UBC Okanagan photography professor Fern Helfand is a woman who responds to her environment. This trait is revealed in both her photographic art works and in her attitude to life as an instructor. Having come to the Okanagan in 1998 after accepting a teaching position with Okanagan University College, Fern has observed many changes in the local environment and has captured many of these moments through the lens of her camera. At UBC Okanagan, Helfand helps students acquire the skills to do the same.
Helfand’s interests lie in revealing the fabricated nature of the world. Her own photography explores issues of veracity both within the experience of the moment caught within a given photograph, and also within the issue of digital photography as a medium. Her work has approached the subject of tourism in locations such as Niagara Falls and Disney’s Epcot Centre, has questioned people’s experience of real events such as the Okanagan Mountain Park fire, and continues to explore the experience of community development within the region of the Okanagan. Helfand takes none of these experiences at face value, nor do her works. Working with the medium of photo and collage, she questions the authenticity of people’s experience with their world, and at the same time, questions whether there currently exists any truth inside photography as a medium.
According to Helfand, photography once could be touched up or manipulated only by professionals. With current computertechnology, entire photographs can be constructed by anyone, until there is no longer any “authenticity.” Photography, therefore, can become a totally fabricated experience. This reality parallels Helfand’s interests in the touristic, which to her is often a commodified, consumer experience. To illustrate such a point of view, Helfand produced art works about Niagara Falls and the Epcot Center in Disneyworld, Florida. In “ Tourists at Niagara Falls”, Helfand manipulates the positions of her subjects for effect. Her subjects are positioned in such a fashion that it would be physically impossible for the camera to capture all of them in their relationship to the falls and the surrounding landscape. Yet, Helfand says, “within the work, there is such veracity of the moment, that viewers often fail to recognize this fact even when they are familiar with the space”.
In “ America Appropriates the World,” Helfand focuses on the Epcot Center, where Disney “Imagineers” have created simulacra, deceptive substitutes that stand in for the real thing. Her series of large digital collages created in 1999 include several pavilions representing different countries, for example, Canada, Italy, and China, full of immediately recognizable clichés of those places. Helfand has written, “A visit to Disney’s EPCOT is a visit to the future and the four corners of the world all in one day. The convincing ambiance is uncanny, right down to the accent of the employees brought in from abroad to provide the right ethnic experience while you dine or shop for authentic souvenirs, which Disney also imports to complete the setting “ There is the implication that you can visit Epcot for a positive experience of the entire world and you do not need to go abroad, where you would have to deal with foreign languages and uncertain experiences. At Epcot, there are even Kodak signs to show people where to stand to take the best pictures. At these sites, many of the visitors' experience is primarily though the lens of their camera, they do not take time to look directly at what is in front of them. It’s one click and then onto consuming the next “attraction.”
After the Okanagan Mountain Park fire of 2003, Helfand created “Interface, Disaster as Spectacle” in collaboration with Portia Priegert. When depicting the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire, Helfand sought to answer the question, ‘Do people need to turn to media for an understanding of real events?’ What interested her was the manner in which people were close enough to “touch reality” by actually looking at the spread of the fire, but then returned to their homes and watched media accounts of the fire. In her work, Helfand deliberately creates mistakes of perspective, suggesting the possibility of a lack of veracity in the overall experience of the fire for Okanagan residents.
At UBC Okanagan, Helfand is one of the professors who experienced the transition of Okanagan University College becoming the University of British Columbia Okanagan. Fern began teaching at OUC in 1998 after having taught for many years at other institutions. Even after all of these many years, Helfand enjoys teaching. For her, it is the students themselves who inspire her to continue. Says Helfand, “Students teach you new ways of thinking.” She also says she enjoys the interpersonal experience of the classroom. This becomes apparent when she pulls out a copy of an alumni magazine from Universiti Sains Malaysiaand hands it to me. Recently, she was asked to write an article on her time teaching at USM. Her published article is full of memories and pictures of students from her time there. The article is by no means the largest of her projects, but Helfand is very happy and proud of the time she spent in Penang, Malaysia and she hands me the copy to read
Since so much of her work expresses itself in photo collage, I ask Helfand to tell me what a photo collage of her years as a teacher would look like. She tells me the three major institutions where she has taught would be depicted – UBC Okanagan, the University of Western Ontario and the Universiti Sains Malaysia. The student body featured would be one full of diversity, both in nationality and in the type of students. Finally, in the years she has worked as a teacher, photography has undergone considerable technological changes transitioning from fiber-based paper to resin (plastic) coated paper, to no paper at all with the advent of digital technologies. These changes would also be expressed. “That is a good question,” Helfand says to me, “Maybe I should do that project.”
Currently, Helfand continues exploring the idea of fabricated experience in the residential communities and developments in the Okanagan. Areas of development such as the suburb of Panorama Peaks allow her to explore issues of sustainability and also of community. To Helfand, such real estate projects are problematic. “People buy for a view,” she tells me, “and the developers come in and tear up the mountain in order to build, then people move into their new homes and lo and behold, the other side of the mountain, which had originally afforded the beautiful view has been torn up, as well.” In “Forested Hills to Paved Plateaus,” Helfand observes that public transport is not available in these locations and the only way to access such developments is by car, making them environmentally unfriendly. She also notes that such homes as these are often bought up by investors and then resold at a profit, allowing very little sense of community to be established. She has been working on this project for some time now, and intends to continue.
“A photograph is a cultural artefact,” says Helfand. “It tells a story and preserves a moment in someone’s life. The activity, clothing, and environment all speak to time and situation, and to the technology of the day.” Utilizing collage with such artefacts adds layers of time and perspective and helps an artist, such as Fern Helfand, make a statement about the observations of her own time.
Article byLeigh Macfarlane
Last reviewed 11/14/2014 3:28:21 PM