Diana Thorneycroft: Long Shadows in the North

© Diana Thorneycroft ‘Birches in Winter, Algonquin Park’ [detail] 2009 from the series ‘Group of Seven Awkward Moments’

A man once told me: “Your work makes me so angry!”

I responded: “That is perfect! I was really angry when I made it!”


Canada is a place with two distinct identities. One is the urban and urbane multicultural nation, friend to all, an ethnic mosaic to the north of its more powerful sibling, the United States. The other is a vast territory of ancient indigenous peoples, timeless landscapes and dark forgotten histories.

The human mind is also the theatre of two distinct identities. One is the sense of the external self: the pilot of our corporeal and sensual experiences as we negotiate our place in the world and our relationship with others. But there is also an interior self, wholly and privately the domain of the individual, a place of imagination which, while it colours our sensibility, may not always be revealed to our consciousness.

Diana Thorneycroft explores these two zones of uncertain compromise; in particular the things we know but try to forget. An artist with a hybrid background, her photographic works are, like drawings or paintings, constructed rather than simply excised from ‘reality’. Some involve the artist herself as a living, breathing actor or everywoman caught in a kind of performance of the psychological self. In this way she seeks to use the camera, a machine inextricably tied to the exterior world of objective reality, to explore the interior realm of subjective perception.

Her later works use dolls, which stand not only for people as individuals but also as iconic depictions of abstract qualities such as heroism or vulnerability. These plastic figures are placed within dioramas that evoke the clichéd images of Canada familiar through fine art and popular culture. Echoing the multiculturalism of Canada, her dolls are drawn from a diverse catalogue of modern myth and make-believe. The stories they tell suggest that, beneath the verdant landscapes of Canadian national mythology, there lies a murkier subsoil of anxiety and incongruity.

Combining humour with social critique; history with psychology, Diana Thorneycroft has gained a significant reputation as, in the words of the writer and art critic Robert Enright, “one of the most exciting photographers working in North America”.

Alasdair Foster

© Diana Thorneycroft Untitled (and if she wakes) 1994 from the series ‘Touching the Self’


Alasdair: How did you become a photographic artist?

Diana: It wasn’t until I was in my mid-thirties that I embraced photography as an art form. I majored in printmaking at graduate school and, even now, I don’t consider myself to be a photographer but, rather, an artist who uses a camera.

Is it easy for women to become a photographer in Canada?

Gender is not an issue for someone who wants to become a photographer. It’s how we are received, perceived, respected, written about, shown… That is when it becomes an issue. White male privilege persists.

How did your first photographic series come about?

In 1987, I was invited to participate in an exhibition about self-portraiture. At the time, I had been making drawings and prints of still lifes filled with predictable items such as fruit and vegetables, but also strange things like dolls and store-bought chickens. I photographed myself holding these items, and used the photographs as a source for drawing. This proved successful and I thought, hmmm, it would be a lot cheaper if I knew how to process my own film and print my own photographs; so I learned the basics and began renting a darkroom. In the late 1980s, when photography was still consider to have a privileged relationship with reality, I came to realise that the photographs I was taking were more powerful than any drawing I had made. The rest is history…

The exhibition called ‘The Body, its Lesson and Camouflage’ was very dark psychologically.

It was based on three separate series: ‘Touching: The Self’ (1991–93), ‘a slow remembering’ (1994–96) and ‘Patient/Prisoner’ (1998). With a couple of exceptions, several things remain consistent across all three series: the photographs are all self-portraits; they were taken in the dark (the only light source coming from a hand-held flashlight); and I was alone when I made them.

To me, there is in this work an ambivalent sense of the erotic in dialogue with the torturous, especially in ‘Patient/Prisoner’.

I was working with two narratives. The first relates to my very early childhood when I had been really sick; I imagined the instruments the doctors used to keep me alive. The second narrative relates to the realisation that I was now living in a world where medical equipment was not always being used as it was originally intended and doctors were colluding with torturers. For this work, I acquired out-of-date medical equipment and constructed apparatus that appears authentic.

For all these images, I understood that any hint of clothing would immediately categorise my age, class and historic period. Being naked avoided those labels. Of course, one of the side effects of being nude is that it can lead to a reading of the work as ‘erotic’… This interpretation was mainly made by straight men; most heterosexual women didn’t find it erotic at all.

That was the last series of black-and-white photographs I made.

Your colour works have moved away from the flesh-and-blood body to explore ideas using commercially manufactured character dolls and diorama settings. What drew you to work in this way?

As I said, early on I had been including dolls and chickens in my drawings. I considered both to be replacements for the human body. It felt quite natural to return to these ‘surrogates’, and that is what I have been using ever since.

In your series ‘Canadiana Martyrdom’ you bring scenarios drawn from the European history of painting, with its emphasis on Christian martyrdom, and restage these using dolls and toys that represent the clichés of Canadian tourism. What is it you seek to confront in this act of satirical restaging?

A lot of people found my black-and-white self-portraits quite disturbing, yet many art galleries display religious paintings of martyrdom that are extremely violent and audiences view them quite calmly. I found this really interesting, so I decided to make work that used the European religious paintings as ‘templates’. As the landscapes in the images became more quintessentially Canadian, this body of work developed into the ‘Canadiana Martyrdom’ series. And, because toys were used instead of human bodies, I began to hear laughter in the gallery, which was the opposite response I’d become accustomed to with my earlier black-and-white work.

The work that came next makes reference to the ‘Group of Seven’. Who were they?

The Group of Seven was a set of Canadian artists (the number eventually grew