The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia has been actively building its collection of photography quite over the last 15 years or so. Today it’s one of the largest photo collections in Atlantic Canada, and a significant percentage of the AGNS’s 15,000+ permanent collection.
Built around large selections of works by well known Canadian photographers such as Edward Burtynsky, Thaddeus Holownia, Barbara Astman, and Raymonde Aprile, the AGNS photography collection also features examples of work by noted Nova Scotian, Canadian, and international talents.
Since its invention in the early 19th century, photography has had two main strains: documentary and “artistic.” In the early days, photographers were in two camps: those who took pictures of landscapes and people, keeping as true to what they saw as they possibly could, and those who strove to emulate painting, using multiple techniques to create invented compositions.
Examples of the former were considered simple representations, while the creators of the latter aspired to, though were often denied, the status of “fine art.” For almost 200 years, photographers have followed these two approaches, though it has been decades since photographers were considered mere technicians and photographs simply documents.
Perfect Brightness: Discovery and Escape in Contemporary Photography features works by 24 artists from around the world, though the majority of the artists in the exhibition are Canadian with a solid group of Nova Scotians.
Sarah Fillmore, AGNS chief curator and deputy director, who put together this exhibition, describes the work as representing what has come to be called “straight photography”—photographs that have not been manipulated, digitally or otherwise, but reflect just what the camera “saw” when the artist took the picture.
In this exhibition, the latest in a series of projects she has undertaken highlighting photos from the AGNS permanent collection, all the photographs are of places, rather than people. Many are travel locations that have a sense of being exotic: China, Greece, Italy, France. Others represent places which are considered remote and wild, such as Yosemite Park and Sable Island. Nova Scotia is well represented with Halifax, the South Shore, and especially Cape Breton.
As befits an exhibition dedicated to travel and to the related conceptions of discovery and escape, many of the works in the exhibition have a strong sense of the picturesque, of images, however true to observation they may be, that are, first and foremost, impressive views.
Ruins, a traditional source of picturesque images, appear often in the exhibition. But whether the photographs are of ruined temples (Angkor Wat, the Acropolis), ruined cities (Detroit), ruined fortresses (Halifax) or ruined landscapes (Italy, Cape Breton), the photographs retain a certain beauty, a sense of visual engagement that draws the viewer in.
Another common theme is what, in the tourism industry, are known as “destinations:” Monet’s Garden at Giverny (in a series of photographs by American artist Steve Shore), the Garden of Perfect Brightness in Changchun Yuan, China (a remarkable series by another American photographer, Lois Connor); Sable Island, Nova Scotia (by New Brunswick photographer Thaddeus Holownia).
Halifax, in a selection of series of photographs of buildings by former NSCAD University teacher Alvin Comiter, is also well documented. Cora Cluett’s photographs are taken from pill boxes, looking through the gun apertures, across Halifax harbour to the horizon, while Halifax photographer Tim Brennan’s work shows scenes of the ruined inner city of Detroit, Michigan. The effects of environmental degradation on sites are the subject of Nova Scotia’s Gary Wilson’s photograph of the Sydney Tar Ponds, as are the selection of photographs of quarries by renowned Canadian artist Ed Burtynsky.
Whatever the subject, the works in Perfect Brightness share technical skill and artistic power. The exhibition, which runs until April 29, 2018, is well balanced with works from here, and from across the world, making for an engaging viewing experience, a trip around the world without leaving the confines of the AGNS.