Born in Kingston, Ontario, in 1950, Brenda Francis Pelkey moved to Saskatchewan in 1980, where she became a fixture in the photographic community through her involvement with The Photographers Gallery and BlackFlash. Pelkey was among the vanguard of Canadian photographers who abandoned the traditional gaze of documentary photography to embrace a plethora of subjective and personal approaches. Over the course of the late 1980s and 1990s, she was inspired by the work of Jeff Wall and Donigan Cumming to develop an innovative kind of social cartography, which would explore the multiple possibilities of female subjectivity in public and private spaces. Her lifetime contributions were recently recognized with a nationally touring retrospective and publication, organized by the Art Gallery of Windsor and hosted at the MacKenzie Art Gallery from 23 June to 29 September 2018.
Pelkey’s major bodies of work have grown out of a desire to abandon the supposed objectivity of documentary photography in favour of images infused with rich social and psychological complexity. Emphasizing the constructed nature of reality, Pelkey shot her subjects at night using movie lights and printed her images in multiple panels on Cibachrome. Pelkey’s exploration of the capacity of images to implicitly register layers of memory and narrative culminated in the series Haunts (2000–1).1 Returning to Havre Boucher, Nova Scotia, in 2000, a location where she had lived as a young woman, she scouted locations by the sea and in the forest to shoot long–exposure nighttime images lit with movie lights. Entering the era of digital photography, single images were then scanned, flipped, and repeated to create the final compositions. Forest III is the third and final version of a photograph composed of a single image of dead conifer flipped back–to–back in a frieze of eight panels. The photographs are accompanied by an audio track that is composed of a recording of leaves rustling in the wind superimposed over a track of an audience murmuring; the combined tracks are played both forward and backwards, mirroring the arrangement of photographs. The soundtrack introduces an irrational element since there are no leaves on the bare branches of the trees. As Ingrid Jenkner astutely notes, this “psychic landscape” plays with cinematic conventions, creating a space of “melodrama” that suggests impending or just past events.”2 Printing at human scale, Pelkey constructs a space that expresses the imagination, not of the represented individuals, but of the viewing subject. At the same time, Pelkey makes visible with conceptual elegance and economy the act of construction and its implication within ideological frameworks.
Timothy Long, Head Curator
1 Ingrid Jenkner, “Haunts,” in Territories: Brenda Francis Pelkey (London, UK, and Windsor, ON: Black Dog Publishing and Art Gallery of Windsor, 2016), 110-113.
2 Ibid, 113.