PHOTOGRAPHY

A sad study in still photography

LELDE MUEHLENBACHS September 24 1984
PHOTOGRAPHY

A sad study in still photography

LELDE MUEHLENBACHS September 24 1984

A sad study in still photography

PHOTOGRAPHY

The Canadian opening Photography of the Contemporary exhibition in Edmonton last week should have been cause for celebration. Selected from the massive 150,000-work collection of the National Film Board’s (NFB) still photography division, the 128 works on display include some of the best examples of Canadian photography over the past 25 years. But a satirical protest outside the Edmonton Art Gallery diverted attention away from the show’s artistic merits. On opening night

angry local photographers pinned up copies of works from the show and invited patrons to mutilate them with felt pens, crayons and X-acto knives. Calling themselves the Ad Hoc Committee for the Destruction of Canadian Photography, the protesters were lampooning the outgoing Liberal government’s decision to transfer the still photography division from the NFB to the Corporate Services Branch of National Museums on Oct. 1. In its new incarnation the still photography division will become primarily an archival service with a severely limited budget for expanding its collection.

Faced with such prospects, Edmonton photographer Douglas Curran helped to organize the protest as an appropriate response to what he calls the “total ignorance and arrogance of the government toward the still photography division.” Indeed, when the government

made the decision last May as part of its National Film and Video Policy, it ignored the recommendation of the 1982 Applebaum-Hébert federal cultural review committee that the division should expand and occupy a fifth national museum. Instead, the government ordered the transfer of the collection and the division’s 12 employees to the Corporate Services Branch while $400,000 of its funds for its annual $780,000 budget stay with the financially troubled NFB. The rest will cover the salaries of trans-

ferred employees. Said Sandra MacDonald, policy adviser to former communications minister Francis Fox. “When a still photography division becomes integrated with the National Museums, logically it would have some element of its budget and undertake acquisitions.”

There are few indications that the National Museums of Canada will be able to fund its new responsibility adequately. Said Dann Michols, assistant secretary-general for the corporation: “We are taking every effort to integrate the still photography division into our present operation. We hope that subsequent saving will meet the commitment now held by the division to photographers and the exhibiting community. However, because we are severely strapped for program dollars ourselves, the short-term scope will be less than it is currently.”

The still photography division’s bud-

get represented only 1.3 per cent of the NFB’s $60-million annual expenditures. But even with those limited resources, the division has managed to forge new and exciting directions for Canadian photography since its formation in 1939. It has given assignment expenses to photographers, bought their work and organized as many as 100 travelling shows a year. Said Curran: “Without it there would be no national venue for us. It was the first place that gave me a sense of credibility, and bought my work on its artistic merits alone.”

The show, which is tentatively scheduled to travel to Halifax after it closes in Edmonton Oct. 28, may become a visual memorial for the division. From the serenity of Freeman Patterson’s landscape through the cerebral satire of Arnaud Maggs’s oversized portraits to the harrowing realism of Hiro Miyamatsu’s documentary photo on Minimata disease, the show demonstrates the innovation and diversity of the NFB’s contribution to the evolution of still photography in Canada. Said Martha Langford, executive producer of the still photography division: “What we were doing was continuously helping the growth of photography in Canada.” That growth has now been halted indefinitely— in midexposure.

LELDE MUEHLENBACHS