd of commuters waiting for the next train and naturally turning their backs on the question posed. Another example, taken in Trieste, shows a city bus bearing a poster with the image of a half-man half-tree, accompanied by the statement “The green is yours: defend it!” This is a poignant declaration, but the image’s clever composition – the fact that much of it is taken up by the stationary vehicle and there are no visible signs of greenery – prompts the thought that there may remain little to defend. As Merrett was certainly aware, the growing number of campaigns centred on appreciating nature before it was too late was a sign that environmental action was becoming a matter of urgency for industrialized countries around the world.

Images picturing the almost absurd proliferation of automobiles in European city centres is another recurring type in the series. Merrett was already a keen observer of the phenomenon in Montreal’s downtown core, which, at the turn of the 1970s, was being relentlessly overtaken by parking lots accommodating vast numbers of oversized cars. Although cars were generally smaller in Europe, they were just as rampant and were being parked obtrusively, often across every square centimetre a piazza or platz had to offer. Merrett’s playful sense of humour is conspicuous in several shots, including an image made in Vienna that shows numerous cars, parked and being driven, jamming the inner courtyard of the Hofburg Palace. Above the automobiles that fill the bottom third of the picture stands a sculpture of two male figures, one reaching out in the direction of an arched doorway while the other struggles to hold him down. The conflicting gestures create the impression that the outstretched figure is desperately trying to escape the fumes emanating from the vehicles below.

Another example, taken in Rome, sets up an ambiguous relationship between a car and a sculpted bust, both swathed in the heavenly light that shines down into what appears to be a building’s interior courtyard. On the one hand, it seems as though machine is bowing down in deference to sculpture, but on the other hand, the stone figure looks almost as though it is about to hop into the car and drive off, suddenly freed from the shackles of its own inanimate nature.

Bodies and spaces. One of the most prevalent types of image produced by Merrett over the course of the trip is what could be loosely termed “people interacting with their surroundings.” Although this is not one of the subjects he is best known for, the way people react to the built environment is a motif that he has explored throughout his career. In my view, it is especially significant because it provides the key to understanding how his two lifelong aspirations – protecting the environment and preserving architectural heritage – converge. The way people use a particular site has a direct consequence on the health, and even the survival, of that site; conversely, the way a structure is designed has a direct impact on the physical state of those who inhabit it. Again, it comes down to a question of respect: of spaces by bodies, and of bodies by spaces. Merrett has a particular talent for capturing such interactions – both respectful and not, since, in photographic terms, a discordant relationship between people and their surroundings can produce as interesting an effect as a harmonious one.

The photograph of a man crossing a footbridge in Luxembourg is among several illustrations of harmony that can be found in Europe 72. Taken from the heights of the Bock Casemates, the image shows the man as a small dark figure, dwarfed by the picture frame but not by the bridge itself, whose narrow structure makes it decidedly human-scaled. The subject of the photograph is likely not the figure at all but the long, sweeping line created by the combination of bridge and road, weaving around a country house and the tended landscape that surrounds it, and intersected by the parallelogram of a canal. The environment depicted is clearly entirely human-made, and the man in the centre of the composition, far from being in conflict with his surroundings, is just one among the various elements that compose the scene. At an aesthetic level, the overall effect is pleasing, even calming.

A striking example of disharmony, or of a clash between an individual and her environment, shows an elderly woman in Paris, walking in front of a wooden fence plastered with ripped posters, including one that bears the slogan “American imperialists, get out of Vietnam!” At the foot of the fence lies an unexplained pile of bricks – perhaps vestiges of the demolished building that once stood on the lot located behind the barrier. Turning the street corner, the woman manoeuvres her way around the bricks, stepping just far away enough not to trip. Her body, though framed in the centre of the image, seems alien to the rest of the scene, which is rough, unfinished, ugly. A glimpse of the Eiffel Tower in the upper right corner of the frame confirms that this is indeed Paris, though not the Paris of postcards.

In the brief interview on the series published in OVO, Merrett explained that during the trip his aim had been to produce a photographic documentation of the things that most impressed him.10 These things included the great monuments of Europe, the massive cathedrals, the quaint towns, the train and bus travel across breathtaking countryside – all depicted with a photographer’s sense of beauty and order, and a healthy dose of humour. But he had evidently also been impressed by the signs of a Europe caught in the throes of major social, political, and ecological change. Although not identical to what was happening in Montreal, these transformations nevertheless resonated deeply with him, and the images he brought back also testified to what most concerned him at home. Further motivated by his European experience, he would go on to participate in numerous activist projects focused on environmental awareness and, especially, architectural preservation, which has remained a central force behind his photographic work. In the year following the trip, for example, he would lead the fight to save the Shaughnessy House from destruction – it would later become the Canadian Centre for Architecture – and on the strength of these efforts he would be asked to become a founding board member of Heritage Montreal, the city’s main preservation group, a position he held from 1975 to 1980.11

Looking at these images today, fifty years after they were made, it is discouraging to see how little has actually changed – to be forced to recognize, for example, the extent to which the messages circulated in the early years of the environmental movement went unheard. With regard to Merrett’s photographic practice, the series offers a kind of preview or précis of the types of images and ideas that he would develop over the following five decades. Taken spontaneously and intuitively at an early stage in his career, the images that he made in Europe had the effect of clarifying an approach to the medium that would become intrinsic to his life. The longevity of this approach can be explained partly by his unquenchable enthusiasm, but it is also due to the very fact that so little has actually changed. For Merrett, the next cause will always be around the corner.

1 Brian Merrett, quoted in “Portfolio,” OVO (English edition), no. 15 (November 1973): 8.
2 Centaur Galleries of Photography, November 5–23, 1973.
3 Merrett, OVO, 8, 19–26, 48.
4 Ibid., 8.
5 Michael White, “Pictures of Life and Imagination,” The Gazette, November 10, 1973, 52. The review also mentions other photography exhibitions held in Montreal at that time and includes a reproduction of Merrett’s image Concarneau, France.
6 The exhibition was presented from June 11 to August 13, 1972, and was accompanied by a catalogue conceived by Melvin Charney: Montréal, plus ou moins? Montreal, plus or minus? (Montreal: The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1972).
7 Merrett’s contribution to Montréal, plus ou moins? Montreal, plus or minus? also took the form of an image of a group of houses in Westmount, juxtaposed with a view of working-class houses in Hochelaga taken by photographer Michel Saint-Jean. See Charney, Montréal, plus ou moins ? Montreal, plus or minus?, 140–41.
8 Montreal-born architect John Campbell Merrett was a partner in the firm of Barott, Marshall, Montgomery & Merrett. He is best known for his design of the main concourse of Montreal’s Central Station and the modern additions to the Royal Victoria Hospital. He also designed the Merrett family home, a split-level modernist house in Senneville, Quebec (unfortunately demolished in 1991).
9 Brian Merrett, “The Formation of a Vision,” 2020, [https://cielvariable.ca/en/brian-merrett-europe-72-the-formation-of-vision/]
10 Merrett, OVO, p. 8.
11 On Merrett’s involvement in saving the Shaughnessy House, see Cynthia Imogen Hammond, “Architecture, Photography, and Power: Picturing Montreal, 1973–74,” in Photogenic Montreal: Activisms and Archives in a Post-industrial City, ed. Martha Langford and Johanne Sloan (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2021), 232–38.

Zoë Tousignant is the Curator, Photography, at the McCord Stewart Museum. Her research focuses on the production and reception of photographic culture in Quebec. Her many curatorial projects have included close collaborations with such photographers as Serge Clément, Carlos Ferrand, Marisa Portolese, and Gabor Szilasi.