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Contemporary Frames

Framing the Land: Canadian Landscapes Revisited in Jin-me Yoon and Lorraine Gilbert’s Photography

Dynamiques du cadre dans la photographie de Jin-me Yoon et de Lorraine Gilbert : la fabrique des paysages canadiens revisitée
Gwendolyne Cressman


La représentation des paysages à travers la photographie d'arpentage au milieu et à la fin du XIXe siècle en Amérique du Nord contribue largement à documenter les entreprises expansionnistes canadiennes et américaines, à déterminer le rôle documentaire et scientifique que la photographie jouera dans cette expansion et à favoriser un sentiment d'appartenance nationale et de suprématie anglo-saxonne qui trouveront leur expression dans la peinture de paysage. Alors que les photographes engagés dans ces expéditions géographiques et topographiques envisagent le territoire comme l'incarnation du paysage sublime, les peintres du Groupe des Sept des années 1920 et 1930 chercheront, quant à eux, à exprimer l'essence nordique de l’identité canadienne à travers la célébration d'une nature sauvage mythique. Au travers de ce cadrage, ce qui est maintenu à l'extérieur du cadre ou, à l'inverse, inclus dans ses limites, est déterminé par les relations hiérarchiques et les visions colonialistes qui marquent le territoire. J'examinerai la manière dont deux photographes canadiennes contemporaines, Jin-me Yoon et Lorraine Gilbert, revisitent les paysages des XIXe et XXe siècles dans leurs œuvres et comment, à travers divers processus de recadrage, elles révèlent et contestent les fondements politiques, sociaux et écologiques actifs dans la production de ces espaces. Je prêterai une attention particulière à l’enquête visuelle critique que ces photographes développent au sein des paysages nordiques définis non pas comme les espaces abstraits de la nation mais comme des lieux où se déploient des enjeux d'identité et de mémoire.

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1Whether mythical or real, the idea that there is an articulation to be found between Canadian identity and its Northern landscapes remains a source of debate (Grace 2002; Hulan 2014). In the face of the attraction exercised by the Southern giant, the Canadian confederation, founded in 1867, in need of principles and symbols to strengthen its autonomy from both the British and the Americans, soon seized upon the country’s landscapes as a defining feature of the nation. Lucius O’Brien’s 1880 landscape painting, Lever de soleil sur le Saguenay, which was the first painting to join the National Gallery collection in Ottawa (Reid 2012), depicts man’s smallness in the face of nature’s immensity, thus pointing to a recurring trope in Canadian art and culture, that of a structuring wilderness identified as “Northern”. A generation later, Tom Thompson and the Ontarian Group of Seven painters, seeking to define a Canadian school of painting free from outer artistic influence, developed a style that took to celebrating Canadian national identity by framing the land as Northern, wild, and white.

2“Framing the land” involves a process by which the frame or the boundary within which the artist defines a point of view is invited to exist in its material and ideological dimensions. This frame defines the space of the canvas or of the photograph itself, as it outlines, more or less distinctly, an inside and an outside and interacts with the space around it. In Lefbevrian terms, “framing the land” can be understood as the process by which a particular space, that of the landscape – both real and imagined –, is produced. It will be useful here to further draw on the finer distinctions Lefebvre makes between the “representations of space”, “representational space” and “spatial practice” (Lefebvre 1991, 38-39). The “representations of space” refer to “conceived space” and are to be understood as the dominant conceptions of space or ideologies about the land. “Representational space” or “lived space” implies the shape given to the land or the construction of the landscape in terms of perspective, shapes, colors, content, symbols, etc. Finally, “spatial practices” point to the way in which space is “perceived”, namely through bodily senses (Lefebvre 1991, 38-39). These are not separate moments in the production of space but rather different aspects of the process in which social relations are played out. “Framing the land” as a mode of production of space is thus understood as a dynamic process whereby the landscape and its representations are approached not so much in aesthetic terms but as forms of spatial practices. From this perspective, the idea of “framing the land” is a reminder that the landscape is never natural. As art historian Rosalyn Deutsche points out: “Space is, rather, political, inseparable from the conflictual and uneven social relations that structure specific societies at specific historical moments” (Deutsche 1996, xiv). Understood as a spatial practice, art, in the Lefebvrian sense, can serve to reveal the political dynamics and conflicts underpinning representational space (Scott and Swenson 2015) through the reappropriation, negotiation and reusing of space for different ends. The idea of “framing the land” within the scope of this discussion, will thus attempt to account for the ways in which the production of a representational space interacts with dominant ideologies of the land and how the lived spaces that emerge from the representational counter and contest dominant ideologies.

