The best part of visiting contemporary art exhibitions is the discovery of a previously unknown major talent.
Such was the case upon catching the new show by the School for the Photographic Arts: Ottawa at Exposure Gallery. Each of the photographs on display is from a student or teacher at SPAO who received special recognition during the past decade from Applied Arts magazine. So, consider the show something akin to SPAO’s greatest hits since 2002.
One particular, devilishly ambiguous, slightly creepy image jumped out at me. It is titled “Debbie and Dolly” by Vera Saltzman, a former student of SPAO now living in Fort Qu’Appelle, Sask. I was unfamiliar with Saltzman’s work. I soon rectified that.
Saltzman’s image shows a mature woman holding a child’s doll. What is going on in this picture? Is Dolly some cherished item from Debbie’s childhood? Is Debbie a little off her rocker and still playing with dolls? Is the photographer just playing with our head?
Clearly, this photo called for some research. Google came to the rescue and I checked out Saltzman’s website and encountered many examples of her fine work, including some absolutely fabulous faux-antique images of Ottawa architecture and some haunting pictures of hardscrabble prairie architecture.
“Debbie and Dolly” is part of a series Saltzman created called Sue and Winnie, in which several adult women are posed with a doll from their own childhood. Here is how Saltzman describes the series on her website:
“Sigmund Freud believed the uncanny to be something which leads us back to what is old and familiar but is at the same time “unheimlich” or uncomfortable. This series explores the idea of the uncanny as it manifests in a longing for youth, and a recognition of mortality.
“Driven by the nostalgia of our lost childhood, many of us have kept our dolls: sitting on a shelf, buried in a box in a closet, locked in an attic. In these portraits, women over 40 are posed with their childhood dolls. Each doll serves as an entry point into the history of our life which is both strange and familiar. In my photographic survey I consider the rediscovery of these doll-mementos, which lead these women to recall a past of comfort and security. It’s hard to imagine a time and place when we would have played with these dolls. As young girls we spent hours with them. Our friend and confident, they kept us safe at bedtime, while comforting us during stressful times. Those days are gone forever, yet eternally present as evidenced by the doll: an assurance of a past.”
Saltzman’s work is not the only show-stopper in the Exposure show, the first in a series of exhibitions at this gallery to be mounted by SPAO during the coming year. It’s just that I was already familiar with the work of such gifted photographers in the show as Leslie Hossack, Olivia Johnston, Tony Fouhse, and Colin Crowell.
The show is titled SPAO: APPLIED and it continues at Exposure Gallery, 1255 Wellington St. W. atop Thyme & Again, until April 29.