This review was published in Prefix Photo magazine in November 2019.
Moyra Davey is the recipient of the eighth annual Scotiabank Photography Award, an accolade previously granted to celebrated Canadian artists including Stan Douglas, Suzy Lake, Arnaud Maggs, and Shelley Niro. This ambitious monograph, which accompanied a retrospective exhibition at Ryerson Image Centre, surveys of four decades of Davey’s artistic output in photography, film and text.
Condensed into a single volume, the echoic and intertextual quality of Davey’s practice, as much as its evolution, becomes apparent. The plates unfold chronologically, beginning with intimate portraits of Davey’s five sisters in the late 1970s, which abruptly transition into the proliferating taxonomies of newsstands, liquor bottles and bookshelves that dominated her practice in the 1990s and 2000s. Davey cites the influence of theorists such as Laura Mulvey and John Berger as the impetus for her rejection of figurative photography; yet in her more recent work, the body surreptitiously returns. In the films Les Goddesses (2011) and Hemlock Forest (2016), not only does Davey herself appear onscreen as a narrator, but the early portraits also resurface, interweaving Davey’s family among the artistic genealogies (such as Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley; Julia Margaret Cameron and her niece Virginia Woolf) that also recur throughout her work.
The way in which Davey’s influences appear as a spectral cast of characters is indicative of an inherently dialogic quality to her practice, in which her role as a reader/receiver is as integral as that of a writer/creator. Since the mid-2000s, Davey has sent her photographs to curators and colleagues as folded cards in the mail. These works appear in this publication in their post-marked form, adorned with squares of coloured tape and inscribed with the names of their addressees, such that the image’s circulation and reception becomes inextricable from its form. This vital concept of correspondence is cleverly dramatized in a newly commissioned epistolary exchange between Davey and novelist Ben Lerner, which drifts between the critical discourse of a traditional “in conversation,” intimate confessions, dreams, and fiction.