3More specifically, I will be looking at the ways in which two contemporary Canadian photographers, Jin-me Yoon and Lorraine Gilbert, have revisited earlier landscapes in their works and how, through the act of framing and reframing the land, they both reveal and contest the political and social underpinnings active in the production of those spaces. I will be paying attention to the critical visual investigation these contemporary photographers deploy of Northern landscapes as they are made to relate to questions of identity and place.

4Nation-building in North-America and in Canada in particular has involved the celebration of natural landscapes construed as expressions of the true national spirit. Before attending specifically to Yoon and Gilbert’s photographs, this paper explores the naturalization process of the landscape at work in painting and in photography and how it has erased both the frame and anything inside it that might contradict the myth of Nordic wilderness. By rendering visible within the frame what had remained obscured or erased from the emblematic paintings of the Group of Seven, by inserting into the frame what was previously unseen in the landscape, or what had been overlooked, be it deforestation or the migrant body, they seek to undermine the invisibility of the framing process. The contested landscapes proposed by these photographers have in common that they resort to various forms of fragmentation within the frame to convey the notion that the mythical landscape, as a defining feature of the nation, is a construction based on exclusionary politics. The layering at work within the frame and without can be understood as establishing a dialogue between the past and the present, between place and the memories it conveys. It appears that the insertion of the body in the landscape insists on the idea that space is lived, is experienced in the bones. I will argue that the meaning of landscapes is to be sought in the quest for a sense of place beyond the abstraction of the nation.

Framing the land as Northern, wild and empty

5Survey photography in Canada and the United States in the mid to late 1800s largely contributed to document those countries’ respective expansionist endeavors, to ascertain the documentary and scientific role that photography would play in that expansion and to foster a sense of national belonging and of Anglo-Saxon supremacy, which would also find its expression in landscape painting. Beyond its scientific role in the geographic and geological inventories of surveying expeditions that marked Western expansion in both countries, photography played an important part in the process of nation-building and in the parallel commodification of nature for the emerging tourist industry (Paquet 2009; Goldfarb 2009). As part of the 1861 California Geological Survey, American photographer Carleton E. Watkins’s photographs celebrated what would be seen as the sublime natural environment of Yosemite Valley. According to François Brunet, these photographs taken during the Civil War “became the sanctuary of an immemorial nature perceived as an outlet for the nation’s rifts and fractures and as the much sought after model of an “American landscape” (Brunet 2007, 15). Similarly, Benjamin Baltzly’s photographic work in British Columbia around 1871 can be seen as contributing to a typically Canadian geographic imaginary (Paquet 2009, 150). Baltzly’s views of the Rocky Mountains, and later those of William McFarlane-Notman, contribute to the image of a mythical Canadian west, to a sense of nationhood, and, with the commercialization of pictures of Banff National Park created in 1885, helped promote the tourist industry. It is possible that the Group of Seven painters had these photographs of grandiose and unpopulated landscapes in mind when they set out to create a Canadian school of painting celebrating the land as the “True North Strong and Free” (Canadian National Anthem).

6Just as 19th century photography had sought to exalt an “immemorial nature” to return to Brunet’s expression, the subject of Group of Seven paintings would focus on the celebration of a Northern wilderness. To associate Canada with wilderness scenes was to dissociate it culturally from a Europe that was perceived as grounded in, if not burdened by, history (McKay 2011). And indeed, in order to render Canada’s Northerness, the new style must break with the old picturesque tradition. As Arthur Lismer, member of the Group once wrote: “Commonplace picturesqueness disappears in the north country and is replaced by epical and powerfully moving shapes” (qtd. in McKay 2011, 179). The key to their success was therefore to be located in wilderness rather than farmland, emphasizing a bright light, clean snow or vivid autumn colors in contrast with the English and Dutch picturesque that had produced “clouds, mist and a hazy softness” (McKay 2011, 181). Although, the Hudson River school had largely contributed to the development of North American landscape painting in the style of the wilderness sublime, the Group of Seven painters were “disinclined, however, to confess much affinity for American art” or for European modernists for that matter (O’Brian and White 2007, 27). Lawren Harris rejected American art as “insufficiently northern and insufficiently white”: “We, [Canadians] are on the fringe of the great North and its living whiteness, its loneliness and its replenishment, its resignations and release, its call and answer, its cleansing rhythms” (Harris qtd. in O’Brian and White 2007, 27). Canada was to be at the forefront of a “new cultural order” (McKay 2011, 195), “the future nursery of the Nordic race and the centre of the Empire” (195).

