One evening last year, Colin Carney found himself back in the Ward neighbourhood to drop off his 13-year-old son for a music audition at Jam School.
As a university student here in town during the 1990s, Colin Carney knew lots of friends renting in the Ward, where he attended more than a few house parties and dinners.
That evening, while his son “poured his heart out” inside, Carney felt something tugging at his own heart. Pulling out his camera, he began composing shots under the glow of streetlights at the corner of Alice and Johnston streets.
The result forms one of eight wall-filling photos making up his current show at the Art Gallery of Guelph. Besides those images, all shot in 2016, “Presence” consists of video loops and an audio installation exploring place and memory.
Each photographic work overlays digital images of the streetscape taken from slightly different vantage points so that you’re looking at two or more pictures fused into one.
Carney pinpoints a specific location in each piece — Centennial Arena, the Albion Hotel, the Baker Street parking lot — but his layering approach lends each work an elusive, atmospheric quality. A puff of wind might make the scene dissolve, like morning mist.
That paradoxical effect – grounded in place but floating in a kind of in-between space — is a deliberate take on the nature of experience and memory.
Carney chose locations around town that connect him to his arrival here in 1994 to study fine art. He continued grad studies at the University of Waterloo and now teaches at Western University, but he lives here in town with his family.
“A university city has all kinds of opportunities and optimism. It’s a site of memory,” he says.
Although the artist doesn’t show up in any of the frames, he’s the unseen presence of the show title. That presence looks at the streetscape simultaneously through those new eyes of two decades ago — and through the eyes of the artist, dad and resident that he’s become since.
Referring to notes by the show’s curator, Dawn Owen, he says, “It’s a city with a memory-scape and a present-day presence that I’m navigating.”
Carney’s show is a form of storytelling. Or a poem, told through photographs — an ode to the local cityscape and to his past and current selves within it.
“It’s the Guelph I’ve come to know. At the risk of being sentimental, it’s an amalgam of memory and streetscape. It’s present and past at the same time.”
“Shortcut” depicts the downtown laneway between Quebec and Cork streets that became a regular conduit for a younger Carney.
Referring to a former Chinese eatery on MacDonell Street, he says, “I used to live above the Sun Sun Restaurant in an apartment as a student. I studied at the Bookshelf. Mike the bartender at the Bookshelf would look after me — coffee and Tom Waits.”
“Along the Speed” depicts trees in Royal City Park, near the place that Carney rented at the foot of Gordon Street during his second year on campus.
“I have a muscle memory of that park,” he says, adding that he takes his own boys there now. One winter evening, “it snowed and melted and flash-froze. The park was an entire skating rink that no one knew about.”
Besides the photos, the show consists of several silent video loops, including a ghostly depiction — or layered depictions — of Johnston Hall on campus and Gordon Street. In another short loop, clouds float like memories through the spaces between multilayered tree branches.
A series of audio recordings layer ambient sounds — traffic, a siren, a beeping pedestrian walk signal — captured at different locations around town.
“I feel a great sense of comfort knowing the history of a place,” says Carney, calling the works “lovely layers of reengagement.”
“Some are examining a Guelph that I care for deeply. I worry if it loses its character and changes dramatically.”
“Baker Street” shows the former ticket kiosk that was removed from the Baker Street parking late last year. This year, Carney has been photographing the Niska Road Bridge, due for closure at the end of this month.
He says his photography is not documentary work. Or if it is, it’s only partly about documenting the physical location.
His shots capture something of the character of his community. They also catch something of the self that he has devised over the past two decades here, grounded but also ever-changing.
“Presence” runs at the Art Gallery of Guelph until April 23.