Bicycle Dérives – Exploring the Everyday Landscapes of Prairie Towns
Crystal City MB by Ted McLachlan
January 8th, 2016 to February 20th, 2016
Opening: January 8th, 5-8pm
Artist Talk: January 16, 3pm
Bicycle Dérives takes a panoramic view of rural communities by following the fissures and seams that lie behind the façade of a town. Prairie towns are at a unique point in their evolution; some in a form of stasis, some thriving, but the majority are in a state of decline or hollowing out. Many of us experience Prairie towns simply by driving through or past them. But to the Prairie resident they are home. They embody a century of individual acts and expressions. To explore by car is simply not good enough. As a mode of exploration the bicycle illuminated the external and internal forces that are at play in creating these places of home. To engage in this discussion one needs to wander, move aimlessly, driven only by the unfolding landscapes of the place.
The exhibit raises a debate between two contrasting visual fields. The first is the perceived visual field as one experiences the expansiveness of the landscape. The large digital panoramas explore this notion of standing in one spot and experiencing the context of an everyday landscape. These images were created using a Gigapan camera mount that captures over a hundred individual images and stitches them together. The second visual field is the actual 130° +/- view of human sight. The black and white images evoke what we see when we stop and look at a single scene. These analog images were created using a Noblex camera with a rotating lens and curved film plane that captures a 135°perspective. Together these different visual fields challenge us to think about how we perceive the context of our everyday landscapes rather than our usual default focus on individual buildings, artifacts or spaces.
Text response by David Firman
A man on a bike winds his way through the back lanes of a small prairie town; past the neatly trimmed houses, past the concrete elevators, past the laundry and into the negative spaces that lie behind the main streets. His gears mesh silently on his journey, small wheels driving large tires.
The man stops, looks around, pulls out his odd looking camera. It’s a Noblex, a film-based camera that takes images across a 138° arc. He pushes the button. More gears whirl, driving the lens in its semi-circular path along the horizon. The laundry, the entrance with no sidewalk, the looming grain elevator, the garbage bin, the army tank and the in-between space occupied by planes of asphalt or well-trimmed grass.
A little later, the man sets up a tripod in the centre of a street. He mounts another strange device looking something like a surveyor's tool. The GigaPan uses a point-and-shoot digital camera to take full-circle panoramas. After many minutes fiddling with the device, while constantly looking up to the blue sky, he pushes another button. More gears and motors robotically drive the device in its circular path, looking up and down as it slowly sweeps from side-to-side. At its centre, the small camera, stops hundreds of times, taking hundreds of pictures that will later be stitched with digital gears of ones and zeros into a massive image.
The man is, of course, Ted McLachlan - the orchestrator of wheels and gears that transport him, take his panoramic photos and, in the end, convey his vision of small town places.
Small prairie towns are clusters of unique life. There is a comfortable sense of place to be found in each community. Much more than the streets or railways that define their original settlement patterns, each has its quirky characteristics, reflecting years and cycles of evolution and devolution, growth and decay. Like the army tank casually waiting beside the American Legion, as if an imaginary owner were to pop out of the building, jump into his tank and head off home. Or the salvaged passenger jet oddly perched in a farmyard.
There are the missing teeth, buildings long-gone as fortunes waned, leaving spaces to be filled with grass or asphalt or storage sheds. Or the espresso drive-through lost in a sea of cracked pavement surrounding a not-so-busy mall. And there are the steadfast icons of traditional values: steepled churches and concrete elevators that punch through the blue-sky horizon.
Prairie communities are comprehensible, manageable nuggets of human settlement. You can walk or bicycle them in one side and out the other in a matter of minutes. You can stand at their centres, spin around and understand the whole. You can feel the sense of place of a town as it encircles you.
Ted McLachlan embraces us with his circular visions of prairie life. Although displayed flat on a piece of paper, the arcs of telephone lines and concrete curbs inform us that these images are actually curved. If taken off the wall and bent into a circle or part of a circle, we viewers are at it’s centre, standing where Ted stood with his odd camera gear. Photography is typically the art of pointing at something interesting, and there are plenty of interesting things to point at in Ted’s images. But panoramas go further. They allow a broader reading of what the photographer sees and feels in a particular space. It’s a matter of context.
Here’s an example from Ted’s series. It’s a near-circular view of LaCrosse, Minnesota. On this cold, dull day the town’s concrete elevator looms over two small concrete pillboxes of buildings. It’s a brutalist view indeed, but someone has injected life with splashes of mauve and pastel blue colour on the little concrete boxes. On its own that would be an attractive photograph and would tell us a little bit about LaCrosse. But Ted’s panorama takes us well beyond that view to a townscape of mutely toned little buildings sandwiched between drifting snow and a heavy sky. It is an expansive portrayal of a town asserting its life in a harsh environment.
Alastair Bonnet in his 2014 book “Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities and Other Inscrutable Geographies” investigates the concept of topophilia. The proposition is that the human species craves a sense of place, that we are innately disposed to create place and to love the places we create. It is easy to lose sense of that in larger cities. Like Winnipeg. Yet, mere miles beyond the grey edges of our metropolitan lives are succinct demonstrations of place carved out of an unforgiving geography.
Ted McLachlan’s panoramas are love letters to our small prairie places
Ted McLachlan is passionate about the Prairie landscape. He is a Landscape Architect and Senior Scholar in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Manitoba. Ted has spent the past four decades studying the prairies as a palimpsest where previous ecological and cultural layers have been swept aside and where fragments stubbornly remain to be read and enrich future transformations. Through numerous exhibits of his photographs, articles and lectures Ted has explored the driving forces of landscape change and how our perceptions have shifted over time.