The Back Alley Photographs of Eric Klemm
Excerpt of an essay written by Gary Michael Dault for the catalogue of a solo exhibition held at Gallery Jones, Vancouver , February 28 - March 25, 2006
He does not love a city who does not love its tatters, its modest, miserable little neighborhoods; who never gets short of breath on back staircases; who never trips over tin cans with the accompaniment of cats meowing; who never watches an airplane—a splinter in the azure sky…He does not love a city who does not know its little habits… Osip Mandelstam, “Cold Summer”in Glas: New Russian Writing 5 (Moscow: Glas Publishers, 1993), p.146.
Clearly, photographer Eric Klemm does love cities, does love their tatters, their little habits, their cats, their splinter-airplanes flying brief trajectories above the urban crevices that are a city’s back alleys. Archetypal back alleys, like the feral, congested laneways of Toronto—where I am writing this—are gloomy, abashed places where the city no longer bothers to prepare a face to meet the faces that it normally meets. Incarnated in the alleys and laneways of most cities, of old browbeaten cities like Toronto, is the distaff side of whatever the city can offer—its oxymoronic, self-canceling theatres of intimacy and rejection. If you walk the laneways and alleyways of any city—as Eric Klemm has done in Vancouver—you see the city back to front, an inverse city pulled inside-out like a sweater. Eric Klemm’s back alleys, however, wear their urban rue with a difference.
One of the most enjoyable texts ever written in this country about the perpetual charm and the enduring, slow-motion importance of laneways and alleys is the late Harold Town’s book Albert Franck: Keeper of the Lanes (McClelland and Stewart, 1974), an affectionate study of the painter who, along with the Group of Seven’s Lawren Harris, is best remembered (Franck died in 1973) as a virtuoso interpreter of Toronto’s back alleys. Franck’s dark, moody paintings of the laneways, fences and the backsides of the old houses, clotted with pigment that looked like peeling housepaint on damp wood, became what Town called “cathedrals of the ordinary, cocoons of the humdrum, painted as seriously as if they were primal structures, essential to the full understanding of man.”
But this was Toronto. Old Toronto, a half-century ago. Vancouver, on the other hand, is as different from Toronto as two urban parentheses can be. Whatever its actual history, Vancouver seems endlessly new—perhaps because the journeying sun heads west, just making the westcoast scene when the east has retired for the night. Vancouver is the end of Apollo’s ameliorating trek across the sky. Thus Vancouver’s renewable sense of beginning, and Toronto’s inescapable sense of resignation.
And so it makes sense that Vancouver’s back alleys should look different from Toronto’s. It came as rather a surprise for me, as a matter of fact—since I am an inveterate, tireless walker of my city’s laneways and back alleys—to notice, when I first looked at Eric Klemm’s back alleys, how bright and solidly built they were, resolutely and decisively carved from the juxtaposition and termination of sharp planes of cement, concrete, stucco and brick, hotly wired and gridded with perspectivally-receding transformer towers and power-lines and flooded, more often than not, with a particularly pellucid coastal light.
My back-east alleys are inviolate: dark veins in the metropolitan body, like the neural paths of a city’s unconscious, fetid and fervid, conduits to the rough animal id behind the more visible ego of its accelerating urbanism. The alleyways I know are soft and burnished, sometimes dangerous, full of cats and crack addicts and moldering automobiles. Eric Klemm’s back alleys, by contrast, are hard, open and inspectable, laced with calligraphic wires and cables, punctuated with windows and energized by steel staircases. My alleys are embroidered with graffiti, each of them a walk-through jabberwocky of chaotic distress and desire. His alleys are a kind of graffiti in themselves—a deliberate, geometricized, heavily-scored urban discourse made from a vocabulary of building forms and design imperatives.
While it feels as if the alleyways in Toronto were always there—fissures (lesions, even) that somehow or other opened up in the sprawling, aging urban body—Eric Klemm’s Vancouver alleys, by contrast, seem planned, deliberate and necessary to the city’s well-being. And in his exquisitely planned, deliberate and, I dare say, necessary photographs of them, there are a number of seemingly inevitable, deeply integrated qualities, atmospheres and motifs which lend both the back alleys and the artist’s photographs of them much of their character.
All of them are, for example, paved. Pavement has a strange willfulness about it, and a certain finality. Toronto alleys are seldom paved, and are mostly gravel or broken shards of old concrete or planes of frayed asphalt. Vancouver alleys, the ones in Klemm’s photos at any rate, are (mostly) hard, strong, and sun-bright or bluish, like the bottoms of drained swimming pools. The sun beats down upon them until you can feel the heat of them just by gazing at the photographs. Or when, as in some of the photos, the alleys are cast in shade, the shade seems to fall onto the hot pavement in such a way you fancy you can hear the hiss of this new imposition of coolness.
And there is lots of blue sky. Indeed part of the considerable eeriness of the Klemm photographs lies in the innocent but relentless blues of a firmament that seems always to overarch the alleyways almost to the point of discordancy or artifice (sometimes the blue of the contingent, glass-walled office-towers reinforces this high, deep blueness, or acts as a surrogate for it). This blue-sky vaulting of Klemm’s back alleys—in utter defiance of majesty of Vancouver rains—is, in fact, so omnipresent, it actually begins to seem like a purely surrealistic blue—a colour more imagined than discovered.
I have mentioned the transformer towers and power lines in the photographs earlier, but the more I look at them, the more these hydro towers—always in long recession, each of them twinned like a tuning-fork—appear to proclaim their role in ordering the structure of the photos, in lending to each of these highly theatrical, rather stage-like landscapes, the idea of a vaulted repeatability, the effect of infinite distance, and the presence, somewhere deep within or “behind” the photograph, of a vanishing point (a cessation, resolution, exhaustion of endless, proliferating back alleyness). How deftly they index distance.