The Story of the Polaroids in the 4th Street Underpass

This temporary art exhibit is sourced from real Calgarians and aims to make the 4th Street S.W. underpass a little more neighbourly.


The story below is unaltered from how it originally appeared on the website in December 2015. Since the story was originally published it has come to light that the photos used in the installation were not taken by the artist as he claimed. You can read more about the controversy surrounding the images in a story by Jason Markusoff for Macleans.


photos courtesy of derek besant (the source of the photographs used in this art installation is now being investigated by the city of calgary).


Underpasses are not known for their attractive decor. Grimy, grey and dirty, we tend to keep our heads down and speed walk through them, but one artist’s recently installed work is looking to change that. Derek Besant, an artist with more than 30 years of experience, was commissioned to beautify the 4th Street S.W. underpass as part of the 4th Street S.W. Underpass Enchancement Project. Rather than turn our focus away from the bustle of activity in the area, Besant has created literal still frames from the space for the public to focus on.

“I didn't want to decorate anything. I wanted it to reflect something about the site,” says Besant. “I thought the context of the place was more critical to address than put a picture of something in there.”

To prepare for the work, Besant visited the underpass with a camera, recorder and notepad, observing those who walked through and interacting with them to get an idea of who they were over the course of a few days.


Besant used Polaroid frames in order to give the appearance of enlarged objects and to tap in to the psychological aspect of intimate personal items.

The final product, titled Snapshots, is a series of 20 six-by-seven feet faux-polaroids posted on either side of the underpass. Each one depicts a person, blurred from the shoulders down, with an accompanying phrase. Besant chose the 20 people at random from the pedestrians he met at the underpass. Though each phrase is pulled from his interviews with those people, they’re not direct quotes from the person photographed. Besant did that to add to the sense of anonymity and universalism intended by the piece.

Despite this anonymity, the work is partly intended to make people reflect on the diversity of people around us. They are the neighbours we rarely pay attention to, but who populate our world.

“We encounter all theses different groups. They're certainly concentrated in that one corridor,” says Besant. “It's a real a cross section of the city.”

Snapshots is intended to be a temporary installation, a “warm-up” as Besant calls it, for the permanent work, which will accompany the redevelopment of the underpass in 2017.

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