YURI DOJC (pronounced "Deutsch") is one of Canada's most successful commercial photographers, and his intimate relationship with the appetites of advertising informs almost every plate of the handsomely printed Marble Woman (Firefly, 92 pages, $29.95 cloth). Presented as idealized statuary, each female nude in this collection shows skin that has neither pore nor freckle, and body parts (save for heads and one upwardly thrusting mons Veneris) that have no surface hair. The strong lighting and somewhat grainy paper suggest instead that the ladies have been dusted with white talcum, and thus issue no unpleasant odours either. Viewers will find no kinky eroticism here, & la Helmut Newton or Madonna, but instead an adolescent humour: toy animals marching under a breast, inflatable sharks looming overhead, little putti perched on shoulders, masks held coyly over the crotch.
A few images capture the formal geometry of the female body, which has always captivated male artists, and two photographs present surprising, arresting torsions. One striking shot shows an Oriental woman's head from above, with what appear to be sequins on the lower lip approximating drops of blood. Perhaps the most disturbing and symptomatic image poses a reclining, milk-white nude draped in plastic; though otherwise innocuous, this image implies that a woman is a package, something manipulated and sold. Despite the adroit lighting and darkroom techniques that Djoc's photographs exhibit, these depersonalized, soulless images lack both deep humanity and the frisson of fantasy. Throw a veil across the breasts and stick a flask of Giorgio in one hand, and you have a ready-made perfume ad for Mirabella. More than anything, Yuri Dojc's valentine to himself proclaims, by its very publication, the influence he holds within the world of commercial advertising.
Frame of Mind: Viewpoints on Photography in Contemporary Canadian Art (Walter Phillips Gallery/Banff Centre for the Arts, 134 pages, $20 paper) is as different from Yuri Dojc's slick, sanitized whimsy as a bed of nails is creme caramel. Edited by Daina Augaitis, Frame of Mind contains I I essays written by critics and photographers (or both - the line is thin) who struggle to define the "context" for images either seemingly straightforward or intentionally recondite. Despite some variety of approach and style among the essays, the following sentence from Cheryl Simon's "Domestic Subversion: Susan McEachern's 'On Living at Home"' approximates the accessibility that these authors advance/hide: "Rather, it is the thematic that follows, the similar and dissimilar representations of domestic 'harmony' that McEachern has set in relative isolation from the world, that deconstructs the image and expands on the analysis of the text in an effort to destabilize this primary referent." Elsewhere, James D. Campbell, in his "In the Empire of the Gaze: Interiority and Abjection in Shelagh Alexander's Compilation Photographs," suggests that
In her photomontages, Alexander proposes a deconstructive reading of "woman" as social construction and, as a necessary consequence of her own methodologies, implies an emergence of the repressed, la femme - woman - who becomes une - one - and thus gives birth to her radical alterity.
Struggling as many of these writers do to provide profound significance for images that themselves contend with the imposed intellectual urgencies of postmodernism, they seem to find it necessary to resort to self-insulating jargon that also enervates the physical impact - the pleasure - of the photograph's primary sensual vitality. Here is Abigail Solomon-Godeau, from her "Questions of Complicity: Mark Lewis' 'She Will Ride Her Skirt'":
In other words, by taking extreme risks with a highly charged set of mass-media signifiers - high-gloss imagery and texts that traffic with pornography and are themselves intensely fetishistic - Lewis abandons the high road of Brechtian distanciation to explore instead the more complex and ambiguous terrain of what Althusser called the interpellation of subjects.
The eclectic photographs reprinted here are not that difficult to feel and know, and essays such as these corroborate the verdict of Adam Gopnik, the New Yorker's art critic: the art audience is dead, and has been usurped by a coterie of curators and critics who have arrogated art for their own rites of pedagogical ownership. Gopnik refers to "post-audience art"; we might conclude that Augaitis's anthology of criticism offers post-readership writing.
