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Blue North: Justin Newhall on Exploitation, Pornography, and Time

By Alex Lauer

Justin Newhall never had to think about appropriation in his earliest work, which ranged from taking pictures along the Lewis and Clark Trail to photographing World War II reenactments. He expected the process to be similar during his travels to Churchill, Manitoba, for Northern Studies—immersing himself in an enigmatic environment and capturing its essence with his camera. While this series of photographs captured the essence of the town, Newhall made a discovery that effectively detached it from everything he had done before.

In a field, he found what initially appeared to be a pile of phone books wrapped in duct tape and trash bags. But inside the weathered shell was an odd collection of photographic prints, without any information identifying the owner or photographer—and he knew he needed to rephotograph them.

Newhall’s journey to Churchill was sparked by Glenn Gould’s 1967 experimental radio documentary The Idea of North, which captured five individuals’ perspectives on the region. Following Gould’s impulse, Newhall took the 40-hour trip from Winnipeg to Churchill—the northernmost point of the Canadian rail—and photographed five non-human subjects for a visual interpretation of the North: the town of Churchill itself, Cold War military remnants, anthropomorphic spruce trees, tundra buggies obscured by whiteouts, and the mysterious photographs that are now part of Newhall’s Dene Village Portfolio (2009/2011).

The Dene Village is widely deemed one of the Canadian government’s worst decisions in history. Falsely attributing a declining caribou population to a small group of nomadic, indigenous people—the Sayisi Dene—Canadian officials relocated them to an area just outside of Churchill in 1956. Removed from their normal way of life and forced into an unfamiliar setting, one third of the Dene population died within 10 years due to poverty, alcoholism, and resulting violence.

Now deserted, this village is where Newhall faced this collection of simultaneously absurd and apropos photographs: more than 200 8 x 10-inch pornographic prints of women with abnormally large breasts. It wasn’t the subject matter that interested him but the way the images were recontextualized by the passage of time and the effects of physical deterioration—a process he finished with his lens.

Justin Newhall

On one of the journeys I took up there, I met a young Canadian woman on the train. She said, “Oh, you’re going to Churchill? Well, you have to read this book.” It’s called Night Spirits, and it tells the story of the Dene. It was incredibly dark and haunting—a brutal read, actually. I thought, I need to go see this place. So I went up there.

A number of concrete foundations are still there, and those foundations became something I thought I might photograph. They’re kind of strange because they’re literally in the middle of the woods, and they’re these small concrete foundations that were houses at one point. I started to photograph those, and while I was doing that I had to have a bear guard with me because there are polar bears around. A friend of mine, David Salmela, who lives in Minneapolis, came up with me and served as my bear guard. He had a shotgun and he’d just be standing, sort of watching.

Alex Lauer

You just happen to have a friend who could act as a polar bear guard? Is he a hunter?

Newhall

He doesn’t hunt any longer, but he used to. I had known from going up there several times before that if I was going out I needed to have somebody with me, because, yeah, you don’t want to run into a bear. That would not be good. Also, my practice is such that I shoot with a view camera so I’m underneath a dark cloth and it’s hard to see what’s going on around me.

So he was there, probably really bored, and was wandering around with this shotgun loaded with a slug or two while I was taking these pictures. We did encounter bears on a different trip but not on that one—although what was much worse were the mosquitoes and bugs. They were insane. It was like the Boundary Waters times 10. You had these nets over your head so you wouldn’t get eaten alive. At any rate, he was wandering around, and right on the edge of one of these foundations was a package in trash bags that had been duct-taped together, sort of wrapped. You couldn’t tell how old it was, but you could tell that water had seeped in. It looked like the equivalent of a couple big phone books.

Curiosity got the best of us, and we opened this thing up. Inside were about a thousand of these photographs of, basically, breast fetish porn. As one of my friends said, “Isn’t all porn with women breast fetish porn?” Well, no, this is really different.

First of all, they weren’t magazines. It wasn’t a Penthouse or a Playboy or something like that. They were 8 x 10 glossy photographs, traditional glossy photographs, like something you might have for a headshot. What they depicted were these women where the breasts were either so central to the image that that’s all the image was about or else they had incredibly large breasts. In some cases they weren’t even breasts, like somebody had literally put a watermelon underneath. It was definitely a fetish, in a really serious way. So there were about a thousand of these, or maybe a couple hundred—it was a lot.

