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Faking Death: Canadian Art Photography and the Canadian Imagination

by Penny Cousineau-Levine

Finally, a theoretical examination of contemporary Canadian photography that is not only insightful and impressively researched but is beautifully designed and makes for a darn good read. In Faking Death: Canadian Art Photography and the Canadian Imagination ($49.95 cloth 0-7735-2526-2, 332 pp., McGill-Queen’s University Press), scholar Penny Cousineau-Levine pulls together the first definitive book on the topic of conceptualism in Canadian photography. That in itself is a landmark, considering that Canada’s most significant contribution to the international art scene in recent decades has been in photography-based art. Cousineau-Levine covers enormous ground without straying from her main point, which is that we have been reading Canadian photography all wrong. We have assumed it’s a hybrid of American photography, which is steeped in traditions of social commentary. But Canadian photographers, even “straight photographers” like Michel Lambeth, use the camera to express a more metaphysical state than the physical world. Their images are statements about alienation, otherness, and the duality of death mixed in with life, the same metaphoric territory that has been explored in the literature of Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro. Until now, she argues, critics haven’t seen the distinction because Canadian and American photography appears more similar than different.

That’s quite a theory, and there is an initial sense that Cousineau-Levine might overinterpret visual clues to prove her point, such as her observation that Canadian photographers repeatedly use windows and doorways as signifiers of duality. But her observations are backed by example after example, with hundreds of photographic artists’ works cited. I even made a list of some unmentioned artists to see if their work countered her argument: I couldn’t find one exception to the rule. As Cousineau-Levine writes – equally amazed, it seems, that an enormous puzzle has finally found a convincing form – once you see the pattern, you can no longer not see it.