The exhibition, and the accompanying book of the same title, were the brainchild of Beaverbrook Art Gallery curator John Leroux. It is testament not only to a forgotten part of Saint John, its north end, but to what was a mostly forgotten body of photographs by Ian MacEachern.
Leroux, who has written several books on architectural history, was engaged in research on the destruction of Saint John’s north end in the 1960s to make way for what turned out to be a mistaken attempt at urban development when he ran across some images taken during this period by MacEachern. He followed up this discovery by finding some more images of the photographer in the provincial archives. On learning that the photographer was still alive and living in London, Ontario, Leroux tracked him down; the exhibition and book are the result.
The photographs in The Lost City are outstanding examples of what is sometimes called street photography. The history of street photography is full of examples by artists such as Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Davidson, Thurston Hopkins, and Dorothea Lange. MacEachern’s work is very much in this tradition. The vast majority of the seventy-five photographs in the exhibition span the period from 1962 to 1968. Nearly all of them were taken with a 35 mm camera, and just a few in 6 x 6 cm format or with a 4 x 5 inch view camera. That all are in black and white adds to their dynamic.
The Decisive Moment
Born in 1942 in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, MacEachern was young when he shot the main body of work in this exhibition. Nevertheless, those photographs show that he already possessed a great eye and a sense of timing. Cartier-Bresson coined the term “decisive moment,” and that is exactly what MacEachern had figured out. Family Walking, Charlotte Street, South End (1968) is an example of him capturing the decisive moment. A young family out for what looks like a Sunday stroll down a drab street. The young husband is in a suit, and his even younger wife is pushing a stroller surrounded by four young children. The photograph says a lot about social class in Saint John in the 1960s, but it also illustrates family life and a sense of community.
MacEachern is a self-taught still photographer, but he was a professional television studio cameraman. That was what he was doing in Saint John when these photographs were taken, so he knew something about exposures and the framing of images. The latter was more important because, like the best photographers of the time, he cropped his images in the viewfinder of his camera. Virtually all of the photographs in the exhibition are full-framed, uncropped images. The composition of his photographs holds together beautifully.
By no means do all of the photographs in the exhibition contain people. Many are urban landscapes. Moore Street (1965) with its row of dilapidated wooden houses fronted by an undifferentiated gravel road looks like it could be a street in a Midland English mill town in the 1930s. Depressing? Yes. But still a powerful photograph.
Good photographs can tell a story. Hence, the prominence of photojournalism from the 1940s to the 1960s, when magazines like Life in the United States and Picture Post in Britain made the work of so many photographers famous. Photojournalists told stories backed by very little text in this time before television and the Internet. Now the context is changing and photography is an accessible medium for everyone with a smartphone, leading to a questioning of the value and status of photographs as works of art. Nevertheless, the art is in the object—in this case, photographs—and has nothing to do with whether someone thinks he or she is an artist or not. What is important is that the individual photographs in The Lost City stand up as works of art.
MacEachern’s pictures play off each other in The Lost City and are unified by the theme of the dangers of misguided urban renewal, but any one of them would stand up on its own in any exhibition.
Life in Black and White
Not all photographs taken by good photographers are good. Photographers carefully cull their work, and in cases such as this exhibition the curator has a say. MacEachern’s pictures play off each other in The Lost City and are unified by the theme of the dangers of misguided urban renewal, but any one of them would stand up on its own in any exhibition. When MacEachern took these pictures, he was limited by the number exposures on a roll of film: twelve, twenty-four, or thirty-six. Hence the “decisive moment” was really important. Usually he had one shot at it. With digital cameras, photographers can take hundreds of images at one go, which wasn’t the case for him.
One image that haunts me, as it reflects my childhood, is Urban Renewal with Sailors (1968). Two British sailors are walking by the site of a demolished building; nearby, there is a sign stating that existing tenants in the area are being relocated and those that do not cooperate will not be assisted in their move. The image reminds me of England in the early 1950s when I lived there and there were still Second World War bomb sites. But this is late-1960s Saint John, and the only thing it shows is the unfeeling nature of the urban renewal of that time. As I said, a picture can tell a story.
I doubt that street photography like this by Ian MacEachern or even in Robert Frank’s famous book The Americans (1958) is doable today, and I can’t help but wonder if the golden age of black-and-white photography has passed. I hope not. The reductive quality of black-and-white imagery still has the power to draw us in a way that colour photography does not. It is, in a way, fiction, rather like a novel that can be both true and false. Then, of course, there is the essential stillness of a good photograph. That’s something we need in these fast times, and for that I am glad that Ian MacEachern’s lost city was found.
The Lost City: Ian MacEachern’s Photographs of Saint John
Curator: John Leroux
The Saint John Art Centre
November 2—December 30, 2018
Beaverbrook Art Gallery Fredericton
January 19—May 19, 2019
September 21, 2019—January 26, 2020