by Sharon Harper
A certain tendency, a tradition, germinated in Québec several decades ago with the work of John Max, through to that of Raymonde April and Michel Campeau. Recently, the second set of leaves in this growing tradition has started to open itself up to the photographic community and the art-going public.
The psychological and emotionally evocative work of Anne-Marie Zeppetelli, Susan Coolen, Suzanne Grégoire, Stéphane Beaulieu, the socially critical work of Miki Gingras, and the intellectually keyed work of Jean-Jacques Ringuette all have a place in a new generation of Québec photographers. On one hand they share schooling in an era which saw, and continues to see, a movement away from the social documentary toward increasing subjectivity, resulting in their heightened theatricality. On the other hand they partake in a distinctly marked tradition forged by Max, April, Campeau, and others. At first glance, the work of this emerging group of photographers appears to diverge from the work of John Max, Raymonde April, and Michel Campeau. Theirs is a response to postmodern discourse where the questioned viability of the photograph as an index to reality has guided them into an increasingly subjective realm. Photographers like Campeau formed their individual working processes and aesthetics in an era when social documentary was at its height of popularity, particularly in this province which maintains a strong history of documentary work. The more recent generation of photographers, however, has been working in the context of postmodern discourse, in which the epistemological relationship between reality and the photographic image has become problematized.
Thus, these artists have tended to bring their work inside, into an ever-more subjective realm and to display a predominant theatrical element in their work. Anne-Marie Zeppetelli, in Making Fire, and Susan Coolen, in Mise en Scène, both construct sets, sometimes exceedingly elaborate, which they arrange and light, and in which they perform, creating blatantly theatrical stages. In his series II y a des royaumes qui nous sont à jamais interdits, Jean-Jacques Ringuette uses a backdrop with exaggerated lighting against which he performs in several of the top panels. He does make reference to the world outside his set in the series of abandoned spaces, such as the empty apartment or the burnt-out warehouse, on the lower half of each diptych. However, the social life that once inhabited those places is no longer. Suzanne Grégoire also turns her studio into a set in Amalgame, albeit a sparse one, and acts for the camera; and, although she uses only natural light and makes the windows to the outside visible (rarely done in the work of Zeppetelli, Coolen, and Ringuette), the social world beyond those windows is blotted out by the trickling condensation on their surfaces.
In his use of the edges of the film and the tape holding the image together in the work Dérive 3, Stéphane Beaulieu displays the most literal example of the construction of his images in this group of photographers. However, the evident posing of his subjects in artificial light is immediately recognizable as theatrical. Even the work of Miki Gingras, who sets out overtly to explore sociopolitical issues as in Exits, does not present a clear window to the world, as is commonly associated with social documentary. Her images are blurred; the lines of objects and spaces melt into one another through the motion of her camera incorporating her obvious presence into the photograph; she isolates small snippets of space, such as the bottom of the staircase or the sink on the wall, and does not visually refer the subject to its exterior social context but rather to the inner emotional existence within that space.
The new generation of Québec artists carry this theatrical quality to its heights, almost exclusively using themselves as actors, excluding the social realm surrounding them. Gone are the references to friends, family, and summer getaways seen in Max’s, April’s and Campeau’s work. Instead they are questioning notions of truth and fiction in an era when the line between the two has seemingly disappeared. In the work of all of these photographers is an aesthetic of the “overtly constructed” influenced by postmodernism, to a degree unseen in the generation before them.
However, between the covers of this postmodern influence are pages that read similarly to the images of the generation of Québec photographers which came before. The impulse informing both generations is a romanticism celebrating the unconscious, the irrational, and the emotions that live beyond the structured front of the human body. There is, in this work, an interior reflection, an inner landscape of emotions that is ever present, whether it be in the snapshot aesthetic of Campeau or the directorial mode of Zeppetelli. This inner realm has not so much to do with an autobiographical study as with a journey inward to an otherworldly plane. The work of Max, April, and Campeau depicts the inner, emotional realm in the exterior life and is structured as a narrative that carries the viewer into the photographer’s inner landscape. Richard Baillargeon maintains the same quality, referring even less to social life, and brings his world further inside, both literally and figuratively.
