Check out work by the New Generation photography award winners
In a top hat adorned with feathers and a coat emblazoned with prairie chicken tracks, Meryl McMaster stands at the edge of a cliff, looking back over her shoulder with a steely gaze that seems intended to warn the rest of humanity.
The dramatic, large-scale image, part landscape and part self-portrait, is entitled Edge of a Moment, and it takes up one wall of a new exhibit at the National Gallery’s Canadian Photography Institute that showcases the work of three outstanding young Canadian photographic artists.
McMaster, along with Toronto’s Elisa Julia Gilmour and Ottawa-based Deanna Pizzitelli, are the first winners of the inaugural New Generation photography award, an honour that recognizes emerging photo-based artists aged 30 and under working in Canada. The juried award, created last year by the CPI with founding partner Scotiabank, comes with a $10,000 prize for each winner and exhibit space at the country’s most prestigious art institution.
The works included in the exhibit explore themes of identity, motherhood and the emotional mysteries of the human condition.
Here’s more on each artist and their practice:
At the precipice
Born and raised in Ottawa, Meryl McMaster specializes in self-portraits that are set outdoors, often in culturally significant locations, featuring elaborate, hand-crafted costumes that are rich with symbolism drawn from her ancestral background. Her father is Plains Cree, while her mother is of European-Canadian heritage.
Edge of a Moment was shot in Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in Southern Alberta, an ancient hunting ground that carries great significance for the Plains Cree. Among the symbols in the inkjet image are the top hat, which references colonization, the red ribbons that illustrate McMaster’s dual bloodline and the tracks of the now-extinct prairie chicken, serving as a reminder of the cost of environmental degradation.
“It’s a bit of a message as we’re going into the future to think about our continued impact on the environment and the land if we keep going from the mindset of colonization and greed,” McMaster said in an interview. “The title, Edge of a Moment, is this feeling I have that we’re always on the edge of the moment, that we can change something if we change our actions.”
That’s the challenge, but there’s also a cautionary aspect: If we continue on the current path, we’ll plunge over the precipice, meeting the same fate as the buffalo who perished at the site.
“If we go any further, we will meet our doom,” warns the otherwise soft-spoken artist.
Deanna Pizzitelli describes herself as a traveller, but her work is hardly typical of travel photography. Her contribution to the exhibit is a series of cerebral images entitled Koža, which is the Slovak word for skin. The photos were made between 2015 and 2017, a time when she didn’t stay still for long, roaming through Europe, Canada and Central America with her Slovakian partner.
“It’s funny, I always talk about my work in a place, but you can never really identify the place,” she says. “It’s this idea that the travel is important because it gets me into these experiences but the places themselves — they’re meaningful to me but it’s not crucial to identify them in the work.”
Pizzitelli, who is currently residing with her parents in Ottawa, says she is also inspired by the “incomprehensibility of human experience … It’s this idea that I don’t understand the experience of being alive, but I’m trying to grasp the feelings that being alive involve,” she says, comparing the fleeting nature of her images to a movie trailer.
“You go through different feelings, and you don’t commit to one emotion. But over the printing of it, it becomes sort of a meditation on desire and uncertainty and regret and all these different things,” she says.
Integral to her practice is the print-making process, an art form Pizzitelli became obsessed with while in high school in Orillia. She would regularly stay in the darkroom until 9 p.m., or until the custodians kicked her out.
“I’m an analog photographer and a big part of what I do is around the print and experimenting with the print,” she says. She loves to source boxes of expired photo paper and give it new life. “I’m really interested in the idea of making sure materials get to live their lives. The idea of a box of photo paper going into the garbage is bothersome to me. It’s meant to do something.”
Inspired by Victorian portraiture, Toronto’s Elisa Julia Gilmour set out to deconstruct the historical process of photographing children in the studio. In Victorian times, the child was held in place by her mother, who would be shrouded with a veil or hidden behind a curtain or chair.
In Gilmour’s work, Over Their Own, which began as a 16-mm film, it’s the child who is shrouded in a white veil, while the mother is revealed. A companion series of images was made with stills from the film, turned into black-and-white negatives and projected on photographic paper.
“This collapse of the film stills renders motion as blurry so the veiled child becomes this ghostly figure, and the mother, gazing into the camera, becomes this clear figure,” Gilmour said. “I guess what I was trying to explore were the different ways of revealing the mother.”
At an age when many young women become aware of their biological clock, Gilmour is also contemplating the changing role of women in society. “I feel as though motherhood is very interesting territory to explore because it really does show the various roles that one woman plays, as one individual and as a collaborator with a child,” she said.
PhotoLab 4: New Generation Photography Award Exhibition
When: until Aug. 19, Artist talks on May 5
Where: Canadian Photography Institute, National Gallery of Canada
Admission: Regular gallery admission applies. For details, go to gallery.ca