John Armstrong

Love, do you laugh about love?
Do you dream about dreams?
Love, can you laugh about love?
Do you dream about dreams?
Love, I ride your back
across the deep blue sea

Vacation in Black
There's no turning back
Love can't you feel the love
Don't you see what I mean?
Vacation in Black

Oh, oh, oh, don't you want to see it?
Vacation in Black
Oh, oh, oh, don't you want to feel it?
There's no turning back.

"Vacation in Black"
Lyrics: Dianne Bos and Andrew Zealley
Music by Perfect World (Dianne Bos, Brian Skol, and Andrew Zealley) from their EP Vacation in Black, 1984, CBS Records

vacation in black and white: the travels of dianne bos

Since the seventies, travel and tourism have been recurrent motifs for Dianne Bos. From those earliest works, she employed the icons of warmer climes and the imagery of advertising through a wide range of media. Now with “Galaxies and Other Bright Matters,” her recent exhibition of Toronto’s Wynick/Tuck Gallery, Bos’s commitment to pinhole photography is undeniable, while her central motif expands ever outward.

In the mid 1970s in Sackville, New Brunswick, Bos was making small-scale, collaged paintings that would typically take an image from vacation advertising as their point of departure — white beaches spreading to the horizon, limpid palms, striped cabanas. In these works, she would take up aspects of the photographic source, transforming and extending them over the rest of the canvas. The beach might become a painted leopard-skin cloud that would engulf a real plastic comb (cheap, bubble gum pink) and then wind up as a largish splat of paint mixed with Polyfilla. In her sculptural ventures, she carefully set out tropical shells and other beachside bric-a-brac on grounds of sand in shallow boxes. Outdoor installations often involved flocks of pink flamingos, the do-it-yourself plywood variety of garden ornament. At night, Bos would mischievously move the flamingos from one area to another in the marshlands surrounding Sackville. When some would get stolen she would make more. This was Bos’s Florida-of-the-mind, an idea of the holiday in the sun. Like many of the  ‘70s artists who loved camp, the devalued and the slightly off putting, Bos was having a free-associative, down-market romp, though inherent in the fun one was her unease with the holiday or retirement destinations her work parodied.

In her 1999 exhibition at Toronto’s Wynick/Tuck Gallery, “Galaxies and Other Bright Matters,” Bos's taunting humour is still here, as is her playful ambivalence towards visiting other places. But this recent work considerably extends her geographic range — including sober treatments of the pyramids at Chichén Itzá, Mexico as well as highly inventive explorations of Space (that final frontier) — and foregrounds Bos’s accomplished use of pinhole photography.

In a November 1998 article surveying contemporary pinhole photography, Forbes Magazine noted Bos as one of the international artists reinvigorating the medium. (That this bible of free enterprise would run such an article is an indication that this pinhole photography’s stocks are on the rise.) In fact, Bos is an apostle of pinhole: she has taught the technique to children and to university art students; she has published how-to brochures and organized exhibitions of artists from Canada, Israel, France, the United States and Japan. Her Pinhole International 1 & 2 were held at the Lonsdale Gallery in Toronto in 1998 and 1999, and a third installment (at a location yet to be announced) is planned for 2001. Established pinhole practitioners such as Ian Patterson — who has shown in solo exhibitions in Paris’s Georges Pompidou Centre (1984) and the Musée Carnavalet (1989) — acknowledge having been first introduced to the technique as a result of Bos’s energetic promotions.

The technique, as Bos uses it, involves a rudimentary camera made from a shoebox that houses a sheet of photographic paper serving as film stock. After being removed from the camera and developed, the paper negative is placed on top of a new sheet of photographic paper to produce the final contact print. The camera’s aperture (its pinhole) creates an image with tremendous depth of field and marked vignetting around the edges.

In “Galaxies and Other Bright Matters” Bos presents three suites of photographs: a ten-picture series (titled 10 countries) offering a brief overview of Bos’s work of the ‘90s; an eleven-image view of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula; and her most recent work, a series of eighteen images titled Galaxies.

10 countries uses a strategy of photographing interruptive and often contemporary elements in what is otherwise a portrait of venerable architecture or of characteristic landscape or cityscape. For example, in Spain: Sagrada Familia, Barcelona (1991), the truncated spires of Antonio Gaudí’s still-in-progress, early 20th-century church frame a contemporary construction crane. In England: London (1991), a tourist brochure proclaiming the word “London” lies cropped in the foreground of an image of the Houses of Parliament seen from across Westminster Bridge. For Canada: Birches Island, Bruce Lake, Muskokas (1990), Bos has chosen a view of Canadian Shield rock, lake, and distant spruces. The interruption here: a large hand clutches a rock — as the roots of a jack pine might have done in a Group of Seven painting. These works in 10 countries quizzically reveal romanticized tourist destinations by which we seek to preserve a distant era. The archaic technique employed contributes to the romanticized effect.

