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 interesting.

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.