Register Saturday | January 23 | 2021

Show, Don't Tell

Montreal writers sit pretty for photographer Terence Byrnes

In a photograph by Montreal writer and photographer Terence Byrnes, the late Montreal poet Louis Dudek, an aged visionary, rests in a quiet sitting room. Later, describing the portrait, Dudek told the photographer, "I am sitting like Pierre Trudeau waiting to die."

With his subjects lounging on daybeds, loitering in an alley or smirking under an umbrella, Byrnes investigates the idea of self-perception and individuality in a collection of fourteen portraits of Montreal's most storied literary figures. Anne Carson, Yann Martel and Jaspreet Singh are just a few of the personalities captured on film in the exhibition, Montreal Writers: Close to Home.

Byrnes is an unruffled and affable veteran of the Montreal literary scene. By day, he is chair of the English Department at Concordia University; by night, he is a self-taught photographer. Calling photography an exercise in courage and trust for both photographer and subject, Byrnes first developed a fascination with the art form in his teens. Taking pictures of people, he explains, exposes a unique relation between strangers: "There is often a real, enduring intimacy that is formed as the consequence of a shoot," he says. Byrnes' work demonstrates his belief that taking photos requires chance-taking, open-mindedness and intervention. His philosophy is most obvious in his photos of the rough, unwelcoming neighbourhoods of Springfield, Ohio-a project that spanned thirty-seven years. "I experience a sense of privilege when I am admitted into something that is not mine."

The title of the exhibition, Close to Home, is in every way a literal description of the photographs themselves. "I take pictures of people where they live, work and play," says Byrnes. "Usually, for most writers, this is a space of fifteen square feet," he laughs.

Byrnes' subjects are photographed where they want and allowed to dress as they wish. The result can be decidedly unglamorous. "People think writers seem to have no vanity," Byrnes smiles. "I feel their vanity is so huge that they cannot vest time in appearance." On the other hand, he adds (still smiling), "They're just folks." True enough, there is an intrepid sense of idiosyncrasy here. Byrnes underscores the fact that he wants his subjects to "be themselves" in the photograph. "I take portraits of people who will reveal themselves or who are willing to reveal," he explains. And, importantly: "I take the image that they think represents themselves. In this way, representation is done at their own peril." Indeed, Byrnes admits one famed writer compared his portrait to the likeness of a "sour, failed pedophile."

Close to Home, therefore, is not about writers "being writers." Instead it is about individuals captured as they see themselves, and the result is often surprising. There was a deliberate attempt to avoid all authorial "accessories" in the portraits-no books, bricks, or computers. For Byrnes, "a literary portrait is a genre and these are the features." In the fourteen images there are no bookshelves in sight, and no author is brandishing so much as a pencil.

Close to Home has been nearly a decade in the making. Opening Tuesday, February 28 at Atwater Library, the exhibition is a collaborative project between Byrnes and The Quebec Writer's Federation, with the support of Montreal World Book Capital.

The exhibition is the result of an accumulated mass of work including photographs of authors recently taken for Montreal's bi-annual Montreal Review of Books. Forget the film adaptation. This time, be sure to check out the photograph before reading the book.

Montreal Writers: Close to Home opens Tuesday, February 28 at Atwater Library and runs until April 1. Continuing to lead his double-life, Byrnes has put down his camera long enough to pen My Life as a Ghost (Issue 19)-on newsstands February 24.