7Even though the Group aspired to embrace the full breadth of their country, painting in the National parks of Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, most of their work was produced in the area located around Georgia Bay and in Algoma County as well as Algonquin Park, just North of the Great Lakes, thus justifying Sherrill Grace’s remark that the Canadian school of painting had “a tendency to take an eastern, largely Southern Ontarian, part of Canada for the whole” (Grace 2002, 32). The Group’s construction of a national vision of the land emphasizing Northern wilderness was predicated on a relatively limited stretch of land, and more importantly enacted a form of framing that emptied the landscape of any traces of human activity in the environment or of Indigenous occupation, leading Tom Thompson and the Group of Seven to purposefully obliterate the “mines, lumber operations, railways, and mill towns [that] were widely dispersed across the industrial north of Ontario” (O’Brian and White 2007, 32) at the time. The imagined nation as framed in Group of Seven wilderness landscapes, emphasized grandeur, absence and void. While stressing “the spiritual in the wilderness” (McKay 2011, 196), the Canadian colonialist enterprise was born out of a profound process of visual erasure, practicing a type of framing that signaled the effacement of Indigenous peoples and the romanticizing of a Northern wilderness landscape as pristine and untouched (Bordo 1997).

8North-American survey and commercial photography in the 19th and 20th centuries, through the emblematic works of photographers such as Carleton E. Watkins or Ansel Adams, as well as the Hudson River school or the Group of Seven painting, all contributed to the naturalization of these landscapes as grandiose, pristine, and wild. Writing about Ansel Adams’s photography in particular, Emily E. Scott and Kirsten J. Swenson argue that his landscape photography “perhaps best demonstrates the impulse to suppress, or evacuate, the ‘fact of labour’ that goes into landscape’s making” (Scott and Swenson 2015, 4). Along the same lines, J. W. T. Mitchell has insisted that the process of naturalization at work in the representation of landscapes is a form of erasure of its constructed nature, or in other words, that it tends to suppress the frame. According to him, landscape understood as “a cultural medium” “trace[s] the process by which landscape effaces its own readability and naturalizes itself” (Mitchell 2002, 2), thus misleading the viewer into believing that there is no framing going on. I want to argue that more recent pictorial practices in the U.S. and Canada have contested the political, social and ecological underpinnings active in the national traditions of landscape representation and problematized this idea of an untouched naturalized landscape. Lorraine Gilbert and Jin-me Yoon in particular have sought to revisit the idea of the Northern landscape, by revealing the framing at work while “demythologizing landscape’s romantic underpinnings” (O’Brian and White 2007, 31).

Drawing the frame as an antidote to the unseen

  • 1 Lorraine Gilbert. Coyote Ridge Road. Series Shaping the New Forest (1987-1994), www.lorrainegilbert (...)
  • 2 One thinks of The Tetons and the Snake River (1942) photograph, for example.

9By bringing environmental devastation into light, Canadian photographer Lorraine Gilbert has addressed and challenged the idea that “Canada’s identity as the ‘True North Strong and Free’ depends on keeping a lot out of sight” (Gilbert 2017, 52). Initially trained in environmental biology in Montreal and then in forestry in British Columbia, Gilbert went on to work seven seasons as a tree planter in British Columbia (Gilbert, n. d.). Throughout her artistic work as a photographer, she has maintained an interest in establishing a dialog with the history of landscape painting and photography. The photograph Coyote Ridge Road1 as part of the series Shaping the New Forest (1987-1994), for example, draws on the canon of landscape photography aesthetics while seeking to deconstruct it. The meandering forest tracks in the photograph are evocative of elevation curves and draw the viewer’s attention to the topographies imbedded in the landscape as well as its culturally and scientifically constructed nature. Although Gilbert “chose to use a large-format camera in the North American tradition of nineteenth century exploration and documentary photographers” (Gilbert, n. d.) and despite the manifest affinities with Ansel Adams’ black and white photographs of the Sierra Nevada of the 1940s2, one realizes, on closer reading, that there is nothing pristine in what is in fact a devastated landscape. Gilbert thus offers a rewriting of the sublime with its characteristic absence conveyed by the erasure of a forest that had once been emblematic of the North. By pulling into the frame the man-made barrenness of the land, she calls our attention to the naturalizing process at work in earlier representations of North-American landscapes.