After brush-clearing my way through Frame of Mind, turning to Courtney Milne's Prairie Skies (Fifth House, 128 pages, $34.95 cloth) was like opening a Hallmark greeting card. No creative grappling with hidden bourgeois agendas here; no verbal obfuscation, either. Under a picture of snowladen boughs, we read: "The crispness of the air and the clear open space give us prairie sky at its finest hour." Milne, a Saskatchewan photographer with international credits, follows up his Prairie Light and Prairie Dreams with a portfolio of sky shots: sunsets, reflections in water, cloud formations, tree limbs and barns and buffaloes silhouetted against variously coloured skies. A triumph of technique over imagination informs this collection, with no photograph approaching the resonance of Ansel Adams's "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico"; but perhaps the unsurprising nature of Milne's clean, honest pictures may be attributed to his Prairie topography and to the frank realism of colour over the conceptual intimations of black-and-white photography.
J. Philip McAleer's A Pictorial History of St. Paul's Anglican Church, Halifax, Nova Scotia (Technical University of Nova Scotia Resource Centre Publications, 160 pages, $24.95 paper) is one of the finest works of architectural history I have ever encountered, even though the building studied is modest in scale. Framed in Boston and erected in Halifax in 1750, St. Paul's Anglican may be the oldest Protestant Church in Canada; it has, of course, undergone many renovations, and McAleer follows each minuscule alteration with a Holmesian mania for detail, even annotating all the changes in paint colour that he can document. His remarkable thorough analysis of every aspect of the church's historical life is organized around 57 black-and-white photographs, and this substantial contribution to Canadian architectural and cultural history will command shelf life long after other picture-books vanish from the remainder tables.
Carl Berm's Historic Fort York (Natural Heritage, 192 pages, $29.95 paper) seeks a broader audience of history buffs than McAleer's specialized monograph. With 77 archival photographs (a few plates in colour) and text more generalized in its historical focus, Benn's book surveys the creation, usage, development, and current situation of a military site originally built (in 1793) to ward off American invasion (it fell in the War of 1812) and now surviving as a tourist museum surrounded by Toronto's rush-hourchoked Gardiner Expressway. Benn is most interested in the military life that swirled in and around Fort York, and his descriptive prose is engaging.
Finally, two reprints. Joan Murray's little book of art appreciation, The Best of the Group of Seven (McClelland "' Stewart, 96 pages, $14.99 paper), was originally published in 1984 by the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, which Murray curated at the time. It contains a brief essay, with black-and-white photographs of the leading artists, and 54 somewhat washed-out colour plates. To each plate is appended a terse caption: Murray's comments are sometimes clumsy ("Frank Johnston resembled a turn-of-the-century atmospheric painter more than did other members of the Group"), sometimes banal ("The wind that blows through Lismer's studio is the wind of inspiration"), sometimes vexatious ("Lawren Harris's clouds sometimes recall white orchids as they float in the sky over Lake Superior country"), and seldom rise above their well-intentioned didacticism.
Far more interesting to read is Peter Pitseolak and Dorothy Harley Eber's People from Our Side: A Life Story with Photographs and Oral Biography (McGill-Queen's University Press, 163 pages, $39.95 cloth, $19.95 paper). This is an unattractive publication, with small, grey, poorly contrasted black-and-white snapshots and a text printed and laid out like office memoranda. But the life story of the first Native Baffin Island photographer, Peter Pitseolak (b. 1902), a biography pieced together from early diary entries and later interviews and first published in 1975, offers the force of primary human experience - not ex post facto measurement, analysis, theory, or fancy. Pitseolak describes the hardships and simple pleasures of traditional Native life that were fast fading, but also sustained his people in ways that the importation of southern, urban values irrevocably altered. "Mapaluk, Eenutsiak and their helpers had bought a boat. Mapaluk told everyone that the boat smelled of white man. But it turned out that the smell was from tar."