Northern Light (March 01, 2005)

Henry Kalen was born in 1928 in the North End of Winnipeg. He received his architecture degree from the University of Manitoba in 1957, and then worked as an architect before receiving his accreditation from the Manitoba Association of Architects as well as the RAIC. Realizing that his first love was photography, he attended a summer session in Art Education at IIT in Chicago and returned to Winnipeg where he joined the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Manitoba where he taught design fundamentals, graphic presentation and photography from 1960 to 1971.

As a founding member of the Professional Photographers of Manitoba, he won many competition awards including Photographer of the Year twice and Craftsman of Photographic Art in 1970. As a member of the Professional Photographers of Canada and of the Professional Photographers of America, he received numerous awards nationally and internationally. In 1982 the RAIC awarded him the Allied Arts Medal for architectural photography and later he became a member of the Royal Canadian Academy.

— by Claude deForest and Gloria Kalen

The archives of Henry Kalen’s architectural photography are a time capsule of modernity. They offer us a window back in time where consistency of style and the architectural ambitions of the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Architecture and its recent graduates perfectly matched the progressive attitudes of both government and the business sector. Kalen documented the architectural equivalent of the perfect storm. He took great images thanks in large part to the architects of the day, who provided fuel for the insatiable appetite of his hungry eye. A big fish in a small pond, Kalen worked with virtually every firm and prided himself on his command of the printing process. As a distanced observer, I look for a reflection of Kalen through his images. In them I see a man of immense precision and calculation–you can sense the molecules of silver fixing one at a time in solution. The photographs result from material and technical mastery. As much as they are images of light, they are constructions.

Kalen had a calming and integrating effect on the blizzard of new postwar buildings: he put our modern Winnipeg in visual order and created a master file of the ideas and experiments of the day–one image at a time. The poetry of the work is seen in the exquisite documentation of measured line and point, the finely grained rhythm and concatenation of black space and white space and their subtle intermingling. His art directors–consciously and unconsciously–were the fathers and mothers of the Bauhaus–who saw the world as wholly abstracted and linguistically independent of history and precedent. One has to look back to cave paintings to see a resembling clarity and directness. Kalen was, in this sense, a true modern-primitive.

Look closely at Kalen’s images, and you will see Winnipeg before its period of rapid suburban forestation. We must remember that the giant elms that line the streets of Riverview where I live are not indigenous. Kalen’s images show no landscape beyond surface, and this is very interesting. Images without people–anathemas to modern photography of the day–are to be expected in the 1950s and 1960s. But without a visible landscape, how did Kalen “place” the architecture? With few exceptions, Kalen’s photographs captured the sky: a treeless minimal landscape before light and air pollution. Kalen recognized Winnipeg’s abstracted steel and glass constructions as a whole new flora–pure and simple–flourishing under northern light.

Herb Enns is the Winnipeg correspondent for Canadian Architect and is working on an upcoming exhibition on Manitoba modernism for 2006.