Et fili ? Cultural Transmission and the Quebec Photobook — Michel Hardy-Vallée

[Hiver 2022]

By Michel Hardy-Vallée

It’s a lovely image: my father, who had been taking photographs since the 1960s, had given me his Beseler 23C II enlarger. I went to pick it up in order to flesh out my amateur darkroom, and I was thinking about transmission of culture. The caption might have quoted from John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields: “To you from failing hands we throw / The torch; be yours to hold it high.” And that’s historiography: the past gives the present the means for the future, like father to son. So, should we be surprised that in art history there is talk of “trailblazers” and “geniuses ahead of their time” that “anticipate” masterpieces to come?

Ever since Martin Parr and Gerry Badger returned the photobook to the agenda,1 it has been a historical object. Works of the past are republished; attempts are made to reconstruct the uncompleted ones. The excitement is palpable for those who, today, discover that a nineteenth-century forerunner was “avant-garde,” that a great name supported by the Guggenheim Foundation has left us a timeless heritage. We describe our relationship with this culture of the past, as we would with family, by the word that has become cruelly familiar: transmission. We don’t choose our parents.

It’s a lovely image, which seems to be as self-evident as the sequence of styles composed by the museum: Baroque, Classical, Romantic. But what about the son who didn’t take the enlarger?

In fact, we have a lot to say about the choice of our predecessors. This can be seen in a variety of recent photobook projects in Quebec, published or on the drawing board, that pose the question of cultural transmission. Many refer explicitly to other works – photographic ones, of course, but also literary ones. These creations offer us an inside look at historical comprehension in the process of being made. In particular, they enable us to conceive the history of Quebec photography in ways other than as a succession of generations…
Translated by Käthe Roth.

1 Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, The Photobook: A History, 3 vol. (New York: Phaidon, 2004, 2006, 2014).

[ Complete issue, in print and digital version, available here: Ciel variable 119 – AGAINST NATURE ]
[ Individual article in digital version available here: Et fili ? Cultural Transmission and the Quebec Photobook — Michel Hardy-Vallée ]