Orest Semchishen

I’d like to meet Orest Semchishen.  When I watched particular scenes from the movie, Finding Forrester, I felt a similar feeling about the character, William Forrester.  Gradually, the greatness of this writer is unveiled through the testaments of others.  It seems that people who accomplish great and important things are not always known, but come to be known for what they have created.  So, this is the way it feels once looking into the intimacies of an Orest Semchishen photograph.

On Friday evening, Terry Fenton spoke to some of the content of the photographs represented in the Splendid Isolation exhibit, so wonderfully displayed at the Esker Foundation.  Through that conversation, I had a chance to also meet Lawrence Chrismas, who has successfully documented, through photography, the culture around Canadian coal miners.  Lawrence shared during question period that he has known Orest as a dear friend and that in sorting through his studio, Orest offered him his darkroom equipment.  Such an inspiring gesture!  In keeping with the humility I try to describe in my opening paragraph, Lawrence includes a quote on his home page, “The intelligent man is one who has successfully fulfilled many accomplishments, and is yet willing to learn more.”

Lawrence Chrismas Elymer Holsteine, Pit Supervisor, Costello Mine, Estevan, Saskatchewan, 1987 Gelatin silver print on paper Collection of the Mendel Art Gallery. Gift of the artist 1996.

Lawrence Chrismas
Elymer Holsteine, Pit Supervisor, Costello Mine, Estevan, Saskatchewan, 1987
Gelatin silver print on paper
Collection of the Mendel Art Gallery. Gift of the artist 1996.

Who is Orest Semchishen?  ArtSask offers this biography.

“Orest Semchishen was born in 1932 in Mundare, Alberta. Like other self-taught photographers represented in the permanent  collection  of the Mendel Art Gallery, notably Les Saunders and Stewart Brown, Semchishen makes his living in the sciences. As a radiologist, he is intimately aware of the properties of light and energy, and this familiarity translates into striking imagery.

Despite his highly technological occupation, the primary  subject  of Semchishen’s significant  body of work  owes more to his rural origins than to engineering. For many years, Semchishen has been documenting his travels through rural Canada. As he encounters towns, neighbourhoods and individual residents on his journeys, he photographs what he finds, freezing the changing, or disappearing, lives and lifestyles with a medium format film camera. He then processes and prints his images himself, by hand, through photographic chemistry.

Semchishen has exhibited widely, including multiple solo exhibitions at the Edmonton Art Gallery (now the Art Gallery of Alberta) in Edmonton, the Southern Alberta Art Gallery in Lethbridge, and the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff, Alberta. Many institutions have collected Semchishen’s work as well, including the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography in Ottawa, Ontario, and the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, Quebec.”

Because I have such a preoccupation with memory and nostalgia, Orest’s works are powerful in their intimacy and in their restfulness.  I feel transported, somehow, as I view each photograph, to a particular time and to a place.  The notion of PLACE is so significant.  Regarding value and contrast, I find most of his works to be dominated by the use of middle greys, contributing, I think, to the overall stability and peacefulness of each setting.  They are very sensory and I respond immediately from my own memory of drives through southern Alberta with my grandfather…or recollections of driving the dirt roads of central Alberta and stopping into coffee shops along the way.

Regarding his portraits, Orest has documented a fantastic collection of northern trappers and their homes, impacted so much through the surging influx and pressure from beyond their reserve boundaries.  The objects of their affection say as much about the personalities as the portraits themselves.

Bill Moyan, trappeur, Kinuso, Alberta Orest Semchishen juillet 1985, tiré en 1990

Bill Moyan, trappeur, Kinuso, Alberta
Orest Semchishen
juillet 1985, tiré en 1990

Thank you, Orest Semchishen, for your greatness and your gift.

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