Redesigning Paradise offers alternative views of natural world

An exhibition of unconventional photographic techniques coming to the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies may not actually look like photography to some.

Redesigning Paradise showcases the work of Mary Anne Barkhouse, Dianne Bos, Sarah Fuller and Penelope Stewart and addresses aspects of the natural environment using photography as an investigative tool.

“All four of us are looking at the landscape and the environment and the critters that live in it through photography, but also installation and other mediums,” said Bos, who is best known for creating images with pinhole cameras – a device that involves piercing a small hole, or aperture, in one end of a light-proof box, with a piece of film or photographic paper wedged or taped to the other end.

The result is an inverted image that diminishes the size of the subject and either has a sharp or blurry effect dependent on the size of the aperture.

Bos will also be displaying photographs she created using cyanotype and chlorophyll printing techniques.

“I’m doing these chlorophyll prints where I’m actually using the leaf and the sun, and the image is actually using the chlorophyll in the leaf to display the image,” she said. “It’s like the purest form of image-making. There’s no chemistry involved, it’s just the sun and the leaf basically.”

Fuller, on the other hand, composes her photographs in jumpsuits she created with printed fabric and props that mimic the surrounding environment.

In one photo, she can be seen – with a keen eye – wearing a jumpsuit resembling the trunk of whitebark pine, camouflaged by full branches of green pine needles.

“She’s made these jumpsuits that when she goes back into the environment, she kind of disappears,” said Bos.

“And then Mary Anne’s taken photographic imagery and had it woven into tapestries.”

One of Barkhouse’s pieces takes inspiration from The Unicorn Tapestries, a famous set of tapestries depicting the hunt of the fabled unicorn, woven around 1500. Instead of a unicorn as the focal point, however, a buffalo is the centrepiece.

“[The tapestry] depicts a man in European garb approaching the buffalo, sort of representing the Spanish conquest of North America,” said Bos. “Then as the border, she has all these little critters and plants that represent flora and fauna that can be found in this area.”

In some of Stewart’s work, viewers can expect to see blueprint photographic techniques, where she photographed excerpts from old plant books archived at the Whyte.

The photographs show different Indigenous species of plants as blueprints, akin to the Latin method of quantifying and categorizing plants.

The name of the show, Redesigning Paradise, was inspired by a lecture series of the same name Bos hosted while she worked at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto in the 1980s.

The premise of the lecture was to touch on the movement around landscape architecture, where people were trying to work with Indigenous plants and nature, and growing and reintroducing species native to an area.

“In terms of the name, Redesigning Paradise, the broader consideration is asking ourselves if some of these ways we manipulate the environment, as humans, are good,” said Bos.

“There’s a real range of ways we look at the Earth, which is a paradise. This show is just kind of the idea of the human influence redesigning that paradise through our investigations and explorations, and making these observations and trying to make different, deeper connections in that for the public to think about.”

Anne Ewen, chief curator of art and heritage at the Whyte, called the exhibition “stunning” and “thought-provoking.”

“For a lot of people, paradise isn’t considered much at all – it’s just the world we live in,” she said. “But to come in and see it on a very minute scale, but on a large scale and through all these different ways of manipulating photography, it really makes one go home and think on a different level.”

Redesigning Paradise opened Friday (Jan. 20) at 7 p.m. at the Whyte, alongside All Our Relations, a black and white Indigenous elders portrait exhibition by Craig Richards. Both will be on display at the Whyte until March 26 and coincide with the Exposure Photography Festival, an annual event showcasing the work of artists throughout Alberta, founded by Richards and Bos in 2004.

Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Rocky Mountain Outlook