10In the series entitled Revisiting the Old Plantation (ongoing), Gilbert offers several instances of repeat photography in which the choice to embed the frame plays a crucial part.3 Not only do the arm and hand holding out the photograph in the middle of the photograph make the frame visible, they make the framing process inescapable. Through the reframing of the landscape of tree cutting/planting in Northern British Columbia, Gilbert offers to measure de/reforestation and draws our attention to the exploitation of the forest. By presenting an older photograph of the site within the more recent view, by inserting a frame within a frame, that is, something that is not there to begin with – or at least not there physically – by superimposing the “old” landscape onto the “new,” Gilbert insists that landscapes are anything but fixed or frozen in time. Celebrating neither the old nor the new, the encasement of frames demonstrates how in fact different views or states of the landscape may coexist and invites us to look at the layering at work within the frame and outside of it, as well as the imbrication of the real and the imagined.

11In Jin-me Yoon’s work, and more specifically her early series entitled Souvenirs of the Self (1991),4 the layering process at work in the landscape takes the form of a critical dialog with the Group of Seven paintings and what they have implied for the development of a particular brand of Canadian nationalism. Through the reappropriation of the emblematic landscapes of the Group – most evocatively Maligne Lake, Jasper Park, by Lawren Harris5 –Yoon claims a right to look and therefore a right to be in spite of her overt Otherness. In the title of the series, the choice of the expression “of the self”, rather than the reflexive pronoun “myself”, puts the self at a distance, as the thing that is being looked at, observed, as the object of reflection and thereby contributes to displacing the gaze from the landscape to the person in its midst. This is emphasized in the photograph entitled Souvenirs of the Self (Lake Louise),6 where Yoon fills the void, characteristic of the Group of Seven landscapes, with her body – that of an Asian Canadian woman – whose presence in the wilderness transgresses the ideal of a Nordic white Canadian identity and undermines the genre of the wilderness sublime and its nationalist undertones. It signals the sense of alienation of those who do not share the memories, myths and histories associated with the landscape, because they are socially invisible. By inserting a diasporic body into the frame, even as Souvenirs of the Self (Lake Louise) deploys the sublime, it problematizes it as a mode of perception that empties the landscape (Casteel 2007).

12Yoon further explores the interplay of what is on the inside and on the outside of the frame, in particular through the choice of location – here Lake Louise. Indeed, as Andrea Kunard puts it, the lake, situated in Banff National Park, a haven for tourists attracted by the beauty of the scenery, and named after Princess Louise, Queen Victoria’s daughter, “fixes the land with a history of imperialism” (Kunard 2010, 18). By exposing the relations of power that underpin the landscape and the attendant erasure of the Other, whether migrant or Indigenous, Yoon further unsettles the image of Canadian wilderness. While the title of the photograph points to a specific site, the striking similarities in the color scheme, composition and framing with Lawren Harris’s 1924 painting of another location, Maligne Lake is unexpected, almost troubling. The layering process is complicated by the insertion of Yoon’s diasporic body onto the overlapping images of the seemingly ‘real’ – Lake Louise – and ‘imagined’ – Maligne Lake – locations. Furthermore, as Yoon stages herself erect with her back to the lake, she is ostensibly leaving out of the frame what stands in front of her: the large four star Fairmount Château hotel built by the shore, the existence of which most people looking at this photograph would probably be aware of. This suggests that the layering process taking place between the real (which is not real of course) and the imagined, also involves what the mind knows to be left out. The layering process within the frame and the porosity between the inside and the outside suggest that landscapes are multilayered. It serves as a reminder that the shaping of the land occurs through dynamics of inclusion and exclusion which draw on the contradictions of the nation. It involves reappropriating and reinterpreting the land in the light of conflictual social relations and of pre/coexisting images of the land we carry.

13The decision to add or subtract from the frame, or to superimpose layers within it attests not so much to an interest in the landscape itself as in the processes at play in the production of the landscape as a national space. Within this perspective, the landscape needs to be understood as a set of cultural, social, political and ecological relations forged from tensions between the past and the present, the migrant and the non-migrant, the pristine and the scarred, the empty and the inhabited in the landscape. The framing processes at work in Gilbert and Yoon’s works seek to displace the gaze, revealing the unseen environmental devastation or the limits of multicultural policy.

