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Artist Adrift: Dianne Bos' Lost Artistic Legacy

Since her home studio and darkroom were destroyed in last summer’s catastrophic flood, fine-art photographer Dianne Bos finds herself floundering in the wake of a lost legacy.

By Shelley Arnusch

 

Dianne Bos was in France when it all went down last June, when the waters of the Bow River breached the banks and submerged her home in Bowness, leaving behind a churned-up, muddy mess.

Bos and her partner, Harry Vandervlist, are always in France in June, at least ever since they acquired a second home in the foothills of the Pyrenees. With Bos’s career as a fine-art photographer and instructor at the Alberta College of Art + Design corresponding with Vandervlist’s schedule as a tenured professor in the University of Calgary’s department of English, the dream held by many of summering in the French countryside had become this couple’s reality. 

But last year, as another bel été bloomed in southwestern France, ominous flood-related messages began arriving from back home in Calgary. The very reliable source of these gloom-filled dispatches was Tiffany Neddow, a close friend of the couple and partner of one of Vandervlist’s university colleagues, who had taken it upon herself to check in on theBowness abode while the couple was out of the country. As the weather warnings morphed into more serious evacuation orders, Neddow relayed the pertinent information, even sneaking in during the evacuation to snap a photo of the home looking like an island in a lake of stagnant water.

As soon as legal access was allowed, Neddow was on the scene, pumping four and a half feet of water out of the basement. Of primary concern was Bos’s studio and darkroom, the creative hub where she used traditional printing techniques to bring to life her distinctive, large-scale photographic works. There were hundreds of printed images down in that studio — framed and unframed — along with a hefty stock of pricey photo paper, her collection of handmade pinhole cameras and other vintage camera equipment, a fully equipped darkroom and all the other tools and widgets a visual artist acquires over three productive decades. 

Across the Atlantic, Bos and Vandervlist weighed their options, trying from afar to determine the line between conscientious response and needless panic. Guests were set to join them in a matter of days. And it was high season, so last-minute airline travel was at its most expensive. All of this, plus the huge time expenditure involved with going back, just to confirm everything was, indeed, fine. 

Back in Calgary, however, everything was far from fine. The rushing water had caved in one of the walls of the basement and the studio was in bad shape. Neddow knew things were serious, but she needed expert opinion in order to properly assess the state of the art. 

She called in Janet Naclia, a close friend of Bos’s who had worked in art galleries.

There was no power at the house when Naclia made her first visit, but, even by flashlight, she recognized the gravity of the situation and advised Bos and Vandervlist to come as soon as they could. “It was a bona fide soggy apocalypse,” Naclia recalls. “Just mud-encrusted and soaked in crap.”

Photo by Dianne Bos

Gargoyle, Paris, France. 1991.

Bos and Vandervlist decided there was no point in both of them going back. Vandervlist would make the trip alone — a reconnaissance, of sorts, to assess the situation. 

Over the course of the plane ride, Vandervlist says he envisioned something of a hero narrative unfolding. 

“Because we’re talking about photography, and because all these traditional photo prints were made in water, I didn’t think being underwater was going to be a problem,” he says. “I figured that, with just enough time and space to spread things out and rinse them off, I could save everything. I sort of felt like I was on a mission — I was going to save the art!”

He arrived on Tuesday, June 25, four days after the flood waters peaked, and got his first view of the situation in the first light of morning. 

Grim reality quickly deflated his hero complex. 

“What I expected to see was a more-or-less intact basement with water in it,” Vandervlist recalls. “What I saw looked like someone had turned the house upside down and shaken it and then everything had settled back down in the water.”

Aided by a crew of friends, Vandervlist undertook what he describes as “triage” on the contents of Bos’s studio. It was soon apparent his rinse-and-dry action plan was not going to pan out. Sediment-choked tap water ran the colour of tea — unsuited to clean delicate artwork. Also, there was nowhere to lay the prints to dry.

“If I had taken up our entire property with prints I had rinsed out with bottled water, they would have been covered by dust and mud in about 30 seconds because the entire neighbourhood was like a war zone with clouds of mud swirling around,” Vandervlist says. 

And then, even if there had been an unlimited supply of bottled water and acres of clean drying space, by that point most of the prints were beyond saving. Contaminated with sewage, street pollution and other solvents, the caustic flood water ate away at the photo emulsions, turning the large-format works into a gooey mess. Photo paper fell apart with even the most ginger handling. Slick mud gripped like Vaseline. 

 

 

“Where I thought it was going to be a matter of rinsing and drying a lot of photos, really, it was trying to find the few that weren’t irreparably damaged,” Vandervlist says. “My heroic plan sank beneath the waves really quickly.”

