National Gallery of Canada: Photographs explore the borders and boundaries of nations and art

New exhibitions at the National Gallery show how our nation, photography, and the relationship between the two have changed since both were in their infancy.

“In the second half of the 19th century, legions of prospectors left everything behind to set off in search of gold,” read the notes for Gold and Silver: Images and Illusions of the Gold Rush, the first of the three exhibitions in the Canadian Photography Institute galleries. “As the 1850s dawned, the encounter between these new Argonauts and the daguerreotype, a silver-based process only recently invented and the first that was publicly available, was immediate and intense. Forty years later, photography followed the gold rush to the Yukon. The medium underwent a profound transformation in between.”

Unknown Photographer. Portrait of an Unidentified Pair of Prospectors, ferrotype, c. 1860. Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada. Gift from the AMC

Daguerreotypes led to paper negatives which led to further technologies and applications, as seen in the subsequent exhibitions, Frontera: Views of the U.S.-Mexico Border, and Between Friends, a revisit to a book of the same title that was published during the United States’ bicentennial year of 1976.

The threads that run through the exhibitions are “borders, territory and migration,” played out against the technical and social evolution of photography.

It begins with the Gold Rush and “the hopes, dreams and illusions of the pioneers who flooded western and northern North American in the years after 1849 and again in the late 1890s.” During those five decades, photography evolved from “the single image on metal to the reproducible image on glass and on paper.”

The first room is dominated by a large slide show of daguerreotype portraits of rugged prospectors, including a Portrait of an unidentified man with weapons, and Portrait of two unidentified young men drinking liquor. All lined up for “the new fad of ‘having one’s portrait done’,” a privilege “previously reserved for the aristocracy.” A wall panel notes the craze was known as “daguerreotyopmania,” so, evidently, meme-making was also in its infancy.

The next room is filled with smaller daguerrotypes of people and places, all hung in single, straight lines along each wall, set in gold-coloured frames and lit from above, so they glitter and reflect a precious glow upon the floor, like nuggets of history.

Metal-plate image gave way to paper negatives. Canadian geologist George Mercer Dawson’s  photographs from 1887 reveal the rugged and empty landscape as something more, as a mysterious, almost alien landscape with a natural beauty as endless as the horizon.

This awesome grand land, and the epic challenge before humans who would venture into it, is impressively displayed in a wall-to-ceiling print of Eric Hegg’s 1898 photograph “Klondikers ascending to the summit of Chilkoot Pass, Alaska.” A distant, tiny, almost unbroken line of gold-seekers traces up the side of the impassive, snow-covered mountain. How stunning these images must have seemed to people who had seen nothing like them before.

Photography — and, later, video — were much different by 1997, when the first images in the second exhibition, Frontera, were made.

Tijuana — San Diego County III, Frontera Mexico — USA, 2014 Inkjet print, 61 x 73 cm. Collection of the artist. Photo: Pablo Lopez Luz

A cadre of international photographers alludes to the human cost of the contentious border between the U.S. and Mexico, mostly by capturing the threats to humans who would cross through traces of them having done so. Mark Ruwedel’s photos find crushed water bottles and I.D. documents that were left or lost in natural hiding places amid the desert scrub. Adrien Missika’s video of the border is disorientating, as the drone camera tilts and weaves over the land and wall beneath, and gives the viewer a sliver of insight into how destabilizing an attempt to cross that strip of ground must be.

Again, a wall-sized photograph holds the most impact, in Kirsten Luce’s image of a smuggler swimming across the Rio Grande. As seen in Hegg’s Chilkoot Pass scene, it’s a human pitted against a vast, indifferent nature, driven by greed or desperation to riches or despair, even death.

The U.S.-Canada line may not see such obviously dramatic scenes, though “subtle technologies” such as drones and thermal imaging “are monitoring the border,” says Canadian photographer Andreas Rutkauskas.

Andreas Rutkauskas. International Peace Garden, 2012. Inkjet print, 132 x 165 cm. Collection of the artist.

Rutkauskas revisited the idea behind Between Friends, the lavish book of photographs published on America’s 200th birthday to chronicle the border, and the people who lived near both sides of it.

On the surface, it doesn’t look like much is different along the border, especially in the remote areas where it’s little more than a cleared line through deep woods. But much has changed politically and socially between the two nations since 1976, Rutkauskas notes.

“If you show up at a barricaded crossing, there’s somebody waiting for you. They have systems in place, they have sensors embedded in the roadway, they have CCTV cameras, thermal imaging cameras. They see you coming.”

Gold and Silver and Frontera are open to April 2. Between Friends closes Feb. 16.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.