Spruce Meadows and the Ghost of Eadweard Muybridge

Only after returning from a trip to Alberta and looking at the long line of photos of equestrian events from Spruce Meadows did it occur to me that the ghost of Eadwear Muybridge haunts all who follow in this task. No matter how artistic the enterprise, trying to stop a horse in motion is always discursively linked to “Muybridge’s Horse,” as Rob Winger’s poem / ode / biography is called. It is, however, very annoying to see constant references to Muybridge (google “Muybridge horse” for a quarter-million hits) always leaping to the conclusion that he invented or led to motion pictures. While there is some truth in this, it is the stopping of motion that is truly remarkable in Muybridge’s equestrian enterprise. By developing shutter mechanisms that could stop motion faster than the eye could perceive it, Muybridge could “objectivize” the camera as a more powerful recorder of “truth” than our own eyes.

I don’t often work with super fast shutter speeds, but they require something different from the photographer. More anticipation of the moving subject, different focusing systems (it forced me to start using the “AI Servo” setting – for once!), a sense that you’re taking a picture of something that you’re never entirely “seeing” until you see the film / file / preview later. At Spruce Meadows, the thunder of horse hooves, fluid motions over the jumps, the clacks and crashes of the bars seem at odds with the still photographs that are stripped of sound and movement. The stopping of motion opens the field of view to horses’ veins, riders’ faces, and the contemplation of impossibly close spatial relations between the bars and the hooves. Stopping the motion is an inauthentic intrusion upon something never intended to be stopped. It is also an aesthetic desire that is both descended from Muybridge’s extreme externalization (the horse tripped the shutters set on strings) and a marked rejection of it through an urge to “capture” the moment, to frame the romance of equestrianism in all of its splendour. In part it is art v. science, but it is also a matter of embodying the photographer to frame the view, or separating the process of image creation entirely from human touch and letting the horse decide what is to be taken. After 3 hours of moderate frustration at trying to capture anything, I’m not sure if the horses were there for me or if I was there for the sake of the horses.

No good shots of Ian Miller, but did see his final ride to win the North American. These other shots will have to do.

Plebeians like me don’t get to take pictures from the middle of the ring. But capturing the “court” photographer in action struck me as pretty funny. Even funnier is the little box in the middle of the ring where the sponsors, ground owners, and other aristocrats get to sit.


Another conference, another photographic outing to forget everything about the conference. This time a week in Fredericton, New Brunswick ended with a trip to New River Beach on the Bay of Fundy. Low tides came late in the evening while we were there. When we saw the ocean for the first time, my daughter told me that her wish had come true. When I asked her what she’d wished for, she said “to see the ocean!” When I asked when she’d made that wish, she responded, “this morning” – probably while we were packing things up to go to the ocean. Her brother’s new wish to visit Africa might be a little more difficult to fulfill.

Low Tide, New River Beach, Bay of Fundy

Welcome to Pine Point

Welcome to Pine Point is a remarkable NFB digital project by Michael Simons and Paul Shoebridge (of the creative team The Goggles, known for their work with Adbusters among other projects).

According to the “about” page, this project started off as a book about the “death of photo albums as a way to house memory.”  Instead, they produced a haunting interactive documentary that reflects on place, memory, longing, loss, the stories we tell, and the formats and matrials we use to tell them.

I wish that in some ways it could have said more … I wanted more analytical “stuff” somewhere in there (links to footnote essays?) … but I also realized in watching this just how important the silences (or the minimal nature of the words on the screen) were to the overall impact of the narrative.  This is a story told in collages of visual imagery, combining photographs, moving images, maps, primary documents, kitschy objects — all in a way that affirms their respective materialities rather than denies them.  In the journey to Pine Point there are shades of Burtynsky, a critical awareness of “seeing like a state,” and some very sharp observations.

I found this tremendously moving – perhaps in no small part because these are my high school years too, although my small town is still standing, unlike Pine Point, which is a place destroyed and yet ultimately redeemed.

In my photography and public history course there is one class where I ask everyone to bring in a “photo album” to discuss.  Over time, more students are increasingly showing up with no album in hand; when everything is in digital format, “album” is a folder on a desktop or a stream in flickr.  I bring my own ‘baby book’ with my mother’s writing carefully documenting every morsel I ate, every step I took, a photo for every first day of school; it feels so much more tangible as a multidimensional aide-memoire.

It’s easy to lament this passing; it’s much harder to think about the new ways that memory and place interact in digital spaces, in new types of albums, in producing new stories out of old pictures.  The visual landscapes are layered with evocative aural landscapes (thank you Besnard Lakes!), and much more could be said about how image, text, and sound inter-relate in this project.

