I live in the noisy heart of downtown Ottawa, and once, while visiting my parents in their comparatively rural home, I discovered how oppressive an innocent silence can be.
Late one night I smoked a cigar in their garage. It was January and there was an acoustic-dampening blanket of soft snow on the ground. The neighbourhood seemed to be asleep and the nearby ocean was frozen quiet. It was just me, a deck chair and my cigar and a silence that I’d never encountered before — or more likely after years of living downtown, I had forgotten. It made me decidedly uncomfortable, like I was sitting inside a vacuum. I found a dusty old radio and turned it on low, to ward off the heebie-jeebies.
“We abhor silence,” writes the Ottawa artist Angelina McCormick, “like nature abhors a vacuum — rushing to fill it before it feeds our imaginations and provokes anxious conjurations.”
Silence is the title of McCormick’s exhibition at Ben Franklin Place in Centrepointe. The show includes a dozen or so photographs that began, as she puts it, “without permission.”
She had put a pinhole camera on the dinner table and while it slowly exposed she remained silent. Others at the table recognized and joined her silence, or decided to “push it away by continuing the celebration.”
She continues: “My choice to physically encapsulate each moment of silence in a frame speaks to its vacuum.”
Her images have me thinking that still photography is the ideal visual medium to demonstrate the invisible idea of silence.
The frames are softly focused to the point of being blurred, like those scenes in a film where someone gets shellshocked and, for an instant, they see only distortion and hear nothing. McCormick’s images seem to freeze the instant — and, yes, I know that’s what still photographs do, freeze an instant in time, but here it seems more obvious, as if McCormick’s corollary intent is explicitly to remind us that that is what still photographs do.
The instants include few people, and are primarily populated by wine bottles, glasses, plates and bowls, all shot from the low angle of the camera on the table. There’s a vaguely disturbing feeling, as if I’m looking at a city that was suddenly abandoned. An unchecked pandemic? The rapture? The uncertainty only amplifies the sense of silence.
Some of the photographs were shot outdoors in Italy and there more people appear, usually seated on chairs on a beach, blurred again but this time as if by the wavering distortion of a hot afternoon. It’s more difficult to imagine the silence, which triggers a tension between the exterior and interior photographs and underscores the silence’s fragility.
We all can choose to break the silence at any time, and we don’t need a dusty old radio to do it. Just speak and it’s done, unless you choose to let it be.
As I look back over McCormick’s previous work I realize that her contemplation of silence may have been preordained. It’s a natural progression from her earlier portraits of dead flowers and their meditation on “life after death” (ah, death, the great silencer), or even her recent portraits of local musicians posing quietly for her camera. If there is not always silence in McCormick’s work, there is always a certain stillness, and if the latter is not essential to the former, it is a least intimately familiar.
Silence continues at the Atrium Gallery, Ben Franklin Place to March 18. More at angelinaphotographs.com.