Profile from Border Crossings Magazine

Profile from Border Crossings

Winnipeg photographer Karen Asher looks at life from both sides – the tough and the tender, the celebratory and the cautionary. On the evidence of her first one-person exhibition “No Cause for Concern” (PLATFORM centre for photographic + digital arts, January 15 to February 27, 2010), she is drawn to subjects who display, either through their person or their circumstances, a compelling physical presence. “I love people with strong character and larger-than life personalities, but it’s essential that I find the quiet moments and the subtle nuances, or they’re going to be a one-liner.”

The portraits of her mother in hospital and Bella, her best friend’s mother, are evidence of her search for this insistent subtlety. The two women couldn’t be less similar in temperament and attitude. ” I’m really drawn to her because she’s so different from my mother. Bella was ha-cha-cha, the foxiest lady you could imagine.” Bella’s foxiness in the photograph with her new fiance, Marvin, is contrasted to her mother’s postoperative fatigue. “She’d had a heart attack and was in the hospital for three months. It was intense because we’ve never been close, and there are all those feelings of seeing someone you are supposed to love, and wondering was she a terrible mother, was I a terrible daughter? It was such a complicated mix.”

Asher’s lens never gives you straightforward picture; whether she’s photographing the Gay Pride Parade, the Manitoba Marathon or her friends and lovers, her images are invariably characterized by what she calls lavish minimalism. “I love that ping-pong feeling where it’s like, ‘Oh, my god, that’s beautiful. Oh wait, it’s strange and I don’t know how I feel.’” One of the finest images in the exhibition is The Ice Cream Man, a portrait of what looks to be a radiantly happy elderly man enjoying himself at his granddaughter’s wedding. What the picture doesn’t show is his wheelchair and the oxygen tank, which allows him to breathe. What you do see, discreetly, is the small tube above his moustache. “If he were just this beaming man with his ice cream cone and without his oxygen tube, I wouldn’t have been drawn to him. It would have just been a charming Hallmark card. What drew my attention was the juxtaposition: a beautiful sunny day, he’s glowing; it’s one of the happiest days of his life. I think of it as an iconic moment because his happiness is larger than life. But then there’s the ambiguous undercurrent and that’s what intrigues me.”

Asher considers herself a classic Winnipegger, full of admiring complaint. “The city mirrors the personalities here, and we’re united by this humorous down-on-our-Iuck attitude. Winnipeg has so much to offer, but I also feel that the city does have a weirdness about it. We’re so isolated, the winters are so long and so cold, and as a result we’re a little kooky. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”

– Robert Enright