A career survey shares Pelkey’s shots of a pre-digital world

Art | by Gregory Beatty

“Court, Cobourg”, 2005, printed large format 2016, Inkjet on bonded aluminum, 101.6 × 165 cm

Brenda Francis Pelkey: A Retrospective
Mackenzie Gallery

Until Sept. 29

This is the second time I’ve reviewed an exhibition by Canadian photographer Brenda Pelkey. The first time was in 1991 when the Dunlop Gallery presented “…the great effect of the imagination on the world”.

Pelkey was living in Saskatoon then. She subsequently received her masters from the University of Saskatchewan in 1994, and taught in the Art and Art History Department until 2003. Then she took a position at the University of Windsor, where she remains today.

As the title says, this is a retrospective of work she’s produced over her 30-year career. It’s curated by Catharine Maston, and happy to say, includes photographs from the Dunlop show, along with seven other suites of images, starting with Foundry (1987-89) and ending with Site (2013).

Foundry consists of nine black-and-white photographs of workers and equipment at the Sutherland Steel Factory in Saskatoon. Pelkey learned of the foundry through a non-art job, and spent two years on the project.

This was the pre-digital era, remember, so Pelkey was working with an old-style camera and film. Back then, photographs were still relatively costly and time-consuming to produce, and couldn’t be easily manipulated (unlike digital imagery today), so they carried a fair bit of authority.

Postmodernism was in full swing in the 1980s, and photographers were keen to interrogate that authority and related issues of representation. In Foundry, Pelkey over-exposed the images in natural light, and also printed the film with the outside edges showing to discourage viewers from reading them as definitive representations of “reality”.

As well, the portrait subjects stare directly out at the viewer to refute the power of what feminist theory calls the “gaze”.

Again, in our digital age where photos are plentiful (with our smart phones, we take an estimated 1.2 trillion a year), and selfies are a wildly popular form of self-expression, the issues Pelkey was grappling with might seem quaint. But they were important then, and they still inform our understanding of photography today.

Like Foundry, “…the great effect of the imagination on the world” is in the documentary style, although the eight colour photographs are much more whimsical than the Sutherland Steel images. The initial spark was Pelkey’s interest in landscape architecture, which saw her seek out Saskatoon homeowners who had gone to great lengths to decorate their yards.

Pink flamingos and garden gnomes are well represented, but the displays go far beyond that, with sculpted topiary, a scale model Eiffel Tower, Jesus grotto, mini-Bavarian village and even a functioning model train layout.

Pelkey ramps up the drama by photographing these often surreal scenes with spotlights at night. The owner is usually in the picture, which is fitting since the elaborate tableaux serve as a poignant expression of their family history and identity.

While Pelkey worked with single prints in Foundry, “… the great effect…” consist of three to five shot panoramas. The panoramas are fairly seamless, but there are noticeable gaps. That was another popular strategy photographers used to subvert the idea of authority and remind viewers that what they were seeing was a constructed image/narrative.

From there, Pelkey produced several series grounded in landscape. Most of that work was done on the prairies, and in scale, colour, composition and atmosphere many of the images have a painterly feel to them.

Pelkey returned to the built environment with Spaces of Transformation (2004-08). If you’re a fan of the late Montreal photographer Lynne Cohen and her stark shots of men’s clubs, power plants, CEO offices, morgues where autopsies are done and other places of mystery and intrigue, you’ll enjoy this series.

Like Cohen’s images, Spaces of Transformation consists of interior shots of various locales that have a mystique about them such as a hospital birthing room, a strip club stage, a quirky bar called The Cave with décor right out of The Flintstones, and three courtrooms in Cobourg, Peterborough and Windsor, ON.

Again like Cohen, Pelkey photographed these places with no people present. That leaves us free to concentrate on the spaces: how they’re laid out, what types of equipment and furniture they have, and whatnot.

Not all viewer responses will be the same, obviously. Someone who has gone through a criminal trial, for instance, will look at the courtroom photos differently than someone who has never had their legal fate in the hands of a judge and/or jury.

Similarly, a woman who has given birth (and to a lesser extent the partner if they were there) will have a different take on a maternity room than people who have never gone through that experience (outside of being born themselves, of course).

Architecture remains the focus in Pelkey’s most recent series Site, which documents the construction of a new Aquatic & Training Centre in Windsor. The focus here is on structural elements such as duct work, wiring and drains that, when the building was ready to open, would be mostly hidden from the public.

Like the first exhibition by Pelkey I saw back in 1991, Brenda Francis Pelkey: A Retrospective is “great”. Make sure you see it, too.