definition are isolates: set off and defined by water, separated from the big land masses
that we call mainlands. An island, then, is a lesser-land; its remoteness and smallness
may be part of its allure.
"Isola," Linda Ward Selbies new photographic essay
at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, is a reflection on the islands of Sicily, where she went
in 1995 specifically to visit the rich collection of Greek temple sites and the three
great volcanoes of Mount Etna, Stromboli, and Vulcano.
"It was a spiritual quest," she says. "I focused on
volcanoes and temple sites, although these photographs dont describe such sites.
They evolved out of being there."
Sicily has many associations. Its territory encompasses the big
triangular island at the southernmost tip of Italys boot as well as a number of
smaller island groups including the Aeolians, the Egadis, Pantelleria, and the Pelagians.
It has been settled in turn by the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines,
the Arabs, and the Normans, all leaving their traces on this rugged landscape located
between Africa and Europe.
It is part of Italys intractable "Southern problem":
those Italian regions south of Rome whose poverty, crime rates and
"backwardness" are so irritating to the more prosperous north. Sicily is
familiar even to those whove never thought about it as the home of the criminal Mafia.
These secret societies, corruptive now to the very fabric of the country, actually began
as defensive brotherhoods against the oppression of wealthy landlords who had impoverished
the peasantry over centuries.
Linda Ward Selbie knows about these aspects of Sicily, but her eye
was drawn less to its sociological conditions than to the details -- the isolates -- that
reveal something of the island solitudes, both in landscapes and in the urban center. All
of these large (101.6 by 152.4 cm) prints are unpeopled. The only figures in these calmly
desolate scenes are carved from stone, fashioned from plaster or papier mache, painted on
walls or affixed to cemetery monuments as memento mori. Humanity is seen at one remove.
"In this series I have chosen not to photograph people,"
Ward Selbie says. "I cant say why; it is how it evolved. I seem to have been
getting away from the figure. In the past Ive always focused on the social and
anthropological stage -- the panorama around us. I feel an obligation to record it.
"Stylistically, I think there have been no major changes in my
work over the years. But I have been moving slightly from the human figure to the
monolithic and static. "
This shift of her photographic gaze perhaps began with "Legna:
The Goddess at the Crossroads, Ward Selbies 1995 exhibition of
nineteenth century churchyard angels. Whereas in "Circus Fortuna" (1990) and
"Circus Vesta" (1992), she examined men and women and their relationships in
societal constructs, the "Legna" montages were cool, almost reverential
portraits of these "steadfast sentinels," as she called them.
In the Sicily prints, Ward Selbie has gone further into the
animation of inanimate things. The American critic James Agee wrote more than sixty years
ago of the photographers ability to "perceive, record, and communicate, in full
unaltered power, the peculiar kinds of poetic vitality which blaze in every real
Ward Selbie finds vitality in contrasts of texture and pattern:
rough, abrasive rock forms, striated by eons of elemental wear,. ancient walls incised
with fading Grecian letters in the pockmarked stone. Woven straw baskets hang above a
brightly painted wooden sign depicting St. George on his horse, stomping an iguana-sized
A pensive papier-maché puppet hangs by its strings against a
cracked wall. Another one, with her grave, wellworn features still beautifully
anticipatory, stands in waiting before a bright blue door, slightly ajar. What is behind
On the eponymous volcanic isle of Vulcano, a modern statue of a
crouching, hulking giant is carved of ash-grey stone that almost merges with the bleak
sweep of arid rocks behind him.
A vaguely humanoid rock projection needed only its painted eyes to
gain the startling liveliness of a mask. This impromptu folk sculpture, with its
identification (or perhaps artists signature) of "Micio Macio," looms from
a chunky rock facade like a weatherbeaten old god of the islands.
A few years ago, Ward Selbie began making small assemblages from
found objects. "I worked with birchbark, wood and rock. Making these, I began to see
more abstractions in the landscape than Id noticed before. I saw colours and
patterns in small details and then on a grand scale, in the elements of the land. When you
focus on grains of wood and the layerings of stone, thats what you see:
She is also still drawn to cemeteries, discovering in them poignant
incongruities. In "Isola," a cemetery angel has a red plastic Santa crooked in
its stony arm. In another image, framed so that there is no sense of scale or perspective,
a photograph of a dead infant, affixed to its slate-blue tombstone, floats in space like
an oversized medallion. A sculptured half-torso of a child, streaked and splotched by
weather, gazes down through hollow eyes, while an adjacent spray of chiseled bas-relief
flowers is intertwined with the shriveled remains of organic blooms.
Even the catacombs of Palermo receive Ward Selbies calm,
engaged regard. In her picture, four mummified corpses lie stacked in open wooden tiers
like mortuary bunk beds; one of them, jaws parted in a disturbing grin, has a leathery paw
grasping the side of its tomb as if to rise. Above this apparition, nailed to a slat,
hangs a small inscribed metal heart. The colours are muted, the semi-skeletal bodies
fragile in their crumbling garments and shrunken skins. The quietude of the scene
transforms potential horror into a soft reminder that old bones keep their secrets and
guard a kind of silent life.