Pinhole photography’s tiny apertures dictate very long exposures: a half-hour on an overcast day would not be unusual. Such long exposures mean that only stationary subjects will be recorded: moving subjects — pedestrians, automobiles, even some clouds — do not appear. The result is that Bos’s urban pictures are eerily evacuated. Although present-day indicators are often there — in the form of parked cars, billboards or contemporary buildings — they appear as small parts of her metropolitan panoramas. In a quirk of artistic procedure, Bos never uses a tripod — rather, she places her pinhole camera on the ground or on an available support. With Bos’s pictures, one wonders how the photographer could have ever been there. These are not simple shutter-happy endorsements of tourism. These properties — the vignetting typical of antique photographs, the unpopulated vistas and the odd perspectives, lend her images an air of anachronistic uncertainty. If, as Susan Sontag has pointed out, photography produces so many irretrievable small deaths, then pinhole photography, through guileless erasure and simple awkwardness, creates an even more pronounced sense of nefarious disappearance.

Although Bos may choose the most visited of tourist sites, she is often able to recast them to the point of near unfamiliarity. In France: Notre Dame, Paris (1993), a backlit gargoyle perches on the uppermost edge of the gothic cathedral’s south tower and surveys the Seine’s northward meander through the city. Gone is the tower platform’s tightly woven chain-link safety fence (Bos has apparently lowered her pinhole camera over the fence). In the hunched gargoyle we see as much the Medieval personality of the cathedral as a nod to Victor Hugo’s use of the cathedral as the setting for his well-known historical novel. Here, the largely 19th-century city deadpans with the odd, tiny parked car, while the blurred modern office towers of Paris’s La Défense district are barely distinguishable on the horizon. In USA: Times Square, New York City (1991), a distant city rises from foreground gloom. Forty-Second Street is indicated by a glimmer of pavement — whether this is before or after Mayor Giuliani’s renovation of the street from tenderloin to somewhat more sanitized tourist district is (based on the evidence the image offers) impossible to say. By placing the pinhole camera on a surface somewhere above her head, Bos achieves the same dramatic isolation of foreground from background as she did with the aerial perspective supplied by Notre Dame’s tower. By contrast, in The Netherlands: Scheveningen (1992), a worm’s eye view is used as an expanse of pocked beach spreads out beneath an elevated access bridge to a seaside amusement-park pier. In the light-filled haze at the end of the pier, the amusement park’s water slides and pavilions might as easily be oil-rigs or military installations. Bos’s tourist-destination records are carefully composed, built as much on the circumstances of their location as on her purposeful staging of them as muted backdrops, deprived of human drama.

The eleven-image series of photographs of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula offers straightforward views of either Mayan architectural ruins or clichés of a tropical holiday setting (palm trees, picturesque courtyards). Bos renders the ruins of an open-air market at Chichén Itzá and a simple still life of a conch shell on a table in a grayed concentration of middle tones typical of antique photography. Given their small scale, either of these pictures could have been examples of early photography, such as the albumin prints taken by the first 19th-century archeologists to visit the peninsula to work on the Mayan vestiges. The danger of using a medium that so effortlessly suggests a patina of age is the risk of producing false artifacts, suggesting either duplicity or nostalgia. In order to counter such a reading, Bos introduces this series of pictures (in the present exhibition) with an image of the aircraft that presumably took her to Mexico. Jet Wing — Toronto to Cancun (1998) captures an inexorably contemporary image of flight: the wing of a jet seen in flight through a passenger’s window. This particular wing, with its identifying winglet (the vertical element on its tip) belongs to a very up-to-date Airbus. As confessed flight taker, Bos admits her visitor status to both Mexico’s antiquity and its holiday-package tours.

The most recent series in the exhibition, Galaxies, comprises eighteen pinhole photographs that imitate the configurations of known galaxies — star systems with such “poetic” names as M81 or NGC 247. Using pinhole cameras with multiple apertures, Bos has recreated the galaxies’ patterns. All of the stars in a given galaxy are variously scaled examples of the same image. These motifs are sometimes celestial but more often earthly, and concern themselves with the very traditional and Western art-historical themes of life’s transience and the passing of time or with theoretical ideas or pop cultural fads. Not that Bos does this in any heavy-handed manner. In M51 as E=MC2 (1999), Albert Einstein (in a TV documentary, at a blackboard with his hallmark equation) is metaphorically cast in the role of having determined a corner of the universe. He is, however, not alone in this role. Bos also confers the honour on images taken from the (now stale-dated) television series Star Trek and The Avengers. In one poignant picture Bos has reproduced a head-and-shoulders self-portrait taken from a TV monitor. The idea of projecting images onto the firmament is not a new one: humanity regularly makes the heavens over in its own image.

As Bos would have it, our tools of illumination — whether a flashlight or the laws of physics — are more self-reflective than analytical. In her versions of the galaxies, we find outright similes (the stars as daisies) and a necessarily modest attempt to fix the moon in a new celestial context (over the length of time necessary for the moon to create viable exposure it moves in the sky, creating a blurred impression on the photographic paper). Bos’s experiments in annexing the universe are designed to fall short of any even mildly successful colonization. In the 1970s she took a flock of painted plywood penguins to Barbados where she set them out on a beach and in Sackville, New Brunswick, she built tiny replicas of the Egyptian Pyramids and surrounded them with a white picket fence. As a visitor to the "exotic" and far-flung, Bos brings absurd contrast and (most recently) pinhole photography’s patient scrutiny to bear on the question of claiming other places as one’s own. She does this with gentle humour that works to make her tourism as unobtrusive yet as profoundly explicit as it can be.

“Vacation in Black and White: The Travels of Dianne Bos.” C International Contemporary Art 65, March 2000 - June 2000