Peter MacCallum: Material World

Edited by Rebecca Diederichs. Toronto: YYZ Books and Museum,|,London, 2004. 160 pages, $39.95. Review by Andra Picard.

The idea might not sit so comfortably with Toronto photographer Peter MacCallum, but a recent monograph of his work makes especially clear the photographer’s gifted artistry. Though ostensibly a documentary photographer, MacCallum’s works are rich with narrative suggestion, historical play and the stylistic sophistication of an art-informed practitioner. Peter MacCallum: Material World catalogues two series: “Interiors,” from 1996 to 2004 and “Concrete Industries,” from 1998 to 2004, project titles suggestive of the artist’s significant engagement with vernacular architecture. Indeed, when viewing the “Interiors” photographs of cluttered and claustrophobic Toronto commercial and factory spaces, one senses a manifest taxonomic impulse, guided by certain formal conditions inherent in those chosen places. His taxonomy is one of classified industries like hardware stores and textile outlets, but also of grids (aisles, shelves, beams, bricks, lockers, windows, drawers, girders, layers, pipes, and strata)–this modern badge of abstraction, which MacCallum ably shows us, very much exists in the material world. His photography achieves a consummate intersection between art and social realism, where observation finds voice through carefully composed and printed photographs born out of empirical appreciation. MacCallum, Rebecca Diederichs tells us in her editor’s note, continues to develop, process and print all of his work, finding gratification in the methodical nature of his medium, not unlike the laborious routines of industry. This medium-sized book does justice to his detailed depictions, with luminous plates conveying the gradations and tonalities of black and white and his remarkable depth of field, which in turn, allow us to see the ceaseless continuation of these material patterns.

Mining the aesthetics of industry, MacCallum employs an economy and literalness dictated, he says, by the material itself: his subject matter, shifting states of geology threatening to be transformed by time and the elements. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the “Concrete Industries” photos, with large, imposing machinery and preserved ruins appear idyllically pastoral with dappling natural light, and the “Interiors” are darker in mood despite being more contained and controlled. Here we find anachronous photos of factory workers–some captured in frontal, stoic poses, others classically lit–while performing their arduous tasks. Where the “Concrete Industries” photos lead us into the detached beauty of Becher territory, “Interiors” evokes Walker Evans. It is difficult to make out the commentary or even to decide if the artist is providing one, rather than simply observing the environmental conditions of concrete and tanning industries. It is this unique ambiguity which makes Peter MacCallum’s work so intriguing, but not one of the accompanying texts in the book allows for this potential slippage, arguing instead for his linear, “concrete” approach. They do, nevertheless, provide some well-written, thoughtful, and applicable contexts within which MacCallum’s work can and should be considered.