During the current pandemic, the sorts of group events that I photographed in the late 1980s would be cancelled or held online in a modified form. Isolation, especially of seniors, has happened a lot, as the elbow-to-elbow closeness and warmth of the women in my photographs would not be safe.
My panoramic photographs of women’s groups were inspired by my roots in rural Saskatchewan. Connecting around a common purpose, these groups discussed issues, raised money, and donated labour to get jobs done. The gatherings added meaning and social fun to the lives of women who were often otherwise isolated on a farm. My interest in documenting women’s activities coincided with feminist ideas surging strongly in that era. It also came from a personal experience.
In 1977, the year I graduated high school, my mother died unexpectedly after a minor operation. In the years that followed, I returned from university for eight summers to work in the park at Loon Lake, with a crew of about a dozen men. After work, I went home to my dad on the farm. I was missing my mother, and, more generally, femininity, softness, and the presence of women in my life. Through photography, I wanted to honour women’s lives and contributions and to explore how women got together, benefiting from each other’s company and support.
Seeing these photographs more than thirty years later is poignant. I wonder where these older women are now. Their expectant gazes, their pride, their connections endear them to me. Together, they create what we all need—a social network. I also recall my younger self—my energy, the long hours of darkroom work, my eagerness and shyness contesting as I approached people to make these photos, and my fascination with the contrast of a cozy quilt guild and a more regimented veterans’ group. I am now aware how I have taken the larger networks for granted. Looking back at these in-person group times, something inside me cheers that the isolation of the pandemic is almost over.
-Frances Robson, Artist