Life Before Digital, on display at the McCord Museum, is a collection by Montreal photographer Michel Campeau. Composed of film photography created between 2015 to 2017, the collection comprises colour and silver-print photographs of a time before the digital era.
Campeau, who studied photography at Concordia University, gained notoriety for his work in 2005 for photographs of darkrooms as a reaction to the switch to digital in the field. Life Before Digital showcases Campeau’s marked interest in developing a subjective narrative in his work; Campeau purchased anonymous amateur photography from eBay to develop part of the collection. While he recognizes the positive changes that have come with the evolution to the digital medium, Campeau also wanted to cast a retrospective eye over the film photography he has practiced for the last four decades.
One of the most striking series in the collection, “Desired Instants,” compiles anonymous amateur photography from the 1950s to explore why individuals choose to take the photographs they do. Although the photographers belong to diverse nationalities and cultures, their work is joined by a motif of human subjects. In one piece, a skinny young boy stands beside his father, both clutching their cameras. The authentic feel of the photograph—the house plants in white vintage vases occupying the peripheries of the image, the knee length socks and pulled back hair—adds a dimension of realism that cannot be recreated today.
Adjacent to “Desired Instants,” the viewer encounters “Industrial Splendour and Fetishism,” a series featuring black room portraits of old cameras. The series sheds light on the often bulky material devices used in photography and, in setting them against negative space, renders the machines into curious art objects.
“I became enthralled by all the material elements of which cameras are composed: Screws, springs, shutters, bellows, cases, letters, [and] numbers,” Campeau said while giving a tour of the space. “These objects [serve as] anthropological memoirs of the culture [at the time].”
The series “In the Darkroom” underscores Campeau’s interest in capturing creative spaces. It features interiors of darkrooms from all over the world that Campeau himself captured during the 2000s. In Brussels (2009), newly developed photographs are hung out to dry on a clothesline. Even within the restricted domain of the darkroom, Campeau is able to create strong compositions. In an untitled piece from the collection of Robert Graham, two framed photos are cramped on a shelf stocked with film equipment: One a portrait, and the other a black-and-white shot of two pairs of human feet. Bringing together fragments of the body imbues the photograph with a surreal humanity.
The most extensive series on display documents the life of Rudolph Edse, a German scientist who immigrated to the U.S., through his photographic archive. The coloured snapshots, in which Edse captures the faces and the activities of his family, also appear in Campeau’s new book, “Rudolph Edse: An Unintentional Autobiography.”
Compiling family photographs has been an intimate experience for Campeau.
“The family book is a construction of the memories of a family,” Campeau said. “They don’t belong to one person. In fact, in going through these pictures, even though I had never met [their family], I felt like I was part of [them]. I saw myself in them.”
Life Before Digital runs at the McCord Museum (690 Sherbrooke Street West) until May 6, 2018.