Shelter, Seeking Solace: The Photographs of William Eakin

A number of us experienced the first lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic as—among many other things—an opportunity to walk. As people were temporarily untethered from the duty of going anywhere in particular, walking became a widespread activity pursued with eagerness and bringing, for some, great therapeutic benefits. Walking allows for zoning out, for escape, but it also helps bring into focus the often fascinating details of the surroundings, time and time again.

Over the course of the winter and spring of 2020, William Eakin walked a lot, with camera in hand, along the riverbanks of Winnipeg. He began to photograph the cottonwood trees along the rivers, an exercise that would crystallize into a systematic project and has now resulted in the artist’s most recent body of work, “Shelter.” Composed of about 30 black and white square-format photographs—a selection distilled down from a larger corpus—the series presents close views of the intricate webs created by gnarled and bending tree branches. In many of the photographs, signs of human presence can be discerned among the tangle (a cooking pot, a shopping cart, a tent-like structure), making it clear that such sites are effectively inhabited.

Eakin characterizes the images as landscape photographs whose meaning is made up of a number of layers that can be peeled back like an onion. At an aesthetic level, the particular camera he used to take the images—an old Olympus Micro Four Thirds mirrorless digital camera that was given him by a friend—is a crucial element in understanding the effect produced. As is regular practice for Eakin, the selection of the right technological apparatus to match a particular subject matter (or vice versa) is an important step in the creative process. In this case, he was interested in the great depth of field afforded by the Olympus, a feature that is currently out of favour in the digital camera world (indeed, he was given the camera because his friend couldn’t get good money for it). In an effort to create or perhaps celebrate an “outmoded” type of image, the artist purposefully went against the prevailing visual paradigm, in which the pleasing blur produced by shallow depth of field reigns supreme.

From William Eakin, “Shelter,” 2020, pigment inkjet prints. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto.

In Eakin’s series, the extensive depth of field results, interestingly, in a heightened sense of the flatness of the picture plane. This is unquestionably reinforced by the way the works are generally composed: virtually every square inch of each photograph is covered by the sinuous lines of the leafless branches, creating an all-over pattern reminiscent of gestural drawing. The fact that the images were taken exclusively on sunny days, at times when the sun’s rays hit at a low angle and create deep shadows, further emphasizes the contrast between the contours of the trees and the dark sky or snow-covered ground. There is almost an excess of detail in these images—everything is pushed to the front and so very much in focus that attempting to take everything in is a challenge for the eye.

Yet the remarkable precision of these photographs is of a decidedly digital nature and results, I feel, in a strikingly different experience from that of analogue technology. It is noteworthy that in talking about this work, Eakin cites as an aesthetic antecedent Group f/64, the American modernist photographic collective whose members included such photographers as Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham. Taking a stance against the doctrine of pictorialism (and its own version of a pleasing blur), the members of this group explored, chiefly through landscape and still life imagery, what they deemed to be the intrinsic technological potential of the photographic medium. Large-format cameras, the smallest of apertures and contact printing were combined in order to create images with characteristically extreme amounts of detail and focus. Eakin’s “Shelter” can perhaps be read as a kind of homage to this movement, though definitely a circuitous one: the work replays some aspects of Group f/64’s visual formula (including, incidentally, bright sunshine), but it does so with an outmoded digital camera whose own technical attributes were likely based on the enduring modernist dogma of Group f/64. In other words, the series plays with the idea of photographic languages, those sets of conventions that are grounded in particular moments in time yet can be resurrected—an approach that draws attention to the work’s status as constructed image rather than neutral representation.

For all their apparent uniformity of detail, there are some elements in the photographs of “Shelter” that stand out and draw the eye into the actual sites pictured. The evidence of handmade structures used as sanctuary by people experiencing homelessness, in addition to the occasional inclusion of architectural elements like bridges or apartment blocks, ties the images to a specific place. Homelessness is a problem that is clearly not particular to Winnipeg. However, the city’s configuration around the Assiniboine and Red rivers, and the history of its citizens’ relationship to these waterways, are two factors that shape the way homelessness is manifested there. After years of neglect, much hope is now being invested in the city’s riverbanks by property developers and municipal leaders alike, who see them as sites of great untapped potential. Eakin’s photographs show that such spaces are already populated, but unofficially, by those who have sought shelter on their own terms. Neglect has allowed a portion of Winnipeg’s population to survive, hidden in plain sight. Moreover, the quasi-invisibility of these structures is conveyed by the photographs: these are not typological studies of handmade shelters along the riverbanks; the shelters themselves do not dominate the compositions. They are presented, rather, as one element among the mess of nature, and are noticed only if time is taken to really look.

From William Eakin, “Shelter,” 2020, pigment inkjet prints. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto.

For Eakin, the place pictured is also tied to his own experience of the early months of the pandemic. Walking along the riverbanks was, for him, an attempt to find solace in nature, a way of “sheltering in place” that also allowed him to stay active and possibly evade the feelings of stagnancy with which many would contend. The title of the work is intended to be read as both a noun and a verb: as well as a place, offering protection. Shelter is also something one seeks, a safe space in circumstances that are thought to be dangerous or life-threatening. In the context of the pandemic, other people were deemed to be the source of danger and even death, whereas nature represented—theoretically at least—freedom of movement and survival. In Winnipeg, untamed nature can be accessed via its riverbanks, and it is actually surprising to see how few traces of the built environment appear in Eakin’s photographs. While not exactly uncharted territory, these sites offer a space in which nature has been allowed to become, once more, the dominant force.

On one level, then, these are landscape photographs imbued with the potential of freedom and survival in a context of imminent danger. And yet their undeniable constructedness makes it clear that such ideas are only surface-deep. Being closer to nature may assuage our anxiety, but the reality is that truly escaping society is a dream that is realized only in death. Even in neglected nature, people are never too far away, and in any case neglect itself is a state sanctioned by society. But the dream can exist in an image—in this case, in photographs of the beautiful, gnarled chaos created by cottonwood tree branches in the winter. Sometimes images are all we’ve got. ❚

Zoë Tousignant is a photography historian and curator based in Montreal.