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Review

Facing History: Portraits from Vancouver

By Karen Love

November 4, 2013

Review By Neil Sutherland

FACING HISTORY: Portraits from Vancouver grew out of an exhibition at North Vancouver’s Presentation House Gallery, curated by the book’s editor, Karen Love. In her introductory essay, Love explains that Facing History “cannot be a portrait of Vancouver, not in the comprehensive way we imagine such a thing. Rather it is a visual cacophony of possibilities, a fulsome beginning hinting variously at the specifics of each unique individual and the complex world of histories and environments which we (as readers) think might have influenced his or her world” (13). 

What makes up this particular “cacophony”? The front cover displays one-half of Jin-Me Yoon’s diptych portraying the child Hanum Yoon-Henderson; the back cover, John Helcermanas’s close-up photograph of boxer Elio lus; in between, photos, sketches, sculptures, and paintings of dozens of visitors or residents of Vancouver between the years 1950 and 2001. Foncie Pulice’s “Electric” camera captured some as they walked along Granville shopping or on a date. Newspaper photographers Bill Cunningham, Colin Price, Brian Kent, and Glenn Baglo caught, respectively, a rueful young man in handcuffs, Terry Fox on the Marathon of Hope, Mr. Peanut filing his nomination papers, and Pierre Trudeau autographing a photo of himself for a youngster. In one intriguing news photograph, Jim Ryan captured Premier W.A.C. Bennett in the midst of a crowd of children. One is bemused to see clearly in the background the men’s entrance to a beer parlour. (The text does not explain, but surely not, “Okay, kids, the drinks are on me!”) 

More formality characterizes other portraits. Fred Douglas, Chick Rice, Diane Evans, and Robert Minden posed or found their subjects in studios or at such outdoor locations as a backyard, Exhibition Park, or the beach at White Rock. In Marian Penner Bancroft’s installations, Allyson Clay’s portrait performances, and such multimedia compositions as JefF Wall’s light boxes and Colette Whiten’s embroidery embedded in glass beads, photographers moved beyond the boundaries of traditional portraits or action shots. Roy Kiyooka makes three appearances: as a photographer (especially of a series on a street festival), as the subject of a portrait by Fred Douglas, and as the subject of an essay by poet Robin Blaser. 

A commentary accompanies some portraits. Jerry Pethick explains his flash portrait “Simulation – Self-Portrait with Abdomen of an Ant.” Paul Wong describes the origin and fate of three frames taken from a series of anti-racism television spots. The best essays, such as Sarah Milroy’s on Fred Douglas’s photograph of Doris Shadbolt or Sandra Semchuk’s on her composite “Ukrainians Vote to go Their Own Way” provide a modest commentary on, or extension of, the picture. Others perhaps strive too hard for effect. Of Alvin Armstrong’s television still photograph, “An Aspect of Crime,” Colin Browne suggests it “might just be the kind of Ur-photograph that lined the metaphysical nest of photo-conceptualism in this querulous, uncertain, prolific place”(68). 

In a concluding essay entitled “Visible and Unknowable,” art critic Bob Sherrin reflects on some of the theoretical issues surrounding portraiture and the identity of subjects. He explains, for example, that from “the early Renaissance onward, the portrait is expected both to create an acceptably accurate likeness and to reveal its subject’s inner life” (142). Further, photographic portraits “are the images of someone not present – the mark therefore of absence, as true of a portrait in a gallery as of the photo of a loved one tucked in a traveller’s notebook” (146). Moreover, “it is within time, and therefore inescapably within memory … that photographic portraits draw us. And what do we sketch within them but some form of ourselves, individual and collective entwined, momentary and impressive” (147).Thus, “when given the time and the place, we will choose to contemplate a portrait from – not of -Vancouver and therein we will individually create identities for the city we collectively call home” (ibid.). 

Despite their complex arguments, neither Love’s nor Sherrin’s essay lays out a coherent enough overarching theme, or set of specific claims, against which to evaluate Facing History. On the other hand, Doris Shadbolt’s comment, appearing on the fly, gets it exactly right. As she says, the book “comes across less as an additive assemblage of individually arresting images than as a loosely woven visual fabric evocative in its collective understatedness.” 

Some books only reveal their treasures – such as Bennett with the kids outside a pub or the page displaying a pair of photos, one of a sterile high school classroom and the other of a crowd of enthusiastic teens at an Elvis Presley concert – through repeated skimming and browsing. In the best sense of these terms, Facing History is such a book. Skim and browse.