For 30 years, Winnipeg photographer Bruce Kirton has been an anthropologist and archivist in other people's homes. With the aid of a large-format camera and an array of tungsten lights, he produces stunningly detailed documents of everyday domestic interiors. The images serve as indirect portraits of the friends, acquaintances, and consenting strangers who inhabit them.
Kirton's eight-by-10-inch film negatives capture something like 100 times the visual data of a typical smartphone camera. Still, for all the exacting detail this allows, Kirton is a documentarian only to a point. His work acknowledges that the act of photographing a subject transforms it, as does the act of observation itself.
Studio lights illuminate every corner, brushing away customary shadows and bringing hidden features to the foreground. The photographs reveal more than the casual observer -- or likely the homeowners themselves -- would ever reasonably perceive, and in the gallery we interpret and "inhabit" the spaces pictured far differently than we might in real life. Always a subtext of Kirton's photography, the medium's complicated relationship with the truth is a primary concern in his current exhibition at Martha Street Studio.
For Identities: Lost and Found, Kirton trained his attention on a particular class of domestic space, the tops of bedroom dressers and the things that accumulate there. The assorted possessions, whether artfully arranged, haphazardly laid out, or amassed in teetering piles, come across like set-pieces in a dollhouse theatre. In some sense, we imagine the daily lives and interior dramas of the owners, identified by first name in each work's title, playing out on these private stages.
Printed at 1.5 by 1.2 metres each and overwhelming the narrow gallery, the images take on the character of 19th-century landscape paintings. We look across plunging vistas of stacked paperbacks, through the dense foliage of potted plants, towards open expanses of bedroom wall reflected in vanity mirrors. A miniature Eiffel Tower and a popsicle-stick Golden Gate Bridge brush elbows with fish tanks, sticks of deodorant, loose change, and varied figurines and tchotchkes, setting up uncanny juxtapositions of subject and scale.
Where Romantic landscapes were meant to inspire awe and wonder, however, Kirton's images invite scrutiny, even judgment. Drawn in by their clarity and scale, we imagine them offering unobstructed (if not uncluttered) views into the psyches of their unseen subjects. We're encouraged to draw conclusions from Orleanna's hanging crucifix and stockpile of pantry staples, from the blocked-out faces of a snapshot tucked into the frame of Langdon's mirror.
Just as the Hudson River School painters and the Group of Seven afterwards were selling a particular, idealized image of the North American "frontier" that still warrants examination, however, we should be cautious about the insights Kirton proffers. Though it goes unannounced, about half of the images are total fabrications, fictionalized tableaus based around characters from novels by Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood and others.
A satisfying twist in any case, what that piece of information does or doesn't change for our understanding of the work is important here. Identities: Lost and Found piques a kind of voyeuristic interest, promising unmitigated access into other's private lives. Instead, Kirton casts raking light on the processes by which we interpret what we see, carefully documenting the facts and fictions that we construct in every act of looking.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.