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REFLECTIONS ON ISOLA

Kate Regan
 

Islands by 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 Selbie’s 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 don’t 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 Italy’s 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 Italy’s 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 who’ve 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 can’t say why; it is how it evolved. I seem to have been getting away from the figure. In the past I’ve 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 Selbie’s 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 photographer’s ability to "perceive, record, and communicate, in full unaltered power, the peculiar kinds of poetic vitality which blaze in every real thing."

 

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 dragon.

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 it?

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 artist’s 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 I’d 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, that’s what you see: abstractions."

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 Selbie’s 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 Selbie’s 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 be.

 

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. It’s 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.

"Xerox’s 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 you’re a painter, you start with an empty canvas and apply paint. With photography, it’s the same thing: you’re using the rectangle, and you look and compose within that frame. You visualize and then construct the image. Sometimes you can’t control everything, of course, and then you have to squeeze something in and try to fix it in the darkroom. Sometimes you can’t 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 detail’s setting in a landscape. It’s in lieu of a written notebook. Many people are panicked about using up film, but you shouldn’t 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 don’t you try this? I think you’d 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 camera’s 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; he’s 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 University’s 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 figure’s 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.

Preface / Acknowledgements

 


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