Culture & Conversation

Closer to home…but not quite there yet

TERENCE BYRNES’ DESIRE TO SEE THE STORYTELLER, as well as the acknowledged paradox of trying to find authenticity in the posed portrait, are manifest in his book. Closer to Home: The Author and the Author Portrait, is his collection of portraits of Montréal authors.

Byrnes’ historical knowledge of the portrait is unquestionable. He has a theoretical understanding of the meaning of the author portrait. Yet, there’s a lack of regularity in the quality of the images. Some, like Yann Martel’s chilling portrait, reveal the photographer’s immense talent and his great eye. Kaie Kellough’s portrait is remarkable in its composition. Others, like those of Norm Sibum, Catherine Kidd and Peter Behrens, seem to have been rushed: the pictures are grainy because of unforgiving light, and the authors appear tense and mistrustful.

As each writer has a particular style, most of these portraits seem to say different things, mainly through the choice of location. For some, it is the unaesthetic realism of a workplace or apartment. For others, it can be what seems like a factory basement, giving the writer a dirty work-in-progress feel. But it’s not just location: the aforementioned chilling portrait of Yann Martel could well have been taken in the badly-lit parking lot which forms the background of the unimpressive shot of Peter Behrens.

There seems to have been, at times, a missing bond between the photographer and the writer. That coldness and distance are expected in shots of a gala event or ceremony, but not in the privileged setting of someone’s home.

More banal than the actual pictures are the stories that accompany them. They take the form of a diary of the events that occurred when the picture was taken. Squeaky stairs, orbiting life partners, small apartments, lack of time – these descriptive elements rarely add to the photograph’s depth or meaning. There are some personal and touching stories, but they are few and far between. Possibly relevant would have been a general idea of the writers’ works. I would have liked to discover more about the writers with whom I wasn’t already familiar.

It’s hard to say if the book is worth its $30 price tag. There are many authors but the photographer’s language barrier (he is a unilingual Anglophone) has alienated him from half, if not more, of Montréal’s successful living writers. While they may not always share the same shelf space, they do share the same space geographically. Was there no way of communicating with French authors?

Once you’ve read the words, which can be done quite quickly, all that’s left are the pictures: some not so moving, others downright gorgeous and impressive. Take a look.

Joseph Elfassi is a Montréal-based freelance journalist and photographer. View his online portfolio at

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