Contact 2011: Figure and Ground

As the five rows of black fold out chairs became occupied with familiar and unfamiliar faces, and the space surrounding them gradually filled with lanky tripods supporting cameras from the numerous media sponsors, the breadth of this year’s CONTACT Photography festival started to become excitingly apparent.  In its fifteenth year, the festival has grown to become the largest photography festival in the world.

Fred Herzog, Robson Street, 1957, Courtesy of Equinox Gallery, Vancouver and Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, Ottawa

This year it will feature an impressive 6 Primary Exhibitions, 14 Public Installations and 44 Featured Exhibitions, as well as 159 Open Exhibitions displaying the work of more than 1,000 artists in venues across the city. The month-long event is also an opportunity for career development for budding photographers through educational programs including: Magnum Photos Workshop, the week-long shooting intensive held at Ryerson University, the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Portfolio Reviews. Held at the Gladstone Hotel on May 1 and May 2, the reviews offer artists and photographers a chance to meet and critique with established professionals.

Photographers participating in the festival this year also have the chance to win $5,000 through the newly established BMW exhibition Prize, as well as $50,000 through Scotiabank’s Photography Award- also new this year. The three Canadian artists short-listed for this year’s prize include Roy Arden from Vancouver, Lynne Cohen from Montreal, and Toronto’s own Robin Collyer. Aside from the cash prize, the winner will also receive a curated exhibition at next year’s festival and a book deal with Steidl. (For some interesting background information on Steidl, check out How to Make a Book with Steidl, on at the Tiff Bell Lightbox this Friday as a part of Hot Docs).

The theme for this year’s show, Figure and Ground, evolved around discussion of the Marshall McLuhan inspired theme from last year, Pervasive Influence. After one of the most anticipated highlights of this year’s festival was secured, Edward Burtynsky: Oil,  Bonnie Rubenstein (CONTACT Artist Director) and Darcy Killeen (CONTACT Executive Director) began to discuss conceptual similarities between the human devastation on our environment shown so powerfully by Burtynsky, and McLuhan’s revisioning of the Gestalt idea of figure and ground through examination of the car as “figure” and the “ground” as the supporting structures and industries, such as the highways and the auto-industry at large.

Within the Gestalt theory, the “ground” could be said to be taken for granted, it is the unnoticed surrounding space which is influenced by the more active “figure.”  Within this ideology, Burtynsky’s photograph’s of the almost unnoticed (or at least often ignored) mass devastation caused by our unstoppable consumption of petroleum is framed with startling eloquence.

Edward Burtynsky, Oxford Tire Pile #8, Westley, California, USA, 1999, photo © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier, Toronto

Stay tuned for regular reviews and recommendations of shows and events within the CONTACT festival for the month of May.

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