Michel Campeau. Photography, the Photographer, the Collector – Pierre Dessureault

[Fall 2018]

By Pierre Dessureault

Photography. The exhibition Michel Campeau – Life before Digital,1 a retrospective of Michel Campeau’s approach in the early 1970s, offers a well­rounded view of his ideas on photography, on the figure of the photographer, and on that of the collector who finally took over from the producer of images. In The Donkey that Became a Zebra, as well as in his series La collection Bruce Anderson and La chambre noire, which open the exhibition, Campeau compiles an almost­ archaeological inventory of the medium of photography as physical and chemical image ­production process. Ranging from objective views of historical photographer’s tools, reproduced to highlight the beauty of their mechanical precision, with “a host of images gleaned here and there from the historicity of the ‘discourses’ on photog­raphy and its industrialization,”2 to the personal register, with mon­tages that reconstruct his self­taught photographer’s library and a portfolio of photographs in the name of Mlle Georgette (Campeau’s mother), these corpuses of disparate images read as vestiges of an obsolete art issuing from the industrial revolution. As an extension of this collection of artefacts, views of darkrooms offer a reminder of what one might call the photographic kitchen. These creative workspaces were cobbled together by the photographers and organized according to their creative needs. Campeau brings them to life through a play of light and chemicals that reveals their pre­cariousness. The crude light of a flash hollows out their details, magnifies their textures, saturates their colours, and exaggerates their pictorial qualities, transforming these darkened rooms, with­ drawn from the world, into gaudy tableaux featuring the instru­ments through which images transitioned from virtuality to reality.

A series of pictures of photographers at work in the darkroom celebrates different stages of this process. Concentration. Attention to detail. Precision. In the end, an image revealed on a sheet of paper. This motif of the materiality of images is recurrent in Campeau’s work; we might think of the grey frames around the images of Week-end au “Paradis terrestre”!, the black backgrounds against which stand out family snapshots and photographs bor­rowed from revered masters in Tremblements du cœur, and the suc­cessive reframings, solarizations, and negative and positive effects that shape the particular texture of Éclipses et labyrinthes. All of these traces belong to the process that melts into and becomes one with the image. In recent works, the red frame typical of Kodak slides plays a similar role, as a reminder that before being images, silver­ halide photographs are material and method…
Translated by Käthe Roth

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1 Michel Campeau – Avant le numérique was presented at the McCord Museum from February 16 to May 6, 2018. The exhibition was organized by Hélène Samson, curator of the museum’s photography collection.
2 Michel Campeau, “The Donkey that Became a Zebra,” in Campeau, Carrière, Clément: Accumulations (Montreal: Éditions Simon Blais, 2015), n.p (our translation).

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