The nation in focus: frames and fragments

14In the series entitled Natural Motif (2012), Gilbert specifically engages with the legacies of Tom Thompson and the Group of Seven in Algonquin Park, Northern Ontario, where they are known to have painted. The installation view of the Natural Motif exhibition in the Ottawa Art Gallery, shows a large-format photograph entitled View of Algonquin Park from Eagle’s Nest, Bancroft (2012)7 in full on one wall while seven detailed views taken from the photograph are diversely framed and presented on the wall adjacent to the larger view. It is worth noting that these framed details are shown in a space contiguous to a Group of Seven exhibition organized that same year, thus engaging in a deliberate and explicit dialog with the frames of the Group’s paintings. In Eagle’s Nest, Gilbert offers a breathtaking view of the city of Bancroft situated on the edge of the Park and adopts the traditional aesthetic values associated with landscape photography: the panoramic format, the bird’s eye view, the beautiful colors of the Indian summer. However, the introduction of elements that are usually kept out of sight – the golf course, the Tim Horton’s parking lot as well as the Home Hardware store – serves to contradict the myth of the pristine land of the North, and further undermines the romanticism and quest for purity of Group of Seven landscapes.

15Of the framed details in the exhibition, curator Catherine Sinclair writes that the digital manipulation at work in the photograph serves to “smoothe […] the detail of distinct areas of the image […], blurs the sharp edges and makes them appear more painterly.”8 This “painterly” style as well as the choice to present these details of the Algonquin park landscape in the kind of wooden frames usually associated with oil paintings or watercolors serve to reintroduce the picturesque into the frame all the while underlining the framing at work. The oddity of the framing process and the choice of details, – one featuring only a slice of blue sky and another the far corner of the Tim Horton’s parking lot –, contribute to a fragmentation of the landscape, cutting out views that seem, at first sight, meaningless excised as they are from the larger picture. By staging the process by which the land is enclosed in the frame, Gilbert points to the act of framing as akin to an act of maiming, where framing the land can be understood as a metaphor for the appropriation and exploitation exercised by humankind. It speaks to the extraction of natural resources that are being torn out of the land, a process which the Group of Seven conveniently left out of their frames, although, in the Ontario of the 1920s and 1930s, it was already fifty years in the doing (O’Brian 2007).

16The detail from Eagle’s Nest that Gilbert chose for the cover of her exhibition catalog entitled Canadian Landscapes/Paysages canadiens9 is interesting in this respect. The Tim Horton’s parking lot in the fore, set against a backdrop of water and trees in the typical dark green and ochre colors of the Indian summer complicates the idea of the national landscape. Tim Horton’s, a Canadian fast food chain created in 1964, is now owned by a Brazilian investment firm while the parking lot could be anywhere in Northeastern America. The paradox that Jean Kempf points out in his discussion of the New Topographics photographers may apply here. Indeed, despite an effort at localization – here Bancroft – one is left with a sense of absence of place. Because the sites photographed, such as the parking lot, the golf course or the Home Hardware store make it interchangeable with other North-American sites, the “somewhere” has become an “anywhere” (Kempf 1993, 7), which in turn interrogates the value of place as a singular, lived experience. Through its very large format, Natural Motif emphasizes the scale in the alterations brought by man onto the landscape, while the reframing of the land into detailed views and the fragmentation this implies suggests that the relation between the landscape and identity is far from deterministic. The fragmentation at work proposes that the landscape offers multiple ways of belonging.

17The question of belonging is at the heart of Yoon’s exploration of identity politics in her series A Group of Sixty-Seven (1996)10 which systematizes the insertion of diasporic bodies in the landscape. A Group of Sixty-Seven is presented in the form of two grids staging sixty-seven members of the Vancouver Korean community in front of two paintings, one by Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris Maligne Lake, Jasper Park (1924) and the other, Old Time Coast Village (1929) by Emily Carr. As a West-coast counterpart and friend of the Group of Seven, Carr “imagined modern-Canadian national identity in images of the landscape as vast, alluring, and threatening wilderness” in which she inserted representations or traces of the Aboriginal presence through the painting of totems and other artifacts (Moray 2007, 229). In Yoon’s work, the insertion of the migrant figures in the foreground, reduces these emblematic paintings to a mere background setting or decorative purpose. This reveals the contradictions between the landscape as expressing a supposedly higher, spiritual, ideal while denying the “exploitative plunder [of Native populations’] territories”, cultures and identities within them (Moray 2007, 229). The introduction within the frame of the faces of the socially invisible in an imaginary white Canada is assigning the migrant figures a place in that landscape, even as that place can be sensed as cold (as suggested by the colors in the Harris painting) or dangerous (as suggested by the dark forest in the Carr painting). Yoon’s reappropriation of Lawren’s and Carr’s work in the Group of Sixty-Seven series and the attendant insertion of diasporic bodies questions whether the individuals in these photographs can enjoy what Yoon has termed “a ‘naturalized’ relationship to this landscape” (qtd. in Koh 1998,182). The central place given to “visible minorities” at the forefront of the landscape serves to shift the focus away from national and “natural” landscapes to landscapes as contested spaces.