Lauer

A significant amount.

Newhall

Right. What was interesting about them is that as I was photographing, I was very aware of the nature of the site, having had all these people die tragically there. A lot of their houses burned down, children were—I don’t want to make light of it. It was a very dark and haunted place, and I’m not the kind of person that ever feels that way about things.

Obviously, a large part of it was having read this account of what happened to the Dene while they were living there. What was interesting was that the freeze-thaw cycle had broken into the bag and had gotten into the dye layer of the photographic paper. Most of the photographic dyes had disappeared except the one that’s the most stable, which is cyan. That’s where they get this very blue color to them: that’s the one color that stayed there. When I was looking at them I couldn’t help but make this connection between the ghostly quality of the photographs and thinking about the ghosts that were lurking in this place. Not literally, but this was a place where all these perverse things happened.

I began photographing these things, but I didn’t have a very good camera for doing it. I had to use the view camera, which I didn’t need necessarily, but that’s what I was doing. Then we wrapped them back up and put them back in the place where we found them. There was a little bit of the feeling like we were trespassing in this place, but there was no reason why we couldn’t be there. It was on public land. Whoever had put this stash of pornography there clearly was not going to recover them, but it was a strange thing in the sense that you wonder who put them there. Was it somebody who wanted to recover them? Or was it somebody who had found them and wanted to take them away from someone? Why would you wrap them up and not just bring them to a dump?

Lauer

Since there were at least a few hundred pictures, what was the main criterion you had for cutting them down? There must have been a lot of deterioration on most them, or were a lot of them pretty well preserved?

Newhall

Some were better preserved, and in those cases they definitely had a more explicit nature. For me, the images weren’t about pornography. They were about something else, something more than that. They were about the passage of time, about violence. I knew that if I rephotographed ones that were too explicit then all you would see was the pornographic nature of them, and I didn’t want that.

With the ones that I pulled aside—because I didn’t photograph every single one—I felt that you’d look at them and be drawn to the image, wanting to know what you were looking at, what was going on. It was also interesting because—in terms of the violent nature of the site, where a lot of the Dene people died horrible and violent deaths—some of the photographs almost looked like the people had been beaten up, due to the nature of the dyes spreading or being pushed around. That kind of look was something that had a deep connection with what transpired at the location.

Lauer

Do you think this subject matter is key? Say you found a big stack of family portraits or a different sort of photographic collection, instead of pornographic material, how would that have changed this portfolio?

Newhall

If it was somebody’s personal collection of photographs they would still have had an interesting connection because whenever you find a found photograph—especially one that would be from a family album—there’s an immediate sense that something’s missing or gone or lost. That would have been a connection.

What was interesting about this collection was that these were deliberately taken away and then put at a place where nobody would be around them. I haven’t necessarily been able to wrap my head around it completely, but I do think there’s something about the nature of a lot of pornographic imagery that deals with exploitation, and that is connected with the way the native peoples of Canada and everywhere else around the world have been treated. Then there’s the idea of exploiting resources, people’s knowledge, manpower, and things like that.

There’s also an inherent connection with a certain kind of violence and pornographic imagery. There are many manifestations of that, but different types of manifestations—some very benign and others not. There was a connection with this feeling that some of these people were being photographed and you didn’t know what their situations or circumstances were. One of the things that’s so interesting about photographs, and those photographs for sure, is that they show you a lot, but you still get no context. You don’t know why or where or how these things were made, and that animates your brain in a way that you start to come up with your own narrative or solution to the pictures.

But by naming it Dene Village, that, for me, pushes the viewer for a particular kind of read. That was one of the reasons why I did that.

“For me, the images weren’t about pornography. They were about something else, something more than that. They were about the passage of time, about violence.” —Justin Newhall

Newhall on the 40-hour train ride from Winnipeg to Churchill

Photo courtesy Justin Newhall

Justin Newhall, Untitled, Dene Village, 2009-2011

Justin Newhall, Dene Village Foundation, Near Churchill, MB

David Salmela, the polar bear guard, on the lookout

Photo: Justin Newhall

Justin Newhall, Untitled, Dene Village, 2009-2011

A small sample of photographs Newhall took on the train ride north

Photos: Justin Newhall

Justin Newhall, Plane, Near Churchill, MB

Justin Newhall, Untitled, Dene Village, 2009-2011