This exhibition of the art of Canadian photographer Thaddeus Holownia covers forty years of his work, 1976 to 2016, and I have known and worked with him during this entire time both as a colleague and an admirer of his work. He came to New Brunswick first as a visiting artist, in 1976, to Mount Allison University, where I was head of the fine arts department, and then in the following year to teach photography. He is still teaching and is now the head of the department. I have long since retired from the university, but I have continued to follow his work.
I couldn’t think of a better title for this exhibition than The Nature of Nature as Holownia, over the last forty years, has steadfastly followed his vision as an observer of nature. There are, give or take, one hundred and eighty photographs in this retrospective. All of them were taken with a view camera. A majority of the images were with a camera using seven by seventeen inch film that he has specially made. The composition of nearly all of the photographs in the exhibition is horizontal, and all are contact prints which means the prints are the same size as the negatives. Holownia’s methods are what I would call “straight” photography and, in his case, relates to the F64 school of the American master Ansel Adams where the use of a very small aperture results in photographs with remarkable detail. Holownia is a consummate craftsman. Every print in the exhibition, in black and white or colour, is jewel like.
The first large format photographs that I saw of Holownia’s were from the first year of this exhibition, 1976, when he visited Mount Allison University and they were shot with a massive 8” by 20” format ancient view camera using paper negatives instead of film. The reason for paper was that he simply could not afford film, but it made the exposure so long that he had to remove the lens cap, count, and then replace it. Actually that was the only way he could do it, as the lens had no shutter in the first place. There two photographs from this period in the show, James B. Spencer with mountain (1976) and Bird in Bushes (1976). He started using the 7” by 17” format the following year when he moved to Sackville to teach at the university.
The artist tends to work in series and although there are photographs in The Nature of Nature from the United States and France the overwhelming majority of the images are of the Atlantic Provinces, in particular the Maritimes and New Brunswick. He is, as he told me, a homebody so much so that there is a series of colour photographs, Jolicure Pond (1996-2004), in the exhibition that were taken from the same spot on the back porch of his home in Jolicure, New Brunswick. It’s a record of the passage of time from one day to another, from one season to another.
The one subject that is missing from Holownia’s photographs in The Nature of Nature are people; I think I counted two. The viewer somehow becomes part of the work and each sees it in a different way. We are given a window on to nature. I see his Dykelands series as one who lives in close proximity to these marshes everyday, yet he makes me notice them in a way I would not if it were not for his photographs. Someone from Toronto or Montreal would still see these pictures as very beautiful landscapes, but not as part of their everyday experience. Beauty is a large measure of Holownia’s work and vision. He has long been inspired by the American writer Henry David Thoreau in particular his Walden, so much so that there is a series of photographs in the exhibition taken at Walden Pond in Massachusetts. Thoreau and Holownia share a vision of nature, one through his words and the other with his images.
One image in the exhibition that I kept going back to was Horton LandingElm, Nova Scotia (2001) that is a photograph of a tree that mirrors an image of the same tree in a painting by Alex Colville (1956, in the collection of National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.). In fact, Colville owned a copy of Holownia’s photograph. It would have been nice to see these two works together as both artists admired one another—two mediums, two visions, one place. They are both excellent. The other thing that these two artists share is a low output. Colville, because of his technique, painted only nine or ten painting a year, and Holownia, again because of technique, is lucky to shoot two hundred images a year. Taking a photograph with a large view camera on a tripod is very different than snapping away with a digital camera. I know, I am a snapper.
Holownia does use modern technology when he needs to. The few larger images in the exhibition, such as Cape St. Mary’s, NL (1989) and Trout River Gulch, NL (2002), were scanned and then printed on a high quality printer using pigment inks. The quality is outstanding as can be seen the Cape St. Mary’s photograph that portrays thousands of birds, Gannets, on a rocky ocean surface. If you used a magnifying glass, and took the time, you could count every bird. I think quality is the key word for the entire exhibition. It is difficult being an artist and photographer as now everyone who owns a smart phone, much less a digital camera, thinks they are a photographer. They are not. It is akin to owning a pencil and thinking that you are a draftsman. What Holownia has, that most of us do not, is an eye or vision and is a master craftsman. Most of all, it is his eye.
The Nature of Nature: The Photographs of Thaddeus Holownia, 1976 – 2016
Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax
February 4 – May 28, 2017