The cleanup proceeded over the following days as more and more of Bos’s life’s work was hauled out of the basement and designated for the trash pile. Over the course of multiple phone conversations, Vandervlist relayed the progress to Bos amidst discussions of whether or not she should also come back. “Her feeling was, ‘I don’t want to see this,’” says Vandervlist.

And he didn’t want her to. “I felt like I could feel what it would be like for Dianne to see that. I was seeing it through her eyes,” he says. “When you start to feel how someone else is going to feel, someone you really care about, you just want to know what to do so they don’t have to suffer through that … Eventually, after you beat your head against the wall long enough, you realize some things just can’t be fixed, so youjust have to suffer through it. You go through it together and you don’t get to fix it.”

Photo by Dianne Bos

Venice, Italy. 1992.

To understand what Dianne Bos lost in the June 2013 flood, you have to understand what Dianne Bos does.

Born in Dundas, Ont., in 1956, she studied art at Mount Allison University, majoring in sculpture. Following graduation, she migrated to Toronto to pursue a career in music and art.

Considering her sculpture background, it makes sense that Bos’s entry into the world of photographic art would be pinhole photography. The act of making the camera was a big part of the appeal of the medium. Her first photo, Gairloch Gardens, Oakville, Ontario, taken in 1979, depicted a sculpture garden near Lake Ontario, shot on a day shrouded in fog. 

The resulting developed image was full of what photography purists would deem imperfections: light leaks, weird flaring effects and bubbles. Her reaction was more ebullient. As Bosrecalls it, her exact words were: “Holy shit, I just made a picture with a shoebox!” 

There was more to it than just that. “The biggest thing was that it was this passage of time,” Bos says. “It was like 12 minutes of time, yet it was a still image. Freezing time is what most people find appealing [about photography], but I never thought it represented the world I live in, which is people moving through and that we’re more not in a space than we are.”  

In 1990, Bos produced her most commercially successful pinhole image, a striking black-and-white panorama of Paris shot from the perspective of a stone gargoyle. The shot,Gargoyle, Paris, France, was used in a campaign for UPS, and the limited-edition print ended up in the private collection ofmusician Peter Gabriel

Her acclaim in the world of pinhole photo-graphy continued to grow, and, in the early 1990s, she organized a pinhole symposium in Toronto as part of the Contact Photography Festival.

By the mid-1990s, Bos had dropped music to focus on her photography and landed gallery representation in Toronto (where she was introduced to Naclia). Her ghostly images andmastery of traditional darkroom techniques were establishing her as an artist of note, earning her a place in the Canadian photography canon.

In 2000, Bos was one of five photographers selected to join an expedition to Rogers Pass organized by the Banff-based Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. The group included Canmore-based Craig Richards, another adherent to traditional photographic practices and the museum’s curator of photography. Also on the trip was Vandervlist, then a U of C English professor, who had recently edited a book of poetry by John Whyte, nephew of museum namesakes Peter and Catharine Whyte. 

Photo by Dianne Bos.

Flooded Seine, Paris, France. 2003.

In addition to a series of striking alpine images, Bos took from the trip a lasting friendship with Richards and the beginnings of a romantic relationship with Vandervlist, which eventually enticed her to Calgary. 

The relocation out west also took her career to the next level when she discovered the traditional colour-printing facilities at the Banff Centre — one of only a handful of places in the country where this process is accessible for individual artists. 

“To do colour before there was digital printing, to do big colour prints, well, you didn’t,” Bos says. “It’s easy to do black and white in a home-studio darkroom, but colour is a more-toxic process, so you don’t want to do that at home. You had to go to someone else to do it, so you had no control.” 

As an artist in love with her process, Bos has always relished the tactile aspects of printing by hand, despite the convenience and advances in digital technologies. 

“The light shines through the [negative] and you can dodge and burn and do all these things, and you feel like you have this connection, that the original light is still there,” she says. “There are a lot of digital printers that print colour well. It’s just different, because it’s out of your hands. It’s a different kind of machine. It’s not using light anymore.”

Of course, traditional printing takes time. Just one of Bos’s large-scale colour images will take up to a week to complete. In this sense, the real tragedy behind the soggy piles pulled out of the basement in late June 2013 wasn’t just ruined pretty pictures, but the lost hours, days, weeks and even years. 

Bos’s negatives were stored safely upstairs and survived the flood intact. She often hears the well-meaning comment that “at least you still have your negatives,” but that’s of littlecomfort to her. It’s the equivalent, she says, of a musician being left with sheet music but losing all their recorded performances — the art is in the music as it is performed, or in the printed image, not the template, which is simply the first step in the process.

“The negatives are priceless, but they’re really worthless,” explains Richards. “Dianne’s hands and heart made those prints. They only had value because her hands took them to the next level.”

