Bank Notes

Moyra Davey has photographed hundreds of pennies and a book's worth of empty whisky bottles, not to mention countless clocks, coffee cups and tombstones. She has trained her camera on the private space of the home and the public space of the subway. She has made portraits since the beginning of her four-decade career, and she has pointed a camera at herself.

Moyra Davey, Kate & Jane (single image), from the series Triptychs, 1979, gelatin silver print

Given the wide range of interests and approaches Davey has explored, her body of work resists being summed up in a tidy soundbite. When announcing her as the winner of the 2018 Scotiabank Photography Award last May, jury chair Edward Burtynsky observed that Davey's “lens shifts our eyes to unseen, ordinary, and often overlooked moments.”

Moyra Davey Photo Credit: Gene Pittman

Davey, however, views her body of work in a different light. It's true that the things and moments she has photographed have often been physically small, as visitors will see at her featured solo exhibition at the 2019 Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival in Toronto, running May 1 – August 4, 2019 at the Ryerson Image Centre.

However, the artist points out, her subjects only appear ordinary until you consider them more deeply. Take her Copperheads series from 1990, for example, which depicts hundreds of decayed and corroded pennies.

“I don't think there's anything ordinary about a penny that's become a Jackson Pollock abstraction,” Davey says over the phone from New York, where the Toronto-born artist has lived for decades. “I defy anyone to find a penny like that — it's hard. It took me years and years to collect those pennies. They're ordinary in the sense that they're pennies, but they've been transformed [by time].”

Moyra Davey, EM Copperheads 1-150, Galerie Buchholz (detail), 2017

Moyra Davey, Newsstand No. 9, 1994, chromogenic print

Davey's exhibition at the Ryerson Image Centre will showcase hundreds of photographs from other phases of Davey's career, “some of them going back quite a ways — to 1979,” says Davey, who calls the exhibition a “mini survey” of her work so far.

Don't let that “mini” mislead you, however; Davey's career has been anything but small, and her work is in the collections of big institutions around the world, from the Reina Sofia in Madrid to New York's Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Davey hasn't restricted herself to photography, meanwhile. She's a writer as well, and an anthologist: For the acclaimed 2001 anthology Mother Reader she assembled a collection of writings about ambivalent motherhood. She works in film, too. At the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival next month, visitors will be able to watch the three parts of the triptych Les Goddesses, made between 2011 and 2016, as well as footage from a new film she's been working on, called I Confess.

Davey stopped working in photography altogether for a number of years, but the enthusiasm returned when she discovered the freedom of folding and mailing photographs instead of carefully mounting and framing them. Her Subway Writers series, from earlier this decade, looks at first glance like nothing more than images of the crowded New York subway. If you look closer, you'll notice Davey has spotted passengers who are writing, often in tiny notebooks — an allusion to the late Austrian writer Robert Walser, who composed “microscripts” in coded language.

Moyra Davey, Subway Writers (detail) 2011 /2014, 75 chromogenic prints, tape, postage, ink.

In the current phase of her career, “I'm still just as interested in photography as I've ever been,” Davey says. “In fact, you've caught me in Central Park with a camera.”

Speaking of enthusiasm, Davey says the team at Scotiabank has been eager to help her realize her ambitions as an artist. In addition to the feature exhibition during the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival and a cash prize of $50,000, the winner of the Scotiabank Photography Award also receives a book of photography, distributed worldwide by Steidl, a prestigious publisher of art books. While Davey has published a number of books, the upcoming project will be the first to cover the span of her career.

“That was a really happy thing for me to be able to produce,” she says.

At this moment of recognition, can Davey offer any thread that ties all of her different creative phases together?

“I don't have a nutshell encapsulation of what it is that I do. Each chapter is really specific,” she says.

If there isn't one single thought at the heart of it all, perhaps there's a feeling.

“I guess I would just like people to somehow feel more alive — that's how looking at photographs and looking at films and reading literature makes me feel.”

This exhibition is presented by Scotiabank and organized by the Ryerson Image Centre in partnership with the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival. The Scotiabank Photography Award publication MOYRA DAVEY will be available at the Ryerson Image Centre (www.ryersonimagecentre.ca) and can be ordered from Steidl (www.steidl.de). Book design by Barr Gilmore. For more information www.ryersonimagecentre.ca.