18The title of the series plays to the name of the Group of Seven but also refers to the 1967 centennial celebrations of the founding of the Canadian confederation as well as changes in migration legislation adopted that same year, and which sought to reduce inequalities in the migration process in terms of country of origin and race. These portraits were shot in the Vancouver Art Gallery as it was hosting its 1996 The Group of Seven: Art for a Nation exhibition. The insertion of the diasporic bodies of her sixty-seven sitters within the frame against the Carr and Harris paintings in the background creates a disjunction between the white Anglo-Saxon nation imagined by Group of Seven artists and the ethnically plural history of the country. The type of framing adopted by Yoon emulates the norms and fixedness required of passport photographs thereby pointing to the “official” identities of the sitters and their problematic place within the nation. It brings to the fore an Asian-Canadian history marked by discriminatory voting laws, exclusionary immigration policy, the exploitation of Chinese labor during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway or the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the second World War. The view of the sitters from the back further problematizes the idea of belonging in Canadian society. Whereas the grid can be seen as a visual articulation of Canada’s mosaic ideology, it also draws the viewer into the tension between the individual and the community in an officially multicultural society that stresses the possibility to retain one’s heritage while integrating into Canadian society. The presentation of sixty-seven discrete photographs in the form of a grid, could serve to materialize in space the tension between the parts and the whole. This fragmented visualization of the land serves as a reminder that the nation remains an abstract and intangible construction, where the articulation between the individual and the community remains problematic. It draws our attention to the tension between the whole and the parts, between the nation and its constitutive elements, whether they be places or people, between the ideological space of the landscape and place as a lived experience.

Framing landscapes, producing places

19Increasingly landscape photography has developed practices which define it as a production of space, inseparable from the human relations that shape the land in the first place. In her book entitled Géo-Photographies : une approche renouvelée des territoires (2015) French art historian Danièle Méaux has coined this practice “geo-photography” and has expanded on the investigative process at its heart in a more recent publication entitled Enquêtes, nouvelles formes documentaires (2019). Méaux identifies in contemporary photographic practices an investigative paradigm which seeks not so much to re-produce the real, a practice associated with the traditional documentary value of photography, but rather works consciously at its production (2019). The insistence on the act of framing – which could be defined as constitutive of a conceptual approach – creates a critical distance which reveals and questions the processes at stake in the production of space. The investigative paradigm seeks therefore not to reproduce the real but to visibilize the social inequalities and ecological imbalances in the production of a national discourse on the land, and in so doing points to the landscape as not only a pretty site/sight, but rather as a territory in the making, a space experienced, a place performed over time which questions in the way the social sciences enquire, seeking to problematize rather than resolve.

20The linear and rigid organization of the portraits in the form of two grids in the A Group of Sixty-Seven series, showing the sitters’ fronts and backs, emphasizes the framing process at work and invites the viewers to decipher the grids’ logic, enticing them to seek an explanation in the geometry, to uncover the stakes in the careful arrangement. As mirror images, one positive, the other negative, the grids, taken together, seem to aim at offering a comprehensive understanding of their subjects by visualizing them from different, or opposite angles. The double perspective on each sitter suggests a comprehensive method, the multiple facets signalling a desire to look at its object from different angles and a refusal to shy away from the social and political complexities of the multicultural nation. The great precision with which the subjects are photographed and positioned in the frame, as what could be construed as a representative sample of the Korean heritage community of Vancouver, in terms of age and gender, reinforces the sense of rigor, method and objectivity that underpin the work. The fact that these members of the local Korean community really existed at the time the photograph was taken, that Yoon met them and invited them to participate in the project “is a confirmation of real socio-historical conditions” (Koh 1998, 184) and lends to the investigation, a sociological dimension that emphasizes the social structures “in/by which they are represented” (ibid.). This is not to say that the grids determine our reading of these portraits, but they define multiple frameworks within which the spectators are invited to wonder about the individuals portrayed, to imagine the circumstances of their lives, the memories they share, their stories, or what brought them into the frame to begin with.