Now, Bos doesn’t quite know what to do with those hands. She finds herself at an unwelcome juncture — 57 years old and adrift without a lifeboat of archives. The concept of a fresh start is of no inspiration to someone who never wanted a fresh start, someone who was happy with who she had become and what she had accomplished and wanted only to continue building on what she had done.

To think of restarting exhausts her, especially since Bos says she’s never really “stopped” before and finds the idea of artistic stasis unfamiliar and unsettling. 

“As an artist, it’s one of those things where you’re afraid of taking a break because you might not get going again,” she says. “There’s always this fear of running out of ideas or running out of energy, so I’ve just been making things foryears — for decades. Maybe this is good, to stop, to evaluate what I’m doing. And, if I have another 20 years left, God willing, what am I going to do with that time?”

 

 

When it comes to reprinting lost works, it’s not just the time it takes, but the cost that must be considered. As digital printing advances further, traditional photography has been squeezed to the margins, making traditional light-sensitive photo paper and other tools of the trade harder to get and exponentially more expensive. Richards says 100 sheets of 4 x 5 film that cost $85 two years ago now costs $290. Printing costs in general, he estimates, have risen 200 to 300 per cent, and that’s if you can find the necessary materials at all, as many former brands have faded into obsolescence.

Bos hasn’t been entirely marooned since the tragedy. In a stroke of good fortune, Richards was able to re-equip Bos’s darkroom with equipment that had been donated to him at the Whyte Museum. Bos received an Alberta Arts Rebuild grant from Calgary Arts Development as well as help from the Elephant Artist Relief Society, and she and Vandervlist also received an insurance settlement to redo the basement. That said, the assessment only took into account the cost of lost materials, not the value of the time it took to create the images that were printed on those materials. Altogether, her insurance provider deemed her career loss worthy of $6,000. 

Amidst the emotional and financial impact of the flood, she also had to deal with the death of her mother in August. Bos had already pulled out of teaching at ACAD during the 2013-14 session, and so, overwhelmed with the events of the summer and still processing the fallout, she decided to use the time to decompress and figure out where her artistic career should go from here. 

Naclia compares her friend’s mindset to shell shock. “She has the ability to reassess her situation and start new practices, but, right now, it’s like someone who was in a war, someone who has post-traumatic stress,” she says.

The fact Bos wasn’t around during the flood cleanup might have spared her the horror of watching her life’s work get thrown away, but it has also left her somewhat detached. For Bos, the idea that her studio and work is gone remains surreal, a phantom limb that she knows is no longer there but can still feel.

Creativity, however, is much like the Vaseline-like mud that coated the basement in June — it isn’t so easily washed away. Bos is prone to making self-deprecating quips, saying maybe it’s time to shelve her shoeboxes and pack away her enlargers, go what she describes as the “David Bowie route” and reinvent herself completely. For those who know her well, however, the idea that she would abandon photography is unconvincing. She’s invested too much of herself in it — it’s just too much a part of her. 

“One of the things that’s really impressive is how resilient the artistic impulse and curiosity is for Dianne,” Vandervlist says. “I’m actually quite impressed at the thought that it would take even more than [what has happened] to snuff that out. You can tell it’s a huge blow, but I don’t think it’s a knockout blow.”

Photo by Dianne Bos.

Paris Rain, France. 2006.

You’d tend to agree with him once Bos starts explaining how she’s been photographing the aftermath of the flood in her own neighbourhood. In line with her career-long obsession with capturing the passage of time, she has recently focused her attention close to her home community of Bowness. 

“Every day, I walk out in the neighbourhood, and it just changes so much; they’re tearing down another house every day,” Bos says. “I’m trying to photograph the houses that are still there, that I know are going to be gone either tomorrow or the next day … these little bungalows that were defeated by the water.”

On her worst days, Bos also feels defeated by the water, by its power to waylay her career in what was supposed to be a golden era. She grieves not for the pictures thrown into dumpsters, but for the passage of time, the years she dedicated to the darkroom at the expense of music and family. Each image destroyed in the flood was a record of that time, a declaration of a life artistically pursued. The images were what she had to show for herself, proof of how, like a sorceress, she had harnessed the power to turn time into pictures and make light do her bidding. 

There may be less physical proof now, but the power is still there. 

As far as the old work goes, despite having her personal archives destroyed, all is definitely not lost. A number of Bos’s best-known images survive in the collections of museums and galleries and hang on the walls of private residences. Her work also lives on in the minds of those who have been captivated by her images and who find themselves haunted by the ghosts who moved through them in the minutes that the shoebox sat there silently and patiently making a picture, while the artist stood and watched like the gargoyle over Paris, biding her time.