Canada’s top photographers’ works line Preston Street

“This isn’t just a local arts project. This is the best in Canadian photography.”

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Fans of contemporary photography can see the works of Winnipeg’s Hannah Doucet, winner of the 2023 New Generation Photography Award, and Halifax’s Séamus Gallagher, finalist for this year’s Sobey Art Award, at the National Gallery of Canada.

Or they can simply take a leisurely stroll along Ottawa’s Preston Street, where large-scale photos by Doucet and Gallagher, as well as many other photographers, adorn the exterior walls of restaurants and other Little Italy businesses, further enlivening the popular neighbourhood.

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The pieces are part of the SPAO Photo Walk, an accessible and very public exhibition of both established and emerging Canadian artists. The themes and styles are varied, in keeping with the notion of showing some of the great diversity that exists in Canadian photographic art.

Angeline Simon’s Penang II, for example, juxtaposes an old image of her maternal grandmother and great-uncle with a photo of an outdoor market stall that Simon shot in her grandfather’s hometown of Penang, Malaysia. Contrast that with Ralph Nevins’ Carrousel Venitien, which uses 4K video to create a kalaeidoscopic image from a circus fairground, or Dianne Bos’s botanical Les Planets Feuille Page 1, which depicts images on dried plants. “Something for everyone” is a tired cliché, but it might actually hold up in this show.

“We really wanted to represent the breadth and diversity of Canadian artists from all the backgrounds and geographic regions,” said Jonathan Hobin, the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa (SPAO) creative director. “This isn’t just a local arts project. This is the best in Canadian photography.”

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There are currently about 20 photos on display along Preston Street, following a call for submissions that saw more than 500 photographers from across the country apply. Photo by Tony Caldwell /POSTMEDIA

Launched this weekend, the exhibition was developed by SPAO in conjunction with the Preston Street BIA. It displays large-scale photos by 22 artists following a cross-country call for submissions that saw more than 500 artists apply. It includes local artists Ralph Nevins and Chantal Gervais, the latter a past winner of the Karsh Prize for Photography, and Ottawa expat Whitney Lewis-Smith. A QR code accompanies each photograph, allowing viewers to learn more about the artists and their works.

The exhibition was juried by some of the country’s arts heavyweights, including Ann Thomas, former chief curator of the National Gallery of Canada, Robert Steven, director of the Portrait Gallery of Canada, and Sylvia Dreaver, emerging curator of Indigenous Art at the Canadian Museum of History and Ottawa Art Gallery board member.

According to Hobin, the exhibition will be a permanent, but evolving one. A similar number of works will be added in a second phase next spring, with more to follow annually. It’s part of SPAO’s plan to engage the public in their day-to-day lives, and not necessarily only at galleries. The need for this sort of initiative, he says, was highlighted by COVID-19.

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“During the pandemic, needing to get out of your house and walk around and engage with art in a much different way was a foundational piece. And to actually intercept Canadians and Ottawans where they are in streets, while also enhancing the community and neighbour we’re situated in, helped bring this all together very easily,” Hobin said.

“We’re really hoping to make the neighbourhood really special when it comes to public art.”

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