This entry is about Terrance Houle’s series of photographs in the exhibition “Friend or Foe” at Or Gallery. The show, curated by Darrin J. Martens, features work by Rebecca Belmore and Terrance Houle. The front of the gallery displays large pinhole photographs by Houle that he took at the Calgary Stampede in 2009. (See Figure 3). The Calgary Stampede is a ten-day rodeo festival that revels in all things cowboy. And how can you have cowboys without Indians? A makeshift Indian display set out on a sidewalk in front of The Metropolitan Centre features split-log fencing and a scaled down tipi. Houle, who is of Blood tribe ancestry, stands in a loincloth and commercial moccasins in front of the tipi. Each black and white photograph in this series was actually taken at the same moment, using simultaneous exposures from a number of pinhole cameras placed on-site.
A number of Native/First nations artists work with photographic images that involve the disruptive sight of a semi-traditionally dressed Indian in clearly modern circumstances. Other artists who used some version of this approach are Jason Lujan, Merritt Johnson, Greg Hill, Zig Jackson, James Luna, etc. I think what makes this particular series interesting is the use of the pinhole camera in different locations, all depicting the same moment. If you’re not familiar with how a pinhole camera works, it’s a low-tech process that uses a light-proof box with an aperture and a manual cover. Black and white photographic paper or film is placed on the back wall of the box. No lens is necessary. Pinhole cameras need longer exposure times depending on ambient light, ranging from five seconds to several hours. Obviously, pinhole cameras are not useful for action shots. The first time an image from a pinhole camera was affixed onto paper was in 1850. It is one of the earliest photographic devices, and its precursor, the camera obscura is traceable back to ancient Rome. Houle’s photographs in this exhibition have the classic hallmarks of pinhole photography: crisp, in-focus stationary objects and a slight blur to people (or anything that moves), as well as a noticeable curvature at the periphery.
The most intriguing aspect of this series, and what differentiates it from Houle’s previous photographic work (see Figure 2), is the use of multiple pinhole cameras to capture the same (long) moment. The deliciousness of the idea is one part failure of the Western Cartesian system, one part postmodernism, and one part security camera. To unpack that statement, the Cartesian system assumes that there is a single viewpoint from which a neutral observer can determine the truth with absolute certainty. The spatial distortions that result from this least-mediated photographic technique combined with the use of multiple points of view fly in the face of supposed photographic truth and the “truth” authority of a singular viewpoint. Houle’s method here is symbolic of an overall shift in Western consciousness… away from certainty and absolute truth and toward the recognition of the viewpoints of other cultures – the upside of postmodern thought. (The downside of postmodern thought is the tendency for completely incoherent narrative). As for my “one part security camera,” I perhaps have less ground to stand on with that association, but it’s definitely a thought that occurred to me as I viewed the work in the gallery. The blurriness and distortion of the images resemble stills taken from security camera footage. Usually, we only see those images when a crime has been committed and excerpts from the footage, often from more than one vantage point, are shown to the public in hopes of eliciting information about a crime. There really isn’t a crime, per se, in Houle’s photographs at the Calgary Stampede, unless he has captured a crime against good taste, or a crime against authenticity, the indignity of cultural tourism, or a crime against history. But that’s tourism for you: an uncomfortable mingling of opportunism, appropriation, fantasy, enlightenment, and kitsch.