Suggesting wondrous scenes of grand mountains and sylvan groves, the term “landscape photography” does not accurately announce the vision of Canadian artist Robert Bourdeau. “Intimations of immortality,” Wordsworth’s titular phrase, comes closer to summoning the effect of his black and white images. Trees, hills, bushes and streams in such places as Parc de la Gatineau, Lake Superior and Cumbria, England, are presented in luminous detail but leave the viewer less impressed by the surface than by the spirit of a natural world in
which the air—again in the Lake Poet’s words—“is more than silent.”
Included in public and private collections and discussed in artscanada, Bourdeau’s work is not generally known, possibly because in these times respectability travels more slowly than celebrity. However, wider attention may come shortly. Thirty-two of Bourdeau’s prints, taken between 1969 and 1975, have just been published in a momentous limited-edition book and, augmented by a dozen more recent, are on display at the National Film Board’s Photo Gallery in Ottawa from Nov. 30 to Feb. 3. After that, the exhibit will travel across the country.
Born in Kingston, Ontario, in 1931, Bourdeau, a man who expresses strict opinions mildly, lives in Ottawa and works as an architectural technologist with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (“I refuse to do commercial photography”). Self-taught, he has taken pictures since 1960, lugging a large-format view camera that lets him see the image large and whole, and organize the elements he surveys (“I want everything to be revealed”). To print, he uses the contact process, placing the negatives (11 x 14s, 8 x 10s, some 5 x 7s) directly on the paper and exposing them “size as.” (“Once you’ve put it into an enlarger, it’s a secondhand print as far as I’m concerned.”) Waiting for “the right things to happen,” he may spend hours, most often as the sun rises or sets, before releasing the shutter.
Impatient seers bent on more patently heroic or poetic sights might dismiss as insipid some of the landlocked vistas that Bourdeau makes shiver. Birdless, windless branches are buoyant for no apparent reason. Void of accessory sky, trees, like moss, variegate a hillside. Sweeps and folds of English countryside pile up in a single plane and become a kind of firmament. Rocks and cacti in Arizona do not cry out but are a chorus to whatever arcane force holds them in their place.
Bourdeau does not confront the environment, either to be made humble or to seem wise, but is content to see the drama from a distance. In 1972, Ronald Solomon, NFB curator of photography, wrote of him: “Quietly, gently, the photographer releases himself to the subject, for he is the camera and there is no ego, no anger, no surrender, no victory; only total consciousness and presence.” Since then, Solomon has died, but his words appear as a brief introduction to
the 369 copies of the limited edition, all signed by Bourdeau and selling for $375 (launched by Edwards Books and Art in Toronto and only available through them). Lorraine Monk, of the NFB’s Still Photography Division, produced the book, and Toronto printing specialists Herzig Somerville employed an innovative screenless process called Sinetone,
which makes possible an unprecedented kind of fidelity to the original prints. So exacting were their standards that an earlier run of 1,000 was shredded.
Such fuss is not only deserved but demanded by the “soft greys, pearly whites and velvety black” Bourdeau strives for—and achieves in such images as one taken in Algonquin Provincial Park, with trees like bleached fish bones and graceful scratches of grass against a pool of pitch. Setting the aperture as small as possible, Bourdeau makes his camera take in more than eyes on their own could do. Nothing is out of focus. Care is given to arrangement but there is no humanly enforced hierarchy of shapes or forms, and no convenient visual starting points. In concentrated, seamless prospects, every twig has its own significance.
Bourdeau credits his ideal of consummate craftsmanship to the American photographer Minor White with whom he made friends in the late ’50s and
whose intellectual approach to landscape he appreciated without copying. White adhered to the concept of “equivalents” originally formulated by Alfred Stieglitz, who pioneered photography as art in North America. According to it, the photographed image was not the object seen but the equivalent of a frame of mind. Bourdeau, however, de-
cided “to photograph things for what they really are, in the strongest possible manner.” In his pictures, he seeks to make spiritual, not subjective, connections—in his words, a “meditated image.”
So far, Bourdeau has achieved what recognition he has had as a landscape photographer, but he has not ignored more evidently human concerns. Last spring he spent six weeks in Ceylon shooting ancient Buddhist architecture. He has also made what he describes as “very strong portraits” of people, never exhibited because he feels he is not yet ready. Asked about the stature of photography in Canada, he indulges in personal ambition only so far as to hope that his book will help raise regard for photographs as photographs: “What we need is to educate people toward really looking at photographs seriously, reading them, collecting them and living with them.” Of his own work he says, without drama: “I’m not very pushy. If it’s there, people will find out about it.” Without question, it’s there.
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