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Montreal’s Mois de la Photo: Auto Focus

Various venues, Montreal September 5 to October 5, 2013

In 2013, there are many ways to look at photographs: as Instagrammed fragments of our digital personalities; as fibre-printed artifacts of a pre-online era; and much more. For this year’s edition of Montreal’s Mois de la Photo, guest curator Paul Wombell—formerly director of the Photographers’ Gallery in London, UK—decided to organize 25 exhibitions around the idea of the “drone” or the “automated image.” Here, Wombell tells Sophie Lynch why the time seemed right to shed light on artists who acquire images via Google, Craigslist and other mechanized means.

Sophie Lynch: Why did you choose “Drone: The Automated Image” as the theme for this year’s edition of Mois de la Photo?

Paul Wombell: I have used the drone as a metaphor for a wider development in our culture: the automation of image-making. I would say all the works in the festival connect with the theme, but not all make direct reference to the drone.

SL: Can you speak more about that wider cultural shift?

PW: With the integration of the computer into the camera, you can now send images directly to other platforms that are connected to other devices. So the camera is developing its own life with other forms of technology. Such networks might well be for personal use, and can also be for business or for military purposes, like surveillance. You could say that the camera functions more like a drone today than it ever has before.

SL: One of the projects I find particularly intriguing this year is Donovan Wylie’s photographs of the Maze prison in process of demolition. Can you tell our readers more about that work?

PW: In 2002 and 2003, Donovan Wylie was granted official and unlimited access to the Maze prison and started an extensive project photographing the different layers of imprisonment: the cells, the various modes of fencing, and the perimeter walls.

When demolition of the prison began in 2007, he returned to photograph that. Though Wylie thought, at the time, that he was the only one with a camera, he realized some weeks later that another camera had recorded the demolition of the prison.

The final image in Wylie’s Mois de la Photo exhibition was not taken by him. Some weeks later, searching Google Earth, he found an image of the Maze prison at the moment when the last section of the wall came down. Google Earth was watching Donovan Wylie photographing the Maze.

Sophie Lynch: The term “drone” may, for many, evoke the idea of robots working from a distance, somehow removed from our everyday lives. One of the things I find interesting about this Mois de la Photo is you’ve included artists who explore ubiquitous things like webcams and social media. Cheryl Sourkes works with Facebook albums and WassinkLundgren with automated photo booths. Was it important for you to show works that explore how the idea of a drone can be something we encounter in our day-to-day lives?

PW: The photo booth was the first automated photographic machine to be used in the public realm, and it was the first camera designed to be used without human involvement in taking the photograph.

You can think of webcams and social media like Facebook as the photo booths of the Internet. The once private space of the home is now available on the web for all to view. The bedroom replaces the street as the place to be seen and promenade.

SL: How do you understand the impact of the drone on how we might perceive or understand images in the future?

PW: The drone and the technology of automated image-making is remaking human imagination, and for me it raises a question: What does it mean to be human in the future?

I think that all the work in this event engages in some way with this question.

Some Mois de la Photo Highlights

Jon Rafman at Maison de la culture Marie-Uguay and along Boulevard Monk
Over the past few years, Canadian artist Jon Rafman has won international recognition for his large prints generated from Google Street View images. Sometimes magical, sometimes disturbing, the images he selects from the site challenge assumptions about global and local realities. Interestingly, in addition to providing a selection of these images at a gallery, Mois de la Photo is reinserting Rafman’s found images back into the public sphere with the installation of 14 backlit panels between Monk metro and rue St-Patrick. A Rafman-led podcast is also available for the public works.

Penelope Umbrico at Darling Foundry
Trained in part at the Ontario College of Art, and now based in the United States, Penelope Umbrico isn’t afraid of online research. This much is evinced in Sunset Portraits from 12,193,606 Flickr Sunsets on 4/25/13 (2013) and TVs From Craigslist (2009–12), which are pretty much what they sound like—large, gridded arrays of some of the most commonly photographed scenes and objects on the web today. Even more interesting, perhaps, when considered side by side is the way flashes of light operate in both these sets of images. Umbrico is skilled at revealing the formal similarities between informal images. Find out more on September 13 at 7 p.m. when Umbrico participates in a related panel on the uncanny at Montréal, Arts Interculturels.

Michel Campeau at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal
In the late 2000s, Montreal photographer Michel Campeau became internationally renowned for his documentary series on analog darkrooms. Capturing the strange—and disappearing—architecture and interior design of these places, and evoking their crystalline residues and chemical odors, the series struck a nerve with figures ranging from UK photographer Martin Parr to Centre Pompidou photo director Quentin Bajac. His latest work on view at the MBAM focuses on a related topic—analog cameras, specifically ones drawn from the collection of local collector Bruce Anderson.

Trevor Paglen at SBC Galerie d’art contemporain
“For me, seeing the drone in the 21st century is a little bit like Turner seeing the train in the 19th century.” So says American artist Trevor Paglen, who has used techniques like telescope-based photography to image secret or photo-prohibited US military sites, as well as international satellites. With a practice that blurs the boundaries between art, science and journalism (he also describes himself as a “cultural geographer”), Paglen’s work is expansive, unexpected and socially relevant.

Tomoko Sawada at Montréal, Arts Interculturels
As a university student late 1990s, Japan’s Tomoko Sawada took the costume-driven self-portraiture genre popularized by Cindy Sherman and pushed it in a more automated direction, using Kobe photo booths to document more than 400 different personae. The results have a surprising, as well as systematic, quality. Find out more in a guided tour led by Paul Wombell on September 8 at 4 p.m.

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