Thursday, December 23, 2010

Moved 2 Montreal

Having recently finished my last post about photography of Liberia, in the late 1970s, involving Canada, It really hadn't occurred to me that I could continue posting on such a specific topic.

But then... I decided at the last minute to go to Montreal last weekend. Its obviously quite a different place from Monrovia: its big and built up and it was very, very cold when I was there, with plenty of snow already on the ground and enough still falling to keep the streets covered.

Therefore it was all the more startling to discover this in a wide, snow-blanketed courtyard just west of the skyscrapers of downtown:

The front of the Canadian Centre for Architecture was draped in an enormous black-and-white photograph of an historic house in Arthington, Liberia. It turns out that the museum has included the photo survey of Liberian settler architecture, taken by Max Belcher between 1977 and 1986, as part of its current exhibit, Journeys, on how architecture manifests the journey of ideas across the globe.

Beginning in 1977, Max Belcher journeyed to many of Liberia's historic American settlements, particularly along the St. Paul river and in Grand Bassa County, and photographed the historic homes there. He then traveled across the American South, looking for comparative architecture. He was able to draw a clear parallel in the architectural stylings that the original American settlers brought with them.

This project yielded a book, A Land and Life Remembered: Americo-Liberian Folk Architecture, which was published in 1988, with text by Svend E. Holsoe (one of the world's great Liberianophiles and founder of Friends of Liberia), and Bernard L. Herman. Herman summarized the project for the CCA's exhibition catalog.

The book is not currently in publication, and copies of which are for sale online for as much as $250.

Not only is the book a tremendous resource for the documentation of a rapidly deteriorating stock of historic structures, the timing of the project is rather incredible. The first series of Liberian expeditions took place prior to the Doe coup in 1980, and the entire publication was released in 1988, on the eve of more than a decade of civil war, which of course destroyed the entire country and probably more than a few of the delicate, dilapidated structures that the book documented.

©Max Belcher courtesy CCA.

I'm still not clear if Max Belcher's photographs are just a part of the Journeys exhibition or are actually part of the CCA's archives. From what I can tell, Belcher's photographs are part of his collection which is held by Duke. Either way, this whole project, with its incredible book and haunting, mythic photography is so exactly the kind of thing that I like, and love talking about on this blog, that at one point a momentarily considered scanning the whole book page by page. Instead, I've started expanding on some of the more specific tangents about the project in separate posts to follow soon. In the meantime, I recommend visiting Montreal in general and the Canadian Centre for Architecture in particular, especially between now and March when this exhibit is on and the halls of one gallery feature black-and-white portraits of the grand houses of old Liberia.

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