Interview with Marian Penner Bancroft

by Avalon Mott

Marian Penner Bancroft, Vancouver Art GallerySpiritlands: t/HERE: Marian Penner Bancroft Selected Photo Works 1975-2000 at the Vancouver Art Gallery

Marian Penner Bancroft is a photographer. Anyone who has even a little knowledge about the Vancouver Photo Conceptualist movement beginning in the 1980s, or is a student at Emily Carr University, knows this. What I didn’t know is how expansive and yet meticulously constructed Bancroft’s practice is. Walking up to the second floor of the Vancouver Art Gallery to view her retrospective Spiritlands: t/HERE: Marian Penner Bancroft Selected Photo Works 1975-2000, I was unsure of what to expect. I have had the privilege to call Marian Penner Bancroft a professor, and so I come to her work wanting validation for the criticism she posed to me about my own photographs. What I witnessed surpassed this desire. Not only is the care and consideration for the photographic medium and respect for traditional printing methods demonstrated through out Spiritlands: t/HERE, but Bancroft’s voice as an artist is clearly articulated. Her work is engaging and thought provoking while being visually pleasing. The perfect trifecta.

Tell us about the narrative that led you to become a visual artist. Was there a direct pathway or were there some twists and turns along the way?

As a child I was always drawing, painting and making pictures, sometimes with a camera. In high school I had a wonderful art teacher, Gordon Adaskin. He treated me and my fellow students with respect, and engaged our minds as well as our abilities to draw and paint. This was important to me. By the time I was about eighteen I knew I wanted to be an artist. In the summer between my first and second years at university I studied at the Vancouver School of Art, and knew that was where I would be next, studying art full time. When I started there I was already committed to photography as an art form, as it was the medium that combined all my interests.

There are many themes that you have explored throughout your retrospective exhibition Spiritlands: t/HERE: Marian Penner Bancroft Selected Photo Works 1975-2000 at the Vancouver Art Gallery: everyday life, social history, individual memory and feminism, to name a few. Could you elaborate on what drives you to use your art practice to further investigate a theme or an occurrence in your life?

My projects come from a desire to engage and explore in a material way the complexities of both visible and invisible worlds. I’m interested in why things are the way they are.

Marian Penner Bancroft From For Dennis and Susan: Running Arms to a Civil War, 1978 silver gelatin print Collection of the Vancouver Art GalleryMarian Penner Bancroft, From For Dennis and Susan: Running Arms to a Civil War, 1978, silver gelatin print, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery

It is apparent in your work that you are dedicated to using photography as a means for a deeper visual involvement in the image. You speak about this in the video interview, which is played as part of Spiritlands: t/HERE, as you describe your love for looking and the curiosity that informs your photographs. Do you feel that photography is unique in the sense that it allows for this deeper looking, or that it is achievable in other art mediums as well?

It’s what works for me, but other forms of exploration certainly allow for just as much depth: writing, music, science, or other visual arts such as film/video, sculpture, painting, ceramics, and works that defy easy categorizations through their various combined forms are just as rich in their possibilities.

Each project presented throughout SPIRITLANDS: t/HERE has a very individualistic feel to it regarding presentation aesthetic. Is it important for artists to push the expectations of conventional display techniques in order to elevate their work?

The decisions I made for finishing some of the work in the exhibition were driven by a desire to have the “framing” become part of the image. Conventional displays can be effective too. My choices are made based on the demands of each project. These change regularly. It’s not about elevating. It’s about getting it right.

Marian Penner Bancroft, "Mnemonicon (The Screen)," 1988, silver gelatin prints, wooden screen, 180 x 300 cm, Collection of the artist. Photographer: Rachel Topham, Vancouver Art Gallery.Marian Penner Bancroft, Mnemonicon (The Screen), 1988, silver gelatin prints, wooden screen, 180 x 300 cm, Collection of the artist. Photographer: Rachel Topham, Vancouver Art Gallery.

You have discussed how you see your work as not offering closure to an issue or idea, but rather an opening. For this to occur, do you feel that viewer engagement is integral? And if so, how do you try to ensure this occurs?

I think any artist wants the engagement of the viewer. However, there really is no one way to make sure this happens. With much of the work in this exhibition I chose to bring the phenomenon of photography into the room through strategies designed to remind the viewer of its physical presence, such as bringing the photographs off the wall. Responses to the content of the image can then be affected by that experience, possibly provoking a more layered read of the pictures.

The use of text alongside your photographic work is an important part of your practice, exemplified in your most recent series By Land and Sea (Prospect and Refuge). Could you speak about how you use text to further your images without becoming didactic and prescribing how the work should be interpreted?

My hope is that the texts will do work that the photographs can’t, and that in combination with the photographs and other elements, a deeper, more complex understanding of the ideas embedded in the work can be made possible. The texts are the result of lots of research into areas that are not easy to represent in a photograph, but are at the same time central to the ideas that have prompted the making of the pictures.

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