21Karla McManus defines the principle of repeat photography as that of “re-photographing the same place from the exact position (ideally with the same type of equipment) at the same time of year and under the same climatic conditions” (McManus 2011, 105). It is usually associated with the scientific use geologists and climatologists make of it to observe the melting of the glaciers over time. More generally, rephotography has become a method to document and evaluate the impact of climate change on the planet. Whereas the practice of repeat photography tends to juxtapose images of identical locations, their encasement in Gilbert’s Fallen Snags (1991), for example, emphasizes the coexistence of the various temporalities present in the landscape. The use of the progressive form in the title of the series Revisiting the Old Plantation (ongoing) defines the landscape as a spatial process unfolding over time. Also, the choice of presenting photographs in series is itself a reminder that landscapes are ever-changing. It can be interpreted as a way of remedying the bi-dimensionality to which the representational space is condemned. It enriches the narratives that are told and incites the viewer to take time to explore the question at hand, just as one would turn the pages in a book or leaf through successive documents in a collection (Méaux 2019). The online presentation of the series offers a case in point where the internet page proposes an assortment of documents including photographs in black and white and color, and also features maps marking precise locations, aerial views, and text.11 All of these elements provide not only a very rich source of information but also a reflection on the transformation of the landscape with the passage of time. This reveals the diachronic potential of photography and invites the viewer to reconstitute the events of the past leading to the present state of the land.

22The use of the Internet as a form of archive in Gilbert’s work in particular further adds to the investigative dimension at play. The presentation of Eagle’s Nest in its online version where a cursor allows the online user to move around in the landscape and to zoom in and out of the photograph evokes the manner in which the researcher seeks the right distance and the right angle to look at their object of enquiry and proceeds to denaturalize (“dénaturalisation” in French, Méaux 2019, 42) the reality under study. The viewers are encouraged to adopt an investigative approach, to “experience” the landscape within a framework which promises a dynamic understanding and invites the spectators to decipher the layering process at work, the relation between the whole and its parts, the ways in which the histories of the land have fashioned the territories we live in. The investigative position draws from the social sciences to produce questions and knowledge that are critical of essentialist approaches to class, race, and gender or deterministic understandings of space/place. The archive is always about the dialogue we imagine we can establish with those who come after us, it is about the landscapes of tomorrow.

23In fact, as Merrifield points out in his discussion of space and place in Lefebvre’s work, there exists “an inextricable interconnection between time and space since one takes on meaning only through the other and they cannot effectively be distinguished.” (Merrifield 1993, 521) The term “souvenirs” in Yoon’s series Souvenirs of the Self reminds us that the souvenir photograph is about remembering a specific place at a specific moment in time. While the appropriation of the genre of the post-card demands that the photograph “produce pictures that are supposedly ‘timeless,’” (Opp 2011, 273) Yoon’s presence within the frame also evokes the tourist snapshot in its “I was there” dimension, which contradicts the “timeless[ness]” that “the aesthetic […] of landscape and nature photography” demands (Opp 2011, 273). Introducing a temporal dimension in the photograph by showing the histories they convey produces the sense that “the land is not an abstract physical location but a place” (Creates 1997, 11). This can be achieved in different ways. Gilbert’s photograph of snags and deadfall lying on the ground amidst a new plantation, and “resembling old bones,”12 offers a contrast between the tangled pile of fallen trees and the alignment of healthy young tree trunks. It informs the viewer about the life cycle of this forest between destruction and regeneration. Whether literally or evocatively, Yoon and Gilbert’s photography draws into the frame the histories of these and other landscapes as well as the hegemonic discourse they are the product of, thereby offering to renew our understanding of what it means to be Canadian and to revise the sense of place that emerges out of the landscape.

