Photography as the art of memory 

By Barbara Black

A childhood game gave art historian Martha Langford a metaphor — and title — for her latest book.

Martha Langford has written a beautifully nuanced book about contemporary Canadian art photography. Magnifying glass

Martha Langford has written a beautifully nuanced book about contemporary Canadian art photography.

In Scissors, Paper, Stone: Expressions of Memory in Contemporary Photographic Art (McGill Queen’s University Press), she uses the intersections of the three objects (scissors cut paper, paper covers stone, stone blunts scissors) to stand for the ways artists are working.

“Translating the game to contemporary photography, scissors becomes the joust between remembering and forgetting; paper, the meeting ground for memory and imagination; and stone, the relationship between memory and history.”

Langford is perhaps the pre-eminent historian of contemporary Canadian art photography. A native of Ottawa, she attended NSCAD, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and briefly considered herself a photographer, but soon realized her real talents lay in writing and curating.

She worked for 18 years in Ottawa, starting at the Still Photography Division of the National Film Board, and succeeded its director, Lorraine Monk. When the NFB shut down the photo division, she founded the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography in 1985 and saw it through to the opening of its quarters next to the Chateau Laurier in 1992.

Langford left the Museum in 1994 to complete her doctorate. She spent the next decade happily writing, teaching and curating in Montreal. She joined Concordia’s Art History Department in 2004, while acting as Artistic Director for Le 2005 Mois de la Photo festival, Image and Imagination.

Her McGill doctoral thesis on amateur Canadian photography became a book, Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums (2001, McGill-Queen’s UP). Scissors, Paper, Stone picks up the threads of that discourse and develops its insights in relation to professional photographers.

The teaching of Canadian photography seems to be roughly where the teaching of Canadian literature was in the 1950s. Langford holds up an American textbook to illustrate. “I teach from this book, and I show photographs of the U.S. Civil War in my classes.” Scant population and proximity to the U.S. have kept us from developing our own authoritative teaching materials.

“While Canada has accumulated all manner of images that Western photographic history enjoys, it has been slow to forge the canon,” Langford writes in her introduction to Scissors, Paper, Stone. “Perhaps, instead of chronology or hagiography, a Canadian photographic history needs the framework of a memoriography.”

People started keeping photographic albums in the 1860s. As Langford showed in her first book, these albums were an extension of the oral tradition, a new way of telling stories.

In the 1960s, artists became interested in the photographic vernacular, a movement called the snapshot aesthetic. It was an era of intense subjectivity; many artists saw themselves as journalists, photographing the world through a highly personalized lens.

Then postmodernism expanded photographic studies by drawing attention to elements that had been overlooked. Photography could be seen as distorting memory, or misleading, even lying to the observer. In this atmosphere, the conventional compendium of the biographies of great photographers with their representative works came under increasing suspicion.

Scissors, Paper, Stone seems to redress the balance, pointing to the undeniable role memory plays in photography and the ways artists have been remaking and layering images to create new interpretations of the past. The book is steeped in the insights of cognitive psychology, which treats memory-work as the unlocking of the unconscious.

The section called Scissors shakes up our ideas of the fixed photographic image. The section called Paper looks at the material of photographs, the transparency of the image, in a memorable phrase, “correlating the mediated image with the waking dream.” Stone is about the engravings of history, and the role of photographs as a historical record.

The book is filled with photos, some of them by photographers with Concordia connections such as Genevičve Cadieux, Raymonde April and Evergon. Asked how she likes her post at Concordia, Langford’s reaction is swift: “It’s superb! There’s bottomless support for research and [other work], and it’s constantly developing.”

She’s glad students are encouraged to study Canadian art history. She values the proximity of the department to the photography school, and the fact that her colleague Sandra Paikowsky is the founding publisher and managing editor of the Journal of Canadian Art History.


Concordia University