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  • Faking Death: Canadian Art Photography and the Canadian Imagination
  • David Harris (bio)
Penny Cousineau-Levine. Faking Death: Canadian Art Photography and the Canadian ImaginationMcGill-Queen's University Press2003. xii, 340. $49.95

As a general account of the condition and evolution of Canadian art photography over the last fifty years, Faking Death is fascinating and compelling but, in the end, mystifying. It begins reasonably enough with the author's longing for a history of Canadian photography, one that will distinguish it from international currents and other national histories, as well as identify and celebrate its unique contributions. However, rather than approaching this from a historical perspective, during the course of which one would trace the evolution and interweaving of artistic concerns and photographic practices, institutional support systems, and the larger cultural ideas over this period of time, the author has opted for something far more speculative and personal. Drawing upon a mixture of Jungian, Freudian, feminist, and poststructural concepts, she has reached conclusions that will perhaps not only puzzle the photographers whose work is used as evidence to support her assertions, but also may surprise curators, critics, historians, and outside observers who have been following Canadian photography. Penny Cousineau-Levine posits that documentary practice, which has always been at the heart of Canadian photography, is in fact a screen for other pursuits that photographers are fixated upon - among other preoccupations, death, bondage, and entrapment - and that Canadian photography as a whole is permanently suspended in a state of [End Page 203] immature cultural development, the metaphoric equivalent of adolescent anorexia.

That this book was meant to be challenging and provocative, even contentious, seems evident; that the overall argument should be so unconvincing in illuminating the nature of Canadian photography is far more disappointing, especially considering that the publication is the distillation of thirty years' work and is, to date, the only survey on the subject. The structure of the book is itself problematic. It is divided into two roughly equal parts: chapters 1-5 present the author's observations on Canadian photographers, apparently reached incrementally over a period of time, while chapters 6-8 provide the overarching theoretical structure, within which the disparate observations are laid out as evidence of a single, albeit complex, pathological condition. What had seemed curious, indeed arbitrary, in the first half of the book - why particular photographers were selected, why certain interpretations were proposed - is elucidated only in the second half, once the theory is set out. Statements made in the earlier part of the book, which the reader might reasonably assume to be definitive, are later qualified and revised. While the book's form can be understood as autobiographical, mirroring the stages through which the author gradually discovered her own perspective and interpretation, it would have made the overall argument more cogent and succinct had the theory had been articulated first, supported by specific images.

Of greater concern is the reliance on a single theory as the basis of explanation and conceptualization. Is it reasonable or even desirable to expect one theory to explain something as geographically, economically, and culturally complex as the character of Canadian photography? Regardless of what one thinks of the validity of Cousineau-Levine's theoretical position, can anything really be gained by trying to force so much material into a single all-encompassing idea? What seems to me most at stake are the photographs themselves, the primary objects of significance and meaning.

Rather than providing a sense of how photography developed over this period of time and addressing the regional and cultural diversity of the work, the book treats all photographers as if they were working concurrently and were concerned with a similar set of ideas. Photographers at the outset of their careers are often given the same or, in some cases, greater prominence than those who have been exhibiting and publishing for decades. The degree to which a photographer's work, even a single photograph, serves the author's theory seems to be the criterion for inclusion, with the result that certain established photographers are entirely excluded or hardly mentioned at all. In becoming essentially illustrations to a theory, the photographs are reduced and simplified...


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pp. 203-205
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