24Placing the body in the frame as do Yoon in Souvenirs of the Self (Lake Louise) and Gilbert in the photograph Anne on Block13 powerfully contributes to producing a sense of place. At first glance, the bodies of these two women could seem precisely to be ‘out-of-place’ (Koh), – not white enough, not strong enough – and yet, their feet are firmly planted in the ground. There is nothing apologetic about their presence, which testifies rather to an act of resistance to historical narratives of conquest. Their anchorage in the land performs place and reclaims a sense of belonging at the same time. As the trees in the landscape, the two women cast their roots into the soil, and testify to a lived place away from the abstractions of the nation. The presence of the body within the frame forces us to “cast our analytical gaze on what people did (and do) in affecting place making, particularly as it involves or affects memory” (Opp and Walsh 2011, 7). The body within the frame returns us to a human scale, one that is more readily understood, it speaks to the places we seek to accommodate for ourselves at a given moment in time, amidst the tangle of multiple identities or managerial approaches to the land. It is also about our imprint on the land, and it is about remembering. Essentially it points to the uncertainties of the landscape while never relinquishing a sense of place.

25The trope of the Nordic landscape as imagined by the Group of Seven is reused and reframed in ways which render visible the persistent contradictions about access and belonging to these landscapes as well as the exploitative plunder that Canadian forests have been subjected to. The Gilbert and Yoon series draw the viewers into the landscape in ways that encourage them to experience it not as a transcendent spiritual force, as Lawren Harris would have it (McKay 2011, 194), or a natural given but as multifarious, uncertain, and unfixed, a product of ideological constructions and social relations at work in society. The layering and fragmentation at work in the landscapes is reminiscent of the archaeological site where one is invited to carefully dust, uncover, identify, and make sense of the traces of previous occupation left in the soil. They invite the viewers to reflect on framing as a dynamic process, informed by the dialectics between the inside and the outside, the real and imaginary, the whole and its parts, the past and the present. Beyond the contestation of the ideal or the abstract spaces of the national landscape, the works under study deploy an investigative paradigm that reflects on the histories of the land and the sense of place that emerge, even when place remains problematic.

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1 Lorraine Gilbert. Coyote Ridge Road. Series Shaping the New Forest (1987-1994),, accessed 27 March 2023.

2 One thinks of The Tetons and the Snake River (1942) photograph, for example.

3 See Lorraine Gilbert. Fallen Snags. 1991,, accessed 29 March 2023.

4 Jin-me Yoon. Souvenirs of the Self. 1991,, accessed 29 March 2023.

5 Lawren Harris. Maligne Lake, Jasper Park. 1924,,f_auto,fl_lossy/ws-klinkhoff/usr/library/main/images_blog_imported/macintosh-hduserscharleshilldesktopimage-14.jpg, accessed 29 March 2023.

6 Jin-me Yoon. Souvenirs of the Self (Lake Louise). 1991,, accessed 29 March 2023.

7 Lorraine Gilbert. View of Algonquin Park from Eagle’s Nest, Bancroft. 2012,, accessed 29 March 2023.

8 Lorraine Gilbert, Natural Motif installation view,, accessed 29 March 2023.

9 Lorraine Gilbert,, accessed 29 March 2023.

10 Jin-me Yoon. A Group of Sixty-Seven. 1996,, accessed 29 March 2023.

11 Lorraine Gilbert. Revisiting the Old Plantation (ongoing). 2012,, accessed 29 March 2023.

12 Lorraine Gilbert. Fallen Snags. 1991,, accessed 29 March 2023.

13 Lorraine Gilbert. Anne on Block. Accessed 29 March 2023; and Jin-me Yoon. Souvenirs of the Self (Lake Louise). 1991,, Accessed 29 March 2023.

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Gwendolyne Cressman, « Framing the Land: Canadian Landscapes Revisited in Jin-me Yoon and Lorraine Gilbert’s Photography »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 35 | 2023, mis en ligne le 14 novembre 2023, consulté le 04 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Gwendolyne Cressman

Université de Strasbourg, UR 2325 SEARCH

Gwendolyne Cressman is associate professor at the Université de Strasbourg (France). Her research bears on photography at the crossroads of scientific enquiry, documentary and conceptual art in the United States and Canada, with a particular interest in migration, landscape, national identities and memories. She recently published an article in volume 34 of Intermédialités / Intermediality entitled ‘Sensing the Border at Roxham Road’, and has also co-edited two volumes, ‘Les ruines contemporaines’, Interfaces (forthcoming 2023) and ‘Framing/ Unframing Spaces in the English-speaking world’, Polysèmes (2022). She is currently working on a book that explores the national traditions of landscape photography in Canada and in the United States. She is co-editor of scholarly journal Ranam and of the Etudes Anglophones series hosted by the Presses Universitaires de Strasbourg.

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