Photography lets us pretend that we can stop time, that "capturing the moment" is as simple as pressing a button or tapping a touch screen -- cause and effect, point and shoot.
Except time passes whether someone takes a picture or not, and the camera isn't such a reliable witness anyway. Deep down, everybody knows this. The tension between what photography seems to promise -- a chance to hold onto the past and to understand it -- and the incomplete, imperfect record that it actually provides is of chief concern for contemporary photo-based artists, and it provides the backdrop for Upshot, which opened at Platform Centre earlier this month.
Concerned with the passage of time and how we grapple with it through images, the exhibition's themes are familiar, but each of its three Montreal-based artists offers new ways to consider them. Beautifully curated by Anastasia Hare and Natalia Lebedinskaia of the AGSM in Brandon, Upshot spans still-life photography, experimental abstraction, performance video, text-based pieces and even oil painting, all while remaining surprisingly cohesive.
Fiona Annis revisits photography's experimental early days, employing unpredictable 19th-century techniques to produce ethereal abstractions and near-abstractions. In Bridge Meditations, black-and-white snapshots of clouds dissolve into mottled scrapes and billows around the edges. Blurring lines between abstraction, representation, art and chemistry, it's unclear where the "picture" ends and the swirling artifacts of Annis's wet plate collodion process begin. Enlargements of unexposed and accidentally exposed plates -- depthless black monochromes and a pale "horizon" -- forgo recognizable imagery entirely while managing to evoke the unfathomable timespans of deep space.
"Cause and effect" is more bluntly presented -- and more dramatically called into question -- in Kaleidoscope, one of three looped videos by Lorna Bauer. The camera rests on a pile of mirror shards in a winter landscape, the fragments periodically shuddering and shattering further from unseen impacts. Eventually Bauer steps into one of the cracked reflections, and we see the rifle raised to her shoulder, trained on the pile (and, it appears, at us). Even once we understand what we're looking at and even as we anticipate them, the actual moments of impact pass too quickly to fully register, while the shifting mirror shards confound our sense of perspective.
Working in both photography and painting, Laura Findlay contemplates what images can and cannot tell us. Based on elements drawn from found snapshots, her paintings seem to hint at actions that either just took place or are just about to, at subjects standing just outside the frame. A Portrait of my Grandparents is in fact a series of 10 coolly composed gelatin silver still lifes. The quiet vignettes -- a perfume bottle on a nightstand, an antique radio next to a potted fern -- again invoke the presence of unseen "subjects," and again we're forced to acknowledge just how little the images actually reveal -- how much is lost to time, distance and circumstance.
Annis, Bauer and Findlay each demonstrate a reserved, analytical sensibility, but the work's austere, even melancholy surfaces sparkle with flashes of wit, humour, tenderness and wonder. It's a genuine pleasure to see as subtle parallels and emerge throughout the formally diverse exhibition -- a testament to the Lebedinskaia and Hare's astute, sensitive curating.
Upshot travels to the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba in Brandon this summer.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.