Gabrielle de Montmollin    

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MANUAL LABOUR:
THE PHOTOGRAPHY OF GABRIELLE DE MONTMOLLIN

© Alison Kenzie 2006

published on the occasion of the exhibition Secret Lives
at Gallery Lambton, Sarnia, and Thames Art Gallery, Chatham, Ontario

First (and second) impressions

For 100 years, nobody used the camera properly. They were simply using it in the way Canaletto would. With my work you can have photographs using chemical inventions to bring the hand in. -- David Hockney

In the Orwellian year of 1984, British artist David Hockney categorically dismissed the century of photography that had preceded him. The reason? In his view, photography had been used as if it were a “hands-off” medium. Cameras recorded visible surfaces, chemistry rendered images—and sadly, photographs themselves held no evidence of a human being physically manipulating artistic tools to express a deeper, even philosophical, vision. Hockney’s antidote to this photographic ill was to create “joiners” — works comprised of multiple Polaroids (and often, of multiple perspectives) that, when painstakingly arranged, produced a comprehensive view of a place, person, or situation. What’s more, this view represented more accurately than so-called straight photography how the eye actually sees. According to Hockney, joiners were all about “making things closer to the truth of the way we see things” (Joyce 23)—in other words, in bits and pieces, from different angles, and pretty much all in focus, not “all at once” and from a single, “one-eyed” perspective (Joyce 25). Think Picasso’s cubism in photographic form.

On the blustery October morning that I visited Gabrielle’s Toronto studio, Hockney’s joiners briefly became a topic of discussion. One of the many books Gabrielle had on the go was Hockney on Photography, a collection of conversations with filmmaker and fellow photographer Paul Joyce. Given the contrast between Hockney’s recognizable, full-colour environments and Gabrielle’s chiaroscuro world of dolls and masks, her fascination with Hockney’s ideas initially surprised me. It shouldn’t have. For one thing, Gabrielle is passionate about reading art criticism, just as she is passionate about learning everything she can about her medium. For another, like Hockney, Gabrielle is an artist who prefers to “bring the hand in” at every opportunity. Xylophone (2002), her most digital work to date, relies on the hand to “see” it. And though Gabrielle now owns a digital camera, she reserves it for quick compositional checks – much like photographers once used Hockney’s instrument of choice, the Polaroid camera. In an era when photographic manipulation means altering pixels and bytes, Gabrielle’s staunch loyalty to “manual labour” is almost anachronistic.

In the weeks since our conversation, it has struck me that Gabrielle’s affinity with David Hockney extends further than a shared preference for using a hand-driven photographic process. Gabrielle, too, seems to be fascinated by the processes of perception, and has found ways to represent more closely “the truth of the way we see things.” For Hockney in the 1980s, this meant achieving an almost scientific accuracy, creating something that approximated a schematic diagram of perception: a single portrait could encompass pieces of a back wall, the front and sides of the sitter’s face, portions of the floor where the camera’s eye drifts down to take in the sitter’s feet, ashes from his cigarette, discarded paper. For Gabrielle, this seems to mean gathering together elements that set up the possibility of narrative without creating a narrative, that offer the possibility of symbolism without defining this symbolism—and ultimately, that make viewers more aware of the process through which we daily assess objects, postures, and contexts and attempt to assemble stories from them. If there weren’t such a process, how else could we recount our dreams to others the next morning, or describe our day’s experiences at the dinner table? Just as our eye and brain work together to see an integrated view of whatever lies before us, so our faculties of perception, interpretation, and communication are constantly working together to attach a coherent meaning to what we see. In Gabrielle’s photographs, a story seems to be almost within our grasp—all it would take is that step of “meticulously constructing” a world that somehow reconciles the strangely familiar with the just plain strange. And chances are that each of us would construct that world a little differently.

***
The artist at work
Since gravitating towards photography (and away from filmmaking) in the late 1980s, Gabrielle has enjoyed the solitude and unparalleled degree of creative control that her medium affords. Largely self-taught, she received the bulk of her photographic training simply by doing—spending hours exploring the capabilities of a Pentax K1000 in natural lighting. In her earliest series, Not a Child’s World and The fruit and vegetable series (1989 – 1992), Gabrielle drew from an idiosyncratic collection of objects stored in her childhood home—a painting owned by her father, her brother’s old toys, a childhood photograph. She immediately recognized that working with inanimate objects rather than human models could give her the absolute freedom of manipulating her subject matter as well as the leisure to learn methodically through trial and error. As her toy collection expanded, she seized opportunities to experiment with scale, movement, and perspective. Barbie-like dolls proved to be creatively rich for Gabrielle: at once human and eerily inhuman, they could maintain a unique tension between menace and benignity well-suited to the psychic landscapes that her works seemed to conjure.

In her early series, Gabrielle also chose to observe the rigors of the single take, so to speak—finding means to realize her creative vision without extensive darkroom editing. This decision led her to discover additional opportunities for manual labour. Beginning with the Leading Ladies (1995 – 1997) series, she fashioned tiny masks adorned with magazine images that she specially treated to give them a matte finish. The series Carnevale at the Hotel of the Bridge of Sighs (1997 – 1999) found her crafting tiny theatrical settings and props. As she juxtaposed photographs with dolls or created whole environments for her dolls to interact in, she played with perceptions of the natural and the artificial. Is a photograph less artificial than a doll? Are the dolls enacting human experiences or situations?

With the series Train Time is Any Time (2000 - 2001), Miss Milligan and La Belle Lucie, at the Dance (2002), and Bird Women (2003 - 2004), Gabrielle reached new heights of experimentation. Again, a hands-on approach determined her artistic decisions. This time, however, she chose to explore the limitations and possibilities of a photographic process—making negatives and positives through contact printing. She proceeded to discover what happens when you draw on the front or back of a paper negative and then reprint it, what happens if you paint on the negative or bleach it, and even what happens when you introduce photocopying into the mix. Gabrielle’s easy access to painters’ materials (she shares her studio with painter-husband Tony Calzetta) expanded the range of her experimentation even further. “[N]ow that I have been drawing and painting on paper negatives,” she remarked in 2002, “I know that I am an artist!”

Given the intensity with which she explored the contact printing process from 2000 to 2004, it seems natural that, in 2005, Gabrielle would require a hiatus. Yet creating her stark compositions in the New Work series actually proved to be more laborious than ever. Gabrielle admits that her experience using human models in natural settings left her creatively dissatisfied, and she has since begun to tackle smaller-scale work with dolls. She returns to her “meticulous constructions” with a new energy, one that promises to challenge both herself and her viewers.

*****
Notes
Joyce, Paul. Hockney on Photography: Conversations with Paul Joyce. London: Jonathan Cape, 1988.

Alison Kenzie is a content developer, independent curator, and writer. She lives in Toronto.