As is now well known, when the Canadian government originally announced its intention to abandon and effectively destroy the activities and collection of the Stills division of the National Film Board, the ensuing protest of the photographic community was sufficient to cause the authorities to reconsider.
In a decade of photographic art activity, Sorel Cohen has produced a body of work which displays an uncommonly clear logic of development and consistency, concentrated in only a few separate project series, and culminating in the presentation of the current exhibition. During this same decade, feminist art (as a category, purpose and orientation) has become accepted, and accepted in the same way that feminism (in all its variety) itself has been – not as a fulfilled program, but as an irrevocable dimension of any discussion of social relations.
It shows great wit that the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, a young institution descendant of the National Film Board and its documentary tradition, should sponsor the exhibition of a photographer whose work stands apart from and questions that tradition. Serving as a challenge, a critique and a correction, Donigan Cumming’s Reality and Motive in Documentary Photography appears at a time of epistemological anxiety when representations are viewed as the arbitrary tokens and worthless baubles of communicative exchange.
Over the last two decades, both installation and contemporary photography were empowered by a suspicion of the cult of the marketable art object — specifically, the commodity fetish. Yet, while historically contiguous, and often sharing a common audience, the strategies of the two modes are completely different.
The project began when Donigan Cumming asked at the local grocery store if he could accompany the delivery boys as they delivered their beer and groceries. (In display, the first image is usually of the empty storeroom with the sections marked off for inventory.) Together, they arrived at the customer’s home, where the photographer met the occupants and made a proposal: he wished to photograph them and offered, in return, to provide a selection of “technically proficient snapshots” for them to keep.
The development of artists often resembles the motion of nautical tacking: establishing direction, reversing, adjusting, correcting, repeating paths and avoiding dangers. In such ways artists chart courses which come to represent their unique concerns, investigations and discoveries within the regions they navigate.
The complex historical interaction between photography and architectural practice is reduced to the still moment of photographic exposure. The fastidious details of photo-historical connoisseurship which accompanied the images provided the signs of scholarship, but it is an exhibition of little thought.
The sources of that movement in photography called “social landscape”, with which Tom Gibson, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand and others are associated, have not been adequately articulated. The fine photography tradition of social documentary, which as Gibson says, “goes back to Atget”, has been chronicled; yet the tradition alone does not account for this seemingly unpromising collection of snapshot images of the unremarkable, routine daily life with which these photographers would appear to be concerned.
Compared to the great 19th century salons and academy shows, with acres of paintings hung edge-to- edge and from floor to ceiling, contemporary group shows resemble several one-man shows sharing a room. The works of the single artist are grouped together and then each artist is separated from the others by wide margins of white wall or doorways. Each figure is granted a local domain of attention and protected from noisy neighbours.