Works by three young female photographers, including two from Ottawa, are now on view in the National Gallery. Ottawa residents Meryl McMaster and Deanna Pizzitelli along with Elisa Julia Gilmour from Toronto are the winners of the first ever PhotoLab 4: New Generation Photography Award.
The work that helped obtain the $10,000 that goes along with the award will be on view in the Canadian Photography Institute’s Photo Lab space on the second floor of the gallery from April 13 to Aug. 19.
The award was established in 2017 to recognize up-and-coming photo-based artists aged 30 and under working in Canada. It was created by CPI in collaboration with Scotiabank. In addition to the cash and the exhibition, the artists have the opportunity to work closely with CPI curators and production staff on site.
The exhibition features photographs, portraits, and video/sound installations that explore issues of gender identity, Indigeneity, and works of a more personal nature such as longing, loss, and self-discovery.
The artists were selected from a long list of 24 that was announced in February by a jury including Robert Bean, a professor of Visual Arts at NSCAD University; Stan Douglas, a past winner of the Scotiabank Photography Award and Elena Navarro, director of the Foto México festival.
ARTSFILE spoke with all three winners at a media event on Wednesday:
Ottawa’s Meryl McMaster is a rising star in Canadian art. Her work is well-known nationally and is now gaining recognition beyond Canada’s borders. A graduate in photography from the Ontario College of Art and Design, she is of Plains Cree and Scottish, English and Dutch ancestry and her work explores questions of identity, representation, perception, myth, memory and the environment.
Her piece in the exhibition is a massive inkjet print called Edge of a Moment (2017). It is a self-portrait of McMaster at a culturally significant place for Indigenous peoples and all Canadians: Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in southern Alberta.
“Basically what I am looking at is the effect colonization has had on our natural environment and our ecosystems.” McMaster says. Within the image all the different elements that I have created that reference animals that have been directly impacted” by environmental change and human actions. So, she says, the buffalo are referenced in the location, the prairie chicken shows up in the footprints that are on the garment she is wearing. And the beaver is symbolized her top hat which is emblematic of the fur trade. All of these creatures also have significance for Plains Cree peoples.
Predominantly McMaster does portraiture and over the last seven years she has been doing a lot of self-portraits.
“All the different themes and stories that I am telling are very personal to who I am,” she explained.
Identity is a complicated question for McMaster.
“I am of mixed heritage. I identify with both sides, my Indigenous roots as well as my European side. When I was young there was always a struggle to be one or the other. Now, as I have grown older, those feelings still come up but in order to move past those difficult feelings, I have to intermix. Sometimes they will be in conflict with one another and other times they will be synergistic within my work. I explore the difficult questions of identity, but also the celebrations of different cultures coming together,” she said.
“For me, reconciliation is something that is on my radar and something I think about and participate in. I think reconciliation has to be a combination of everyone coming together. It can’t only be one-sided. It is a job that the whole country has to face together.”
The attention she is getting is “very encouraging for a young artist. It’s very humbling. I have to take the praise and let it go. There is pressure that comes with recognition. Sometimes I can’t think about that because I have to be in my own head with my own thoughts” to focus on the work.
She intends to use the $10,000 award to go to more site-specific locations across the country that have ancestral importance to her and meaning for the rest of the country.
Originally from Toronto, Deanna Pizzitelli has an Ottawa address these days, but she really moves from place to place.
“When I was in high school in Orillia we had a new art teacher come and she knew all about photography. We actually had a darkroom in the high school that was used for storage. The teacher opened it up and started giving classes and that’s where I started and I just fell in love with it. I used to stay after school and print for several hours.”
That old school process is still with her.
“Now I very much identify as a print and a photographic print maker. I focus on analog processes, some of them are very historical, but primarily the silver gelatin print.”
Working in analog photography has been timely because people have been off-loading darkroom equipment and photographic paper.
“You do run into stuff like that. I also use a mix of new and expired papers.”
The older papers offer a different look to the images and sometimes it can create an interesting tone to a printed image.
“I try to honour the materials that I use. I am big believer in allowing prints to live a life. That’s why I also do variable editions of prints. The idea is to allow a negative to live variable lives.”
She will use a digital camera, but as part of a process that produces a paper print at the end.
Her work tends to feature close looks at people and things. “It’s my immediate reaction” to get closer to her subjects.
“My work is very much about the nature of existence and the incomprehensibility of it and the instability of it. We are never one thing, we are multiple things at different points in time.”
Like McMaster she takes self-portraits, but her images cycle through what she calls “the emotional landscape” it “never commits to one feeling, it touches on many feelings” but it tends to focus on desire, regret, loss and mortality, she added.
In her life, Pizzitelli is a self-professed nomad. Ottawa is her permanent address these days because her parents live here but she spends a lot of time on Vancouver Island where her brother lives and in Bratislava, Slovakia, where her partner lives. And she is often in Toronto.
“One day I’ll get some roots.”
Toronto-based Elisa Julia Gilmour is also interested in portraiture in her film and photographic work. She sees the award she has received as an honour and a validation of her work. “It’s a recognition of past work and an opportunity to show past work.”
But it has a practical side too.
“The big thing for me in the past few months has been a huge desire to create new work and to have the financial support to immerse myself.”
The $10,000 is not enough to do that, she says, but “it’s a damn good start.”
She works in video as well as photography so it can be expensive.
In the exhibition there are two companion pieces, one is a film that reveals the idea of a mother and her child. The other is a collage of images from five films that were projected onto photographic paper and printed.
“I am playing with photography and film and the relationship (between the two). One reveals what the other conceals.” The two pieces “kind of speak to each other,” she says.
“The way that I shoot film is often very photographic. My perspective doesn’t really change. The motion happens within the frame.”
Gilmour also examines identity in her work including her own Corsican heritage in various projects.
“It’s about a sense of culture, of a place and a space, traditions and language too.”