It is Ward Selbies hope that images such as the Capuchin
Convent mummies or the two tombstone photographs of dead babies will not strike viewers as
voyeuristic or morbid. "I think that the same representations in black and white
might, for some psychological reason, seem too stark, too real. For me, of
course, having lived with them, they are purely beautiful and meditative. "
The large, mural-like proportions of this photo installation create
a surrounding environment within which the eyes can roam, alert yet reposed. On this scale
of enlargement, colors become softer, bleeding into one another as if bleached by the
Sicilian sun. With this muting effect comes the counteracting imposition of grandeur:
these prints are not easily overlooked, as even the most striking smaller photograph might
The size of these prints is possible through a new digital process
by Xerox. "It is similar to four-color offset printing," Ward Selbie explains.
"Prints can go from 130 cm to sixty meters, conceivably. The result is not like a
fine-grained photograph. Its on paper, first of all. And in enlarging, you get color
changes. The grain is magnified, the colors are softened and fused..
"I had been working with a smaller format Xerox color process.
I wanted to make very big images, so I experimented with segmenting small sections of a
photograph, blowing each section up and then gluing the panels together. I thought,
There has to be a way of producing a single large print. I began making phone
calls and finally the concept and the technology met in Toronto.
"Xeroxs wide-format digital color printing is new. It
allows a photograph to be digitally scanned by computer, manipulated for size and color
adjustment, and reproduced on a far grander scale than has been possible in the past.
"I use the process in order to achieve size," Ward Selbie emphasizes. "The
original photographs are not manipulated or altered otherwise."
In fact she is something of a purist when it comes to taking
photographs. "I try to visualize a shot before I take it. If youre a painter,
you start with an empty canvas and apply paint. With photography, its the same
thing: youre using the rectangle, and you look and compose within that frame. You
visualize and then construct the image. Sometimes you cant control everything, of
course, and then you have to squeeze something in and try to fix it in the darkroom.
Sometimes you cant get close enough to an object, or something gets in the way and
you know you will have to crop. But I was given a formal training, the belief that a
negative should be able to be printed edge-to-edge, and I try to do that."
She shoots "loads, tons, of film. Changing the focal point,
walking around an object, looking at different angles. Usually my first vision, what I
first see, is what I really want. But I often take different shots as notes, reminders of
the scene, a details setting in a landscape. Its in lieu of a written
notebook. Many people are panicked about using up film, but you shouldnt be. Even
the smallest change in an angle or perspective can make a difference."
Ward Selbie grew up in Ontario, traveled widely across Canada in her
youth, and returned to Toronto in her twenties. She had always worked in the investment
industry until the day her husband handed her his camera and said, "Here, why
dont you try this? I think youd like it."
From the moment that she picked up the camera, Ward Selbie says,
"I knew that I was meant to be doing this. It was my true vocation." She took a
few nightschool courses, then decided she had to quit work and go to school full time,
studying photography. At her initial interview at Ryerson Polytechnical, "They asked
me why I wanted to study photography. I said I liked taking pictures of my child,"
she remembers ruefully. "After that first class, seeing what real photographers could
do, I just came home and cried."
At Ryerson, she learned to see and how to use a cameras
technology to make her personal vision clear. "David Heath was an important teacher.
Murray Pomerance was the most challenging, pushing me to the edge of hell and letting me
see how to get back; hes a very powerful intellect."
Among her influences, she names Julia Cameron and Diane Arbus.
Cameron, the nineteenth century pre-Raphaelite photographer whose soft-focus portraits and
symbolic tableaux are among the loveliest and most painterly images in early photography,
took a radically different approach from Arbus, noted for her austere, unflinching views
of damaged people. (Sometimes, one could say, they were damaged primarily by the harshness
of her gaze, which is nonetheless peculiarly reverential.) "I am drawn to Arbus and
Cameron as women artists with very different perspectives but with a great awareness of
symbolism, each in her own way. They made very personal images."
Ward Selbie graduated from Ryerson in 1981 and had her first solo
show two years later at York Universitys Winters Gallery.
For the past 17 years she has operated her own art gallery in
Pickering Village and has lately worked as curator for the Bouckley Photographic
Collection at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery.
"Go farther up and further in," C.S. Lewis wrote in the
last book of his great Narnia stories. Going higher and deeper into certain
mysteries has been the quest of Linda Ward Selbie throughout her prolific career. She can
as easily find the wonder in a sheer rock face against the sharp blueness of a
Mediterranean sky as in the oddity of one my favorite scenes in this Sicilian series. A
statue of livid white marble depicts two crouched male figures, each bearing a comic
resemblance to likenesses of the elderly Mark Twain. They have been embellished with the
most delicate red markings: a starburst and a musical note on one figures breast, a
few runic scratches on cheeks and eyebrows. On the pearly grey wall behind them appears
part of a more baroque piece of graffiti, in brilliant tones of green and red, overwritten
with the notation "V-ICE" [sic].
This peculiar image seems to indicate as much as any other shot in
"Isola" the specific solitude of things whose context has changed, whose
original purposes are blurred, who stand alone now against a jumbled, fractionary
background. Almost abandoned and yet not desecrated, these figures have a curious dignity
within the chaos they now inhabit.