Halifax-based photographer Dean Brousseau is planning a show and asked me to draft a short essay. It seems harder when it's someone you know. There's so much you want to say, about their passion, about the stuff they went through to get to where they are. But then I can usually tap into my inner Hunter Thompson and get to the nut of it.
Story: I got to know Dean when I moved to Halifax in 2006. He had attended NSCAD at the same time I had and we knew a lot of people in common. When I say people I mean women mostly. But like Linda Rutenberg here in Montreal, we knew of each other through mutual acquaintances but only met later in life. In Dean's case, I was showing him a contact sheet and he said. "Hey, I've seen these. I processed this film." A girlfriend had said to me way back then; "Hey I have a friend who processes film. Give them to me. I'll get him to do. it."
On Street: Dean Brousseau
Street, or street photography, is to photography what Impressionism is to painting. It is the moment at which the artist abandons the confines of a studio, where compositions are pre-established academic structures or paid assignments to a state where the artist can observe, objectively and subjectively, the world around and produces images. It is when instinctual gesture and emotional response come together, in what Henri Cartier-Bresson might have called the decisive moment. It is where knowledge, instinct, and feeling come together. It is where the photographer abandons the work of necessity and becomes an artist, where he defines his own time and place.
NSCAD (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design)
Photographer Jean-Loup Sieff once said that when he joined Magnum agency, that he was doing no less than “taking the holy orders of photography”. In some ways studying art or photography at NSCAD in the seventies was not much different. There were multiple canons or schools of photography, an entire history by this time, but it was clear who the current Gods were when it came to street photography, from Eugene Atget and Cartier-Bresson, to Robert Frank and Gary Winogrand. But art history was moving at a rapid pace by then, propelled by the art magazines of the time. New and exciting bodies of work were being presented to students all the time. Visiting artists at NSCAD exposed students to a global art environment, even before Internet. It was more like rock&roll than art. You learned the licks of all the artists you heard around you and did your best to play them your own way. The seventies also presented aspiring photographers with an additional set of rules. Conceptual art had almost usurped photography as art for its own purposes with artists who did not necessarily see themselves as photographers but as visual artists in their own right. NSCAD was a school that attempted to bridge the gap by making students of photography aware of both canons of thought. This broad view of the history of photography is always present in Brousseau’s work, more than say, the work of a photojournalist. Making art is at the core of these images from the outset.
The images in this small exhibition underline Brousseau’s intention as an artist in two ways, firstly by making subtle reference to the Cartier-Bresson-like “purity’ of un-cropped street photography and secondly by placing value in the traditional craft and process of photography by producing high quality prints in a chemical darkroom rather than by scanning his images and producing digital prints. These photos, it seems important to underline, were made using film-based technology. It made sense for Brousseau to frame this body of work using the practices that accompanied it. In some images Brousseau allows the black frame around the negative to appear, a reference to Cartier- Bresson’s teachings and other American photographers such as Gary Winogrand (1928-1984) who used the technique to show that there was no cropping or manipulation of the image, that it remained honest to the artist’s vision. There was something almost religious about this particular canon that has remained a repeating motif in many street photographers since. It is also a strong formal element that helps one consider the image in formal terms rather than for its content alone. Brousseau also pays attention to the quality of the print as an important component in bringing the image to its final form, and here Brousseau’s own words takes us to his darkroom; in the correspondence leading to this essay, Brousseau wrote:
“ I printed on Adox variable contrast fiber glossy double weight (Adox - MCC110 8X10/100-FB-VC-GLOSSY) and I made the prints using multiple contrast filters, first using a #5 (high contrast filter) then a #0 (low contrast filter). A test strip has to be made for each contrast filter exposure then of course a combined print has to be made using both filters. It's a fairly fussy procedure so I won't bore you with any more details… this was a departure from the technique I had used in former years. If I had only known about it I would or may have been more adept and it may not have taken me nearly a year to produce the prints.”
The images are from a relatively wide period in today’s terms. They cover from 1974 to 1984, a lifetime in rock and roll terms. But they cover a period of time that frame quite nicely Brousseau’s evolution as a photographer, from the time he lived and studied in Nova Scotia through his evolution as a photographer in Toronto to his return to Nova Scotia where he continued to work both as a photographer and as a director of photography on numerous film and video productions. His subjects are varied and take us from his early years growing up in a military family and takes us to base Cornwallis where ‘sea cadets’ were trained every year, a memory for those of us who grew up in post WW11 Atlantic Canada. He then takes us to Toronto, Canada’s metropolis, where he makes images of the changing faces of Canada in the seventies. Faces appear often in fact, and often eliciting a return gaze from his subjects. Brousseau is not a spy. He does not need to hide from his subject matter. It is an exchange, an embrace of his subject and this situates Brousseau as an artist for us. These images contain empathy for his subjects. So when we are presented with more “removed” images, those where the subject is not aware of the photographer’s presence, we nevertheless feel that the camera cares in some way, that it is watching over rather than just watching or stalking its prey or its subject matter. Brousseau tells us that he empathizes with his subject matter and that he is not merely composing for himself. It gives reason or artistic intention for him to be on the street making photographs in the first place. Dean Brousseau is an important voice from a school of photography that is more than just the walls of NSCAD. It is an eloquent local extension of a global movement in art and photography that shaped photography into the seventies, and continues to shape photography now.