Review: Three exhibitions put local photography front and centre

Detail from Sarah Fuller's photograph, Panorama Old Tree 2017 on view at the Ottawa Art Gallery.

Three exhibitions of photography show the Ottawa area as it once was, as it has become and, finally, how a few “emerging” photographers from the city are seeing the larger world.

Sarah Fuller’s exhibition, at the Ottawa Art Gallery annex in city hall (to Sept. 24), is titled “And perhaps in me someone very old still hears the living sound of wood.” It shares a visual lyricism and theme with Barkskins, the recent, epic novel by American writer Annie Proulx.

“A large sign stood in the landscape of endless bushes and scrub growth,” Proulx told The New Yorker about a visit to upper Michigan. “It read something like this: ‘In this place once stood the finest white pine forest in the world.’ There was not a single white pine in sight. I was deeply moved, and that sign and that place have stayed with me ever since.”

Fuller, an MFA candidate at the University of Ottawa, “meditates” on white pines harvested from the Ottawa Valley to build masts for the British navy, “a tangible manifestation of a colonial ideology that laid the foundation of Canada as a nation.”

Old Growth in a new Field by Sarah Fuller.

Her meditation includes large photographs that, together, paint the remaining forest in the valley as a transcendental place, shrouded with mist and dappled with sunlight. The photos have titles such as Up Through The Water and Under the Sun and I Dreamed I Saw a Giant. They were created with a pinhole camera built of “old growth pine timber extracted from the bottom of the Ottawa River.”

There are video and audio installations, which are intriguing in concept but were — during my visit, at least — undermined by technical issues. One features “the interior sounds of a tree” (captured with a condenser microphone), and while I could hear a faint, staccato ticking and perhaps a low hum, without headphones I couldn’t determine what was rude interference from the HVAC system at city hall and what wasn’t. Curiously, the other installation, Performance with White Pine, did offer headphones, but I could hear nothing through them, not even the tranquil sounds of the scene in the wall-sized video before me. Perhaps that was the intent?

Technical frustrations aside, Fuller’s installations and photographs capture the glory of the forests —  a panorama of a lone white pine standing above other trees in the distance is especially majestic. I did feel that, yes, perhaps in me someone very old does still hear the living sound of wood.

The side of Ottawa captured by Tony Fouhse could hardly be more different and “meditation” is not the first word it brings to mind. Suburb, at Exposure Gallery (1255 Wellington West, above Thyme & Again, to Oct. 3), is a set of street scenes from Barrhaven. As with Fouhse’s earlier projects, including his User portraits of addicts in Lowertown, and Power, his dispassionate take of the federal presence in the city, every viewer will bring their own bias to Suburb.

The bedraggled people in User could be seen as dangerous junkies or sympathetic victims, depending on the viewer’s capacity for compassion. The buildings and officials in Power could be awesome and reassuring, or ominous and omnipotent, as filtered through the viewer’s personal experience and ideology.

Workers in a Parking Lot, part of Tony Fouhse’s Suburb series.

With Suburb, I see in the photographs a sameness, a blandness, all cookie-cutter housing and big-box parking lots, a faceless concession to a fabricated ideal of what a neighbourhood should be. But I live downtown — as, for that matter, does Fouhse, and that surely influences both how he framed the photos and how they may be seen by anyone who lives closer to the centre of the city. Meanwhile, people in Barrhaven, or in any of the selfsame identical subdivisions around any North American city, may see home, with all of the warm feelings that make home, well, home.

Fouhse’s photography, as always, forces viewers to look and then choose, and in that choice reveal something about themselves.

Finally, the Karsh-Masson Gallery, also in city hall, has a group exhibition titled Continuum (not to be confused with Kontinuum, the multi-media show set inside the Lyon LRT station). Past winners of the Karsh Award, the city’s premier biennial prize for photography, were each asked to select “a local Ottawa artist working with photography as a medium, a relative newcomer to stand in the spotlight.”

The selected photographers include Joi T. Arcand, AM Dumouchel, Leslie Hossack, Olivia Johnston, Julia Martin, Meryl McMaster and Ruth Steinberg and the exhibition of their work is curated by Melissa Rombout.

The chosen photographers should be familiar to anyone who follows the city’s art photography scene, and it may be difficult to think of some of them as “a relative newcomer.” Meryl McMaster, for example, had a solo show at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian a couple of years ago, and this year has been in a group show at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and now has a solo show at the Musée des beaux arts in Montreal.

Regardless of their newbie cred, the seven photographers are creating compelling work. I wasn’t able to see the exhibition before filing this survey but, based on past experience, I’m sublimely confident it’ll be worth seeing, an illuminating view of the world, seen from the talent of Ottawa. Continuum continues to Oct. 22.

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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.