I recently quoted from Thomas King’s Massey Lectures in a presentation given at my alma mater, and it seems apt to repeat it here: “The truth about stories is that’s all we are.”  King’s purpose was rather different, but Welcome to Pine Point reaffirms the general sentiment in unexpected, but welcome, ways.

Alma Mater

I lugged the camera to my Alma Mater, Augustana during a bitterly cold week in March. It didn’t see much use, but I did venture out to take a few pictures in between speaking engagements. Founded in 1910 as Camrose Lutheran College, I was part of the first class to graduate as Augustana University College, and this year marks their centenary even though the institution became a part of the University of Alberta in 2004.

Augustana is a pretty special place in terms of my own memories and personal history. I’ve been back a few times, but spending a full day and a half on campus made a huge difference this time in stirring up a lot of emotions. Strangely, it’s because of the changes that have happened on campus that I feel almost closer to the place now than I have at any other time since I left. Perhaps the bonds of nostalgia have grown with age, but it is also in no small part due to how the campus has rediscovered its own place in both global and local terms. Reading Roger Epp’s reflections on Augustana in his We Are All Treaty People brought home a lot of issues that I’d been struggling with in terms of thinking about the role of the university and the distinctive education I received at Augustana.

Being back at this moment, during the centenary, and being a part of Roger’s last year as Dean, was a tremendous experience which I am incredibly grateful for.

Here, Martin Luther walks between Old Main and the brand new library building.

It isn’t working

I’m travelling this week with my four-year old daughter. First big trip together, just the two of us, and no Mom to chaperone us. Before we left, she asked if we could print out a picture of Mom and her together in case she got lonely. This was a technique we had used in her preschool so that if she was sad, she would go find the picture and wear it around her neck to remind her of Mom. Of course, this time she also had a picture printed up of her so that Mom wouldn’t forget her, and would remember that her daughter loved her (her words, more or less).

The first night away went well until the next morning. Around 6:30, I heard some sobbing in her room and went to see what was the matter. She was clutching the picture of Mom and crying. Between the tears and the sobs, she finally tells me, “It’s not working!”

I’ve been telling that story to a few people over the past few days, and of course they find it endearing and we chuckle at the way she expressed her sadness at missing mom. But the more I think about it, the more I think that my daughter has it right – we need to think about photographs more in terms of whether or not they “work”, and start to consider how they sometimes don’t work at all. Especially when it comes to thorny questions of memory.

In some work on memory and photography, especially those that rely heavily on photoelicitation techniques, there is a temptation to reduce photographs to the status of tools that can extract the “real” memories that have be dormant or forgotten for long periods of time. Despite claims of triangulation between the image, the viewer, and the memory expressed, the relationship often privileges the ultimate expression of certain memories over understanding the exchanges between the other parts.

I’m not sure exactly how photographs “work”, but I’m glad my daughter asked that question because that’s what mattered in a very material way to her emotions and feelings at the time.

Tonight, at the end of our journey, I asked her how the trip went. She told me that the first day was a little tough, but the rest of the days were GREAT. Maybe the photograph started to work after all.

Freeze tag …

Elizabeth posted a great ad on her blog, so I thought I’d follow up with one on my own. Although this commercial is riff off of freeze tag, there are interesting parallels to other things we’ve looked at in the course as well – stopping time, cameras and the ‘pursuit’ or hunting, Sontag’s violence of the image, etc.

Lost Identities

The 5702f readings this week featured a few references to “Lost Identities” ; here’s some panels from that project that were part of a display at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, which is located in the foothills of southern Alberta (close to the Piikani and Kanai Nations, but not on reserve land). I particularly find some of the text interesting in what it assumes that photographs can do. Some of these photographs come from the Ernest Brown collection, which is a large part of my current book project.

From blog only pictures
From blog only pictures
From blog only pictures

Ladies & Escorts

On a long drive with the family to visit a friend’s cottage, we drove through a small town that had a tavern with this sign. I saw it … thought about it all weekend … and on the drive back to Ottawa I just had to stop and take a picture of it. In Canadian Social History I lecture on taverns as gendered spaces, of a time when women were excluded from them, except, occasionally, through separate doors and separate areas that were designated for “Ladies & Escorts.” There’s something about how signs narrate past realities that is quite haunting. Seeing spaces of the past is one thing, but reading the very discourse of exclusion in such public spaces signals something even more real to me than investigating the interior space itself. The materiality of the signage, the letters, the exposed bulbs all combine to mark off the dull brick building as a site of something more than a run-down bar. We read the sign differently now (indeed, “escorts” takes on a very different meaning in the classifieds and craig’s list). Maybe I’ll recycle this image into my lecture this year … maybe there might even be a student or two from the town. In its own way, I guess I see (or hope) that the sign embodies what Marlene Creates calls “hidden histories and invisible stories“.

From blog only pictures