Regional Identity

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Clement Powder in his Trapping Cabin, Calling Lake, Alberta, March 1985
Julia and Violet Pierre, near Indian Cabins, Alberta, August 1987
Orest Semchishen, Semchishsen, photography, gelatin silver print, photograph, people, documentation, cabins, rural, northern Alberta, northern, regional, rural dwellings, trapper, trapping cabin, black and white photography, portrait, portraits, in situ, recording people, recording places, 2D art, two-dimensional art, Calling lake, documentary photography
description

These striking images by Orest Semchishen offer a glimpse into a way of life unfamiliar to many visitors to an urban institution like the Mendel Art Gallery. As  in situIn place; in the original position. (Artlex.com)  portraits of the residents of northern Alberta in the mid-’80s, these works suggest the role of photography as one of documentation, or of recording people, places and things.

In this regard, the photographs manage to communicate in subtle ways the differences and similarities between their subjects and their likely viewers. By capturing a moment where a Pierre girl is giggling, or by framing Clement Powder as the proud master of his own trapping cabin, the photographer is inviting us to consider the humanity of his subjects and to identify with them on these grounds. Importantly, Semchishen has titled these works according to a formula that begins with the names of the people captured, suggesting that the most important subjects of these images are the people in them.

Knowing that Semchishen records people in rural dwellings, and noticing that a large part of each title is made up of locational information (“in his Trapping Cabin,” “near Indian Cabins,” “Alberta,” etc.), we might also consider that the true  subjectA topic or idea represented in an art work.  of his photography is not the identity of a person or group of people, but of a region. Specifically, Semchishen has outlined a practice for himself that includes images of people in rural settings. While the people change from image to image, and the specific locations are diverse, they have in common their rural nature.

This practice of focusing exclusively on the rural is not as clear-cut as it may seem, however. Evidence of the blurring between the rural and the urban is present in Semchishen’s photos, though in some more than others. The t-shirts and jeans worn by Julia and Violet; the “IGA” bag hanging behind them; the manufactured mugs and prescription pills on Clement Powder’s table...all of these symbolize a connection to, or a dependence upon, the modern, the urban, and the commercial. Even the presence of the photographer is a sign of this connection. By trying to document the rural life, Semchishen may in fact be confessing to his own ambivalent,  hybridProduced from the mixture of two or more things.  rural-urban identity.

additional resources Things to Think About
  • Select one of Semchishen’s photographs presented here and describe what the objects in the room suggest about the life or lives of the photographer’s subjects. Do these objects relate to your own life or experience? How might the photographer have influenced your understanding of these people and locations in the way he has composed and shot the images? Might he have posed his subjects, or captured them “acting natural?”
  • Using a camera, create a document of your own life over the course of a single day.  Once your images are complete, select some of them to show to people. Find out how people respond to these images, and whether they think the images match their ideas of who you are.
Advanced Activity
Advanced Activity Online Activity
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Imagine that you are Orest Semchishen and that you are in Calling Lake during the mid 1980's. You are taking the two photographs shown here (click on the Take Photo button to change the photograph in the main window). Imagine you are looking through the lens of your camera. What do you see?

Click the hotspots on the images to hear sounds - make sure your speakers are turned on/up!

Photographs can only record images. This community is in the far northern part of Alberta. Are these some of the sounds you might hear if you were to visit this location now? If you already live in a northern location, you might want  to list the many sounds you are familiar with.

Studio Activity

Create a  documentaryAny artwork the purpose of which is to present facts objectively, without inserting fictional matter, recording and/or commenting on some content, often political or social, by accumulating factual detail. Many conceptual art installations of the 1970s were overtly documentary — e.g., Post-Partum Project by Mary Kelly (American), the various Reading Rooms by Joseph Kosuth (American, 1945-), Guggenheim Trustees by Hans Haacke (German, 1936-). More common examples: documentary films. Not to be confused with documentation. (Artlex.com)  photo essay

Background information

The difference between documentary photography and photojournalism

  • Photojournalists often work for various forms of news media, and might be inclined towards the viewpoint of the particular source they represent.
  • To find out more about the difference between documentary photography and photojournalism, go to Photography.com.

The work of Orest Semchishen

Semchishen is a documentary photographer.  Terry Fenton, a Canadian art critic, describes him as one of the best photographers in the world even if Semchishen is not recognized as such (see the Triangle Gallery website below). Through his photography Semichishen has observed what life was like, and currently is like, in various communities in his province of Alberta.  You can view his work at these sites:

The featured photographs

The photographs featured here are part of a  body of workA collection of artwork by a particular artist, either over a lifetime, or as related to one subject, etc.  that Semchishen made about life in the isolated Alberta trappers’ community, Calling Lake. This community is much more modern today than it was in the 1980s when the photos were taken.  The whole  seriesA number of things or events standing or succeeding in order, and connected by a like relation; sequence; order; course; a succession of things; as, a continuous series of calamitous events. (The Online Plain Text English Dictionary)  of photos (only two are displayed here) shows trappers and their workplaces, as well as their families inside and outside their homes. These two photographs show the insides of two cabins, featuring the inhabitants and things that belong to them - a work environment and a living environment.

Make your own  documentaryAny artwork the purpose of which is to present facts objectively, without inserting fictional matter, recording and/or commenting on some content, often political or social, by accumulating factual detail. Many conceptual art installations of the 1970s were overtly documentary — e.g., Post-Partum Project by Mary Kelly (American), the various Reading Rooms by Joseph Kosuth (American, 1945-), Guggenheim Trustees by Hans Haacke (German, 1936-). More common examples: documentary films. Not to be confused with documentation. (Artlex.com)  as a photo-essay

Preparation

A simple way to begin to become a documentary historian is to record events around you throughout one entire day.

  • Start by observing and writing notes to record events during the course of  one day. You may think that nothing much ever happens, but once you begin to be aware of your surroundings, you will see that even a quiet life may be very interesting. Semchishen’s photos show everyday life. Historically, they become important later because they represent a record of that particular time, a record that we might not otherwise have.  Because of Semchishen’s work, we have a good idea of what life was like in Calling Lake in the 1980s.
  • Examples of what you might record during your day might be mealtimes, going to school on a school bus, happenings inside your school, classroom details or the activities of teachers, classmates and friends. Is anything special happening that day? Are there sporting or cultural events taking place? What will you do after school?

Taking the photos

People

  • Try to take photos to show life from the point of view of the people you are photographing.

Objects, landscape and buildings

  • Take photos from a variety of viewpoints including close-up shots and details

Edit your pictures

  • Try not to alter your photos too much.
  • Decide how many images you need in order to tell your story well, and delete images that you don’t want to use.

Put the story together

Choose a variety of ways to put your story together for presentation (these are only a few examples of possibilities):

  • Create a Powerpoint presentation and add music or voice-overs.
References

Hanna, Martha.  Orest Semchishen: In Plain View.  Exhibition catalogue.  Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, Ottawa Ontario, 1994.

Snyder, Gordon.  Through Alberta Eyes:  The Photographs of Orest Semchishen.  Exhibition catalogue.  The Works International Visual Arts Society, 2005. Retrieved from the Internet on July 21, 2008 from:  http://www.theworks.ab.ca/societyfolder/centennial/semchishenBrochure.pdf.

Canadian Heritage University of Regina Mackenzie Art Gallery Mendel Art Gallery Sask Learning