Faces and Places

[Spring 2010]

by Jacques Doyon

This issue presents portraits of people from all walks of life, most of them photographed in their interiors. There are also views of private places filled with things – décor, furniture – that testify to a presence. It is possible to think that individuality, self-representation, is manifested in a person’s features, pose, and dress, and that how the immediate environment is shaped also represents this presence to oneself and others. And yet, all of these external manifestations of identity are undeniably composed of the same elements that connect us to others. We inhabit both our bodies and our living spaces; we enliven them with a presence constructed from the materials of a common culture. It is this societal vista of the portrait, with an almost typological dimension surpassing the biographical, that seems to me to be the meeting point for the works of the photographers brought together in this issue. They also have in common that they are marked by a crossroads of cultures and a deterritorialization both cultural and societal.

Gabor Szilasi Is perhaps the most probative example. Born in Hungary, he moved to Montreal in 1957, and in Quebec he discovered a largely rural society on the path to accelerated modernization, to which he was an attentive witness and on which he would cast, throughout his life, a regard imbued with curiosity and humanism. His incessant quest for images was to make him the Quebec photog- rapher who produced the broadest portrait of Quebec’s diversity. From rural working class to intellectual and artistic circles, from family life to the lot of society’s damaged, from the Quebec countryside of the 1960s and 1970s to the city in the 1970s and 1980s, with an emphasis on architectural façades and commercial kitsch, everything is of interest to him. And then there are his looks at his society of origin. The sensitivity and depth of this body of work have earned him the Prix Paul-Émile Borduas.

For Olga Chagaoutdinova, originally from extreme eastern Russia and living in Canada for ten years, the move to a foreign country contributed, instead, to a renewed interest in her own culture. Her images of Russia detail the transitional moment when a specific, still-strong tradition nevertheless shows signs of crumbling under a gradual invasion of Western consumer values. Interior views and portraits reveal modest living conditions touched by the first traces of consumerist escalation and artifice. Chagaoutdinova is also inter- ested in life in Cuba, perhaps seeking an inverted parallel in a society inhabited by traces of decadent luxury in the palaces of yore.

And for Hu Yang, the cultural discrepancy is of a different order. Shanghai Living, the series made by this documentary photographer who recently moved to Canada, is composed of more than five hundred portraits of people photographed in their interiors. Each image is accompanied by a short interview excerpt in which contrasting values, aspirations, and ways of life of various social classes are expressed. The series as a whole testifies to the very concrete impacts on daily life of accelerated capitalist development in a city long bypassed by modernization. This work forms a remarkable testimony to the sweeping away of a traditional culture and a radical transformation in ways of life.
Translated by Käthe Roth