Migrating songbirds that fell from a New Brunswick sky plummet again in Thaddeus Holownia's powerful and passionate new work Icarus, Falling of Birds.
Created for the celebrated Canadian photographer's 40-year retrospective at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax, Icarus is a five-metre vertical drop of colour photographs of dead birds, accompanied by a book by Nova Scotian poet Harry Thurston.
“It's simply a reminder that the birds will fall from the sky, and we're responsible for it,” Holownia said during a media preview.
This two-floor show The Nature of Nature: The Photographs of Thaddeus Holownia, 1976-2016, at the gallery to May 28, features over 180 beautiful, startling and heart-rending photographs that record man's intervention on the land in subtle and strong ways, as well as the beauty of nature and changing light.
There are photographs from a beached whale on a flatbed truck in Prince Edward Island to elegant trees in Paris to the construction of the Sable Gas pipeline.
On Sept.13, 2013, 7,500 to 10,000 birds of 26 species, mainly wood warblers, were killed when they were attracted to a 30-metre high flare at Saint John's natural gas plant. The Canaport Liquefied Natural Gas Plant was fined $750,000 under the Migratory Birds Convention Act and the Species at Risk Act.
After the court case, Holownia was permitted to photograph the birds, which had been held as evidence. He photographed 400 of them. It was a horrible experience, he said.
“There were freezers full of birds in various states of death from charred to perfect specimens of sleep.”
Holownia's love of nature began as a child and his love for the Atlantic Canadian landscape when he took a train to Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., in the late 1970s to become a visiting artist and later a professor. He is now head of the fine arts department for one more year before retirement.
However, retirement means working on art full time. “You live every day through who you are, and if you're active and awake, you make work or you don't do anything.
“I feel sorry for the people who didn't find their voice. I tell my students, 'Don't be lazy. This is a golden opportunity to make something happen, and time is the most precious commodity.' ”
Holownia has dedicated his whole life to working mainly in black-and-white photography and with a large-format 7-by-17 view camera, in which the negative is the same size as the image. “l love the detail, the tonality, the richness.”
This camera also suits his desire to look hard at a subject before he takes a picture, and he often revisits places for series of images, including Dykelands and The Rockland Bridge, which records the decay of a once-covered bridge across a river in Sackville, N.B.
Over the years, he recorded how the tide and the ice changed the land and the bridge. The wooden cribs dissolved away. “Imagine the labour that went into building those at low tide?
'”There's a neat history that begins to unravel when things are left to nature. It talks about the passage of time.”
Born in England, Holownia moved to Ottawa, Barrie, Ont., and Rothesay, N.B., as a child. “My parents were Polish immigrants; we got in the car and went on road trips, camping and visiting museums and galleries. At a young age, I had that experience of being in different places and doing different things.
“They allowed me to be a collector. I was obsessive about examining things.”
In the past, he travelled a lot to the American Southwest to photograph and would take one of his four children with him. “Once I came back and my other son was very excited because his turn was coming up. I said, 'It's great to go places, but really it's all in the backyard. You don't have to go away,' which he didn't want to hear.”
To prove his point, Holownia set up a tripod on his back deck in Jolicure, N.B., to look into the valley and over time took colour photographs for his series Jolicure Pond, 1996-2004.
The land shows the marks of human intervention in the dikes and in a pond that Holownia and his partner had constructed to provide water for their horses.
“This pond is in all the photos which grounds the photograph and echoes the light of the day,” said Holownia, whose favourite place is home.
He used colour, which he said is rare for him. “Robert Frank says black-and-white photography is the photography of hope and despair. I needed to go beyond that. This needed to be colour for the spirit and emotional level.”
David Diviney, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, co-curated this exhibit with the gallery's chief curator, Sarah Fillmore. “Each of us have had an interest in his work for some time and we felt it was time to take stock — past due — to give him the look he deserves,” Diviney said.
"What I've always appreciated about his work is his steadfast commitment to the discipline and practice and an interest in looking at the natural world and our interactions with it, and the sense that relationship must be examined.
“He really sees the detail and through repetition and prolonged inquiry makes visible what we otherwise might not have seen.”
Anatomy Lesson-Moose is a gorgeous wall-work of 100 prints each of a single bone from a moose, whose bones Holownia found scattered in the wilds of Newfoundland's Trout River Gulch in Gros Morne National Park.
Holownia put the bones in two garbage bags and thought about them for a long time before photographing each one individually in stark white against a deep black.
Is it an alphabet? “If you want,” he said. “It's a language of life and death. It's heiroglyphics.”
Holownia's photographs continue to speak to the viewer until May 28 at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. The gallery's hours are Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 to 4; Thursday, 11 to 9, with BMO free admission from 5 to 9; Friday, 11 to 4; and Saturday and Sunday, 12 to 4. Admission fees range up to $12.