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CONTACT Photography Festival 2024 | Sun, Smoke, Sky, and Grass | Peter Friedrichsen

Peter Freidrichsen, Orange Ball, Duotone, hand-brushed with ferric-lupin, 12 x 12"

Review by Lex Barrie

CONTACT Photography Festival 2024

Peter Friedrichsen’s exhibition: Sun, Smoke, Sky, and Grass, opened on May 8, 2024 at Propeller Art Gallery as part of the 2024 CONTACT Photography Festival. Here, he experimented with hand-brushed photographic prints from the Southwestern region of Saskatchewan. With photos taken in 2023, during one of Canada’s worst wildfire seasons, Friedrichsen highlighted the “living heritage” of the land, identifying its economic and cultural values of the past, as they are currently presented (Piwowar). 

Pictorialism

Pictorialism defines the art of photography as a unique focus on composition, rather than the documentation of reality (Britannica, 2015). In the early 1890s, such practices arose through groups like the Linked Ring and later Photo-Secession, who refused to exhibit photographs which failed to further “the development of the highest form of art of which photography was capable” via a rejection of the technical aspects associated with photography (Britannica, 2018).

Photography has endured a history of such movements, all in attempts to prove its worth as an artform to contemporary society and ensure its continued experimentation and strategical usage into the future. There are few practitioners remaining who frequent with the strategical processes of pictorialism as was started in the 17th century – one of whom is Propeller Art Gallery’s own Peter Friedrichsen, who utilizes a method of hand-brushing pigments in his photographic practice. 

Wooden Grain Elevators

Peter Freidrichsen, Shaunavon, Hand-brushed with ferric-wheat, 9 x 6"

One such representation was the piece titled “Shaunavon”, depicting an old wooden grain elevator. In the early 18th century, wood grain elevators became staple sightings across the Prairies (Piwowar). Across Manitoba, Alberta, and Saskatchewan more than 6000 elevators stood, built to weigh, clean and store grain for farmers in the area (Piwowar). Often referred to as “prairie icons” or “prairie cathedrals”, these gigantic structures symbolized a declaration of the agricultural strength and economic wealth of the land (Ross). However, in the 1930s, farming incomes began to fall, and rural depopulation increased with the creation of large, established cities (Ross). Mechanized farming equipment and increased train lines away from the grain elevators meant their usage also began its decline (Ross).

Today, few still stand but those that do are being sought after to preserve as national heritage sites (Ross). For the smaller communities of Saskatchewan, the wooden grain elevators acted as centrepieces for their identities. In her master’s dissertation at Carleton University, Alixandra Piwowar spoke to the importance of these types of structures and how grain elevators were, for Prairie people, more than merely a place to store grain. “They were a symbol, too, not just a way to make a living, but of an entire way of life” (Butala).

Rural and Urban Environment

Other works, such as “Go West” and “Prairie Graze” speak to the land itself and the infinitely remote and yet filled with unexpected surprises around each bend and over each hilltop. From plant life to bison and even abandoned vehicles on the side of roads, Saskatchewan encompasses a wide rural and urban environment beyond just its flat land descriptions.

The Sun

Peter Freidrichsen, Orange Ball, Duotone, hand-brushed with ferric-lupin, 12 x 12"

The sun was also a feature in this exhibition, in the piece “Orange Ball”. In July of 2023, the wildfires spread rapidly across the western regions of Canada. In an attempt to capture the effects of the smoke, Friedrichsen illuminates the intense colouring of the sun obscured by the smoke, changing with change.

Pictorialism emphasizes beauty of subject matter, tonality, and composition by elevating color pigments in photos (Britannica, 2015). Much like Friedrichsen’s works, pictorialism focuses on the elevation and experimentation of photography by honing past techniques into contemporary ideas. 

Pictorialism Process:

In the past, gum-bichromate processes were used in pictorialism practices – meaning gum arabic was mixed with pigments and a light sensitizer of ammonium or potassium dichromate, which is then applied to a piece of paper, exposed to sunlight under a superimposed negative, and developed in water for a final image. However, Friedrichsen utilizes a non-toxic plant protein as the colloid in his work after having experimented with non-toxic alternatives since 2009. His works for this exhibition included hand-brushed pigments bound in wheat, soy and lupin proteins.  

“My approach was to attempt plant proteins sensitized by iron salts. It was an intensive effort to develop such a replacement process that removes toxic dichromate and uses sustainable protein sources. It also provides excellent quality prints that are archival. To my knowledge, the utilization of plant proteins has never been successfully implemented before in this historic process” 

Peter Friedrichsen 

With his continued inspiration of both the Prairies and the historical movements which shaped the art form of photography, Friedrichsen sheds light on the importance of growing with the land, even in art, by using sustainable materials. With the threat of wildfires blazing through the West still at large, implementing eco-friendly alternatives speaks to the development of moving beyond our pasts and into our futures. Through his pictorial works of the sun, smoke, sky and grass that make up the Saskatchewan plains, not only can one see a continually thriving culture, and artistic practice but also a land and history preserved in photography. 

Bibliography 

  • Butala, Sharon. “Absences.” Gone but Not Forgotten: Tales of the Disappearing Grain Elevators. Ed. McLachlan, Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2004. Xiii-xvi. Print. 
  • Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2015, June 19). Linked Ring. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Linked-Ring
  • Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2018, May 29). Photo-Secession. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Photo-Secession
  • Piwowar, A. (2015). Living Heritage: Re-imagining Wooden Crib Grain Elevators in Saskatchewan (dissertation). Carleton University, Ottawa.
  • Ross, J. (2015). Grain Elevators.  In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/grain-elevators

CONTACT Photography Festival

About The Author:

Lex Barrie (they/them) is an independent art critic and writer from Toronto, ON whose published dozens of works for art magazines, gallery blogs and academic journals since 2021. As a graduate of OCAD University’s Criticism and Curatorial Practice Program (CRCP), Lex has written critical essays, curatorial texts, artist bios and statements, as well as exhibition reviews across subject matters. 

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