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Review – Peter MacCallum

Concrete Industries by Peter MacCallum at the Architecture 2 Gallery at the
University of Manitoba.
January 11 – February 9, 2007

By Richard Holden

In an essay written to accompany an earlier iteration of this exhibition, Peter
MacCallum said that, “…For me, documentary photography is above all a means
of representing specific places. Concrete Industries, which began in 1998, is a
work in progress that aims to document typical work-sites related to the most
common modern construction technology, reinforced concrete….”.1 Given the
location of the present show, a gallery sited within an institution of architectural
pedagogy and my knowledge of some of MacCallum’s earlier work, notably
Spadina Ave: A Photohistory and the 1988 exhibition, Industrial Zone, what I
expected was more of the same. The version of Concrete Industries presented
at the University of Manitoba, however, turns out to be more subtle and far more

When I enter the gallery I am struck immediately by a powerful sense of déja
vu, a feeling that somehow I’ve slipped back thirty years to the heyday of
Modernism’s love affair with the photograph. Appropriately perhaps, given the
location, the installation is Miesian in its simplicity; fourteen, by contemporary
standards small, meticulously printed, white over-matted and black-framed,
monochrome photographs spaced evenly around three, white walls of the gallery.
To the left, by the door is a single sheet of A4 paper giving the photographer’s
name, the title of the show and a list of the works on display. There is nothing
else: no indication as to why these examples of this particular industry have been
selected, no explanation of the industry’s historical, social, cultural or economic
relevance, not even a hint as to the significance of these structures as examples
of 20th Century, industrial architecture. The implication is that what matters in
this exhibit is the art: the photographs, rather than the photographed.

This impression is reinforced by the images themselves. Apart from the fact that
fourteen images seem far too few to satisfactorily illuminate such a large subject,
a good number are not particularly satisfying as individual documents either.
This is not to say that they are not good photographs, however: far from it. For
anyone who appreciates the extraordinarily subtle tonalities of a fine silver print,
these examples are remarkably beautiful. The problem is that in a number of
cases, those same, wonderfully modulated tonalities serve their subject rather
less than well.

In the late 1970’s, that high priest of late Modernism, John Szarkowski, described
photographs as being either “mirrors” or “windows”, revealing either the world
or the character of the photographer. While a somewhat simplistic notion, this
can be a useful metaphor; a metaphor by which measure, a photograph deemed
to be “documentary” should fall solidly on the “window” side of the equation. In
other words, as a carrier of information, the photograph should as far as possible,
strive for transparency. For a viewer, the balance between form, content and
context must be so finely balanced as to reduce the photographic presence of
the image to near invisibility.

For a photographer of MacCallum’s obvious skill, this should be an easy task
and for the most part, in the interior views he gets it right. Oddly though, in the
outdoor images, he does not. All six photographs of exteriors have been made
from a relatively low viewpoint that looks either directly into or more often, up to
the buildings. In a manner reminiscent of Charles Sheeler’s 1927 photographs of
Ford’s River Rouge car assembly plant, this serves both to isolate the structures
and monumentalize them. Tight cropping and careful composition further
emphasize these qualities. Even in those instances where MacCallum has
distanced his camera from the plant structures, as in the image, Looking West
Across Quarry, St. Mary’s Cement, Bowmanville, Ontario. 1999, he fully occupies
the foreground with the plant’s peripheral quarry. He almost entirely excludes
any visual clues as to the larger social or environmental context in which the
site exists. More than point of view, however, it is print quality that most clearly
shows that art and not documentation is the priority. The tonalities in all these
prints are pushed high and stretched far out along the characteristic curve,
giving everything the appearance of floating in a brilliant, luminous light. This
style of printing – and it is a style – is a form of visual rhetoric. It is beautiful, at
times almost irresistibly seductive and occasionally, as in these exterior views,
uncomfortably at odds with its subject.

The above concerns are less true for the photographs of interiors, their only
shortcomings being the sometime sacrifice of content for composition and their
relatively small size. Control Booth for Primary Crusher, Dufferin Aggregates
Quarry, Acton, Ontario, 2003 and Lunch Room in Old Shop, St. Mary’s Cement,
St. Mary’s Ontario, 2003 in particular would both benefit from being larger. At
only fourteen to fifteen inches square, much of the information they contain is
too small to access easily. This is unfortunate because both images contain
the most direct and personal human referents in the show; hand-written signs
and notes, lunch boxes, coffee cups, discarded newspapers and a ceiling
papered with Sunshine girls. The predictable and doubtless contrived effect
of these indications of an otherwise absent human presence is superficially
one of abandonment and loss; a sense compounded by the evidence of age
and physical deterioration of the buildings in some of the other images. This
is too simplistic an interpretation, though. The obvious care and passion that
have been devoted to the creation of these images make them less a nostalgic
lament than an ambiguous mix of tribute and regret: a tribute to a way of thinking
and a practice that for all its negative effects, will always be significant to our
history and memory and regret that it cannot go on, that the kind of exploitative
philosophy that this industry represents is ultimately self annihilating.

This is a complex exhibit full of possibility. While the fourteen prints selected
have clearly been excised from a larger body of work that may well offer a
satisfactory documentation of southern Ontario concrete industries, as presented
here, the inescapable impression is of a pastiche, a pseudo documentary
fragment in which an established form has been subjected to a Mannerist dose of
virtuosity and style.