Now. Images of present time

Now that the photograph has ceded its monopoly over the depiction of factual history to visual forms more expedient in relaying the shocks of current events, what “experience” of the present are we brought to through contemporary photography? From local dramas to international news, from miscellaneous trivia to historical records, how do contemporary photographic practices interpret what is going on around us? Taking note of the historical legacy of photojournalism and its spin-offs in the field of contemporary artistic practice, the 8th presentation of Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal intends to take stock of the
most innovative artistic approaches to the representation of events.

Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal is the only contemporary photography biennale held in Canada. For its 8th presentation, Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal is launching a revamped and unified concept: all activities will henceforth be organized around a single theme. This year, we look at the photography of current events from the perspective of the theme, “NOW. Images of Present Time.” The event will present more than 20 free individual and thematic exhibitions featuring works by many local, national and international artists (USA, Europe, Israel, China) at various venues throughout Greater Montreal.

History photography?

Sometimes one image hides another. Indeed some images of current events refer us to historical representations and, at times, do so at the expense of the reality before the lens. Some press photographs owe their reputations not so much to the exceptional nature of the scenes they record, but primarily to the famous historical images that these scenes evoke, mimic or reconstruct. At that point, the danger of confusing current events with past events becomes quite real. A number of contemporary photographers are busy exposing the rhetorical structures involved in such developments. One of the key questions raised by this 8th presentation of Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal can be framed as follows: can we today still make history by means of photography? There are many subtle and even contradictory answers to this question. It’s as if one had to, all at once, weigh the militant heroism of a certain type of “field photojournalism,” recall the shortcuts taken by the information industry, critique the temptation to employ sensationalism and shelve the very concept of history.

War is one of the subjects favoured by photojournalism. It is impossible to mention Verdun, Iwo Jima or Saigon without calling to mind a newspaper or magazine photo that purportedly exemplifies or sums up the conflict. Such images, which bring an entire epoch down to a single exemplary moment, could be called image-monuments. But how can war be shown differently? We have recently witnessed the massive influx of reporters back into the theatre of operations in Iraq. While some have hailed this as a rehabilitation of the photographer/witness, others have expressed reservations about the journalists’ freedom. Photographs have been taken and sent back to us. And with them has come the news that some members of the profession have been cut down by “friendly fire.” Conditions are now such that we once more feel authorized to turn photographers into “heroes.” What images will spring to mind when we hear the word “Baghdad” in the future? Some places have to go without images, while others— Auschwitz, for example—overwhelm their iconic potential.

Some of the exhibitions presented within the framework of the 8th Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal suggest alternatives to the requisite quest for the scoop or the sensationalist image. Photographers are opposing the visual monoculture of the mass media’s representation of contemporary phenomena—like terrorism, for example—with a diversity of readings. As if they had to counter what some behavioural specialists call “compassion fatigue,” namely, the absence of emotional response to the misfortunes of others—“too much horror destroys horror!”—some artists prefer to show images in which the violence is latent, waiting to pounce. Suspense and anticipation of the worst are, then, the elements that lend an edge to the photographs we have brought together for this exhibition. Sometimes the rhetorical devices of photojournalism—out-of-focus and/or grainy images, rough framing, close-ups, etc.—are the things that artists study in order to better gauge the extent of the violence in contemporary images.

This year’s Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal will focus on the dialectic of authenticity and imprecision, of truth and vagueness, that is unabashedly exploited by the most recent forms of news reporting— particularly video surveillance. Visual archives can also be “edited” in specific ways within contemporary approaches to art-making. To make archives relevant to the present is to comment on the present itself. History, for that matter, is always written in the present.

Finally, Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal decided that it would provide a venue for a major historical exhibition, Rise of the Picture Press, bearing specifically on the ways in which photography has transformed the illustrated news. Mounted by the International Center of Photography in New York, this exhibition, which brings together the finest pictures from the illustrated press of the 1920s and 1930s, will supply an essential key to a better understanding of the relationships between photography, history and current events. This exhibition will be particularly appreciated by all those interested in the ways
in which press images have continued to be prime reference points for a number of the artists featured in our biennale. In the same spirit, we are pleased to include the prestigious World Press Photo 2003 exhibition, which pays tribute to the most striking press photographs of the past year. We feel that it is important to show the kind of press photographs produced and celebrated by today’s photojournalists.


Vincent Lavoie