Zeppetelli, Coolen, Grégoire, Gingras, Beaulieu, and Ringuette make the inner landscape the predominant subject of their vision. They take the viewer on an enveloping visual and emotional journey and maintain the narrative element, sensed in the work of the preceding group, to create the movement of those journeys. Zeppetelli depicts tales of entrapment and the struggle to escape, using recurring symbols such as the encased butterfly and the fireplace to represent her inner conflicts. Each work, such as Making Fire, can even be seen as a chapter in a continuing psychological drama. Coolen often works from classical mythology and other tales, using the repetition of symbols such as water, mirrors, and birds. These mythological symbols trigger in the viewer reminiscence of other narratives about foreign and mystical places.
Suzanne Grégoire ‘s work is often a journey of reverie where one’s mind wanders beyond the four walls within which the body is contained, beyond concrete reality. Her Amalgame makes this reverie apparent where she is seen staring and perhaps even moving toward a window facing the outside world. Water for Grégoire, as for Campeau and Coolen, represents a domain that is only accessible emotionally and spiritually and is continually present as both condensation and droplets on surfaces. In Exits, Gingras is not concerned only with the depiction of the concrete existence of a space, but more importantly with the emotionally tumultuous aura that lives within the walls of the space. The emotional lives of unseen, unspecified women are experienced by both the photographer and the viewer, as Gingras does not depict the entirety of a room, but rather the corners of space where hidden secrets are thought to symbolically exist. Ringuette also creates an inner landscape where he explores a particular moment in an emotional journey. The work does not concern itself with the trigger of the emotion, but with experiencing the sphere of the emotion itself. His images depict a moment of suffering, as the male torso twists in agony in several of the images juxtaposed with spaces after the life has died away. Similarly, in Beaulieu’s work Dérive 3, the concern is not the factors contributing to his chaotic fragmentation of interiority, as represented by the splintering of the image unity by the tape, but rather the encounter with that realm. The latter three artists create their narratives by allowing the viewer to travel through the experiences of those interior landscapes, to traverse the emotional hills and valleys and breathe in the psychological scent of the air. In all of these works, both the established and emergent artists create intangible and yet experientially real worlds to which one can emotionally and spiritually repair.
Largely, that which contributes to the sense of otherworldliness is the lyrical treatment of the subject. While this reflective, poetic quality is found in the works of April and Campeau, it is also experienced in the work of the new generation. Coolen’s images ring with a lyrical, daydream quality, as in the fanciful scenarios in Mise en Scène with the decorative birdcage and the delicate parasol, or fluid emotions running under the surface of one’s outer shell in Explorations of the Self. Grégoire makes explicit reference to reverie in images where she photographs herself moving toward a window, suggesting the transcendence of her mind beyond the confining walls. The bowl next to the mist-covered window is a reminder of a mental journey one might take while pausing at the table on a day when the clouds and fog keep one inside.
In the work of the new generation, this poetic reverie, this lyrical journey is not always tranquil. Zeppetelli portrays a struggle for freedom with ominously mysterious forces, as is seen in her dimly lit scenarios, blazing fires, and old objects such as kettles and oil lamps that seem to possess ritualistic and mystical qualities. In Gingras’ work of Exits, the flowing and yet turbulent motion of the camera, depicts a lyrical and poetic understanding of emotions that haunt a space, a space surrounded by a public history of names, dates, and injustices but which do not often dig deep into the emotional world of the inhabitants. The images in Beaulieu’s Dérive 3 depict an inner realm of chaos and fragmentation. Lines of tape slice through the blurred, naked bodies, bodies from which the outer shell of clothing has been removed and in which the clear delineation between the body and its inner emotional world begins to fade. Ringuette, although generally on a more intellectual key, still refers to the unconscious world of emotion treating the blurred figure descending the escalator and the darkened image of the snow reflecting light with a poetic touch. To heighten this lyrical quality, he collaborated with poet Gérald Gaudet for this work juxtaposing the emotion he attempts to portray and the flow of the words and description in the poem. Each of these photographers creates a new world into which the viewer may travel, a world in which the landscape is an inner one and is marked by its poetic and lyrical relief and its depth of emotion. It is these characteristics that mark a constant in the work of Québec photographers, traced from Max, April, and Campeau, through Baillargeon, to this emerging group.
The recent work of these photographers is as distinctively Québécois as that of young Québec writers and filmmakers. As a developing group of artists surrounded by and immersed in a larger discourse in photographic circles, their work may immediately smack of postmodern influences. However, in looking beyond the immediate impact of this discourse, a regional influence is seen permeating the new work, quietly but visibly. This newly emerging group can be seen to stand as a new mark in a Québec tradition.