Photography is possibly an example of the most symbiotic, and dual relationships an artist can have with his or her subject matter. Behind the lens does not mean behind a demarcation line; often just the contrary – good photography requires both a merging and a distancing.

Spanish-born photographer and painter Alicia Lorente has been mastering this tightrope act for some time now, in series of works that took her from fashion to portraits to bullfighting. With several exhibitions of modernistic paintings to add to her photographic production, she has carved a niche for herself in the diverse art milieu of Montreal.

Her most recent creative assignment, a commission from the Contemporary Art Museum of Baie-Saint-Paul, Quebec, proved to be Lorente’s most memorable and thought-provoking experience to date, both personally and artistically; she was sought out to document the last days of a 19th century convent housing the congregation of the Little Franciscans of Mary preparing to close its doors. She was to spend a fortnight among the nuns as they prepared to leave, a challengingly short time to compose and execute a cohesive exhibition. For it to be comprehensive both in a visual and docu-
mentary context required as much technical acumen as it did intuition. Relying initially on the latter, Lorente spent the first few days without
taking any photographs. Immersing herself in the atmosphere of the convent without imposing her presence on its inhabitants, she jump-started the creative process, which henceforth dictated its own rhythm. Using film, rather than a digital camera, she produced archival quality black-and-white photographs imbued with the quiet, restrained atmosphere of the space.

The fact that the convent is one of the province’s, and the region’s heritage symbols, added to the importance of the document

Lorente’s photographs were to provide. Le temps révélé/Time Revealed attests to the photographer’s professional approach and keen eye, although some loss of artistry in favour of historical, faithful documentation was to be the price.

The requisite black-and-white images are stark, un-cropped and un-manipulated, windows into an inner sanctum few have access to, yet one beguilingly genuine, and at times hesitatingly welcoming.

The exhibition comprises 83 photographs, focusing mostly on the daily rituals and activities of the congregation, and portraits of all the sisters – displayed as a giant mosaic on the wall of the museum – but also lingering on soon to be emptied cabinets and altars, quiet corridors and spartan rooms, staccato rows of pews with a solitary praying figure, as well as religious objects that echoed those dotting the exhibition space. The Canticles of Ecstasy of Saint Hildegard Von Bingen, 12th century religious vocal music playing in the background helped create a sense of the sacred and the contemplative.

The large format of the photographs and their placing on the walls allowed the viewer to enter a personal space in which to converse with the image. Not all of the photographs enticed such an interaction, in particular the portraits, the personality of the sitter notwithstanding. Classically posed, well executed, they cried out for some pictorial context, the austerity of the composition preventing an emotional response.

Inevitably though, fortuitously, the artist’s own, intensely personal reaction to her surroundings found its way into many of the works, where it seemed both the photographer and the sitter were caught off-guard while being entirely in the moment.

One such photograph is of Sister Evelyne readying herself for the portrait. The composition is asymmetrical, and graphic, with the nun posed in profile against a black curtain as if on a separate plane from the rest of the space, the harsh light illuminating her face throwing patterns onto the tiled floor.

Perhaps the most intriguing, and visually mysterious, is a photograph titled Le cadeau (The Gift) in which two images appear to overlap, except that Lorente claims not to have manipulated the picture in any way. An image of a nun, with her back to the camera, is perfectly composed into a separate photograph of an interior of an empty room, all the focal points of this
accidental visual compilation eerily aligned.

Whether instinctual, or a technical quirk, this photograph encapsulates the spirit and mandate of this exhibition; a document and an echo of a presence, both made unforgettable by the prescient eye of the camera.

Le temps révélé | Hommage en photos aux Petites Franciscaines de Marie
Time Revealed | Tribute in photos to the Little Franciscans of Mary
Musée d’art contemporain de Baie-Saint-Paul
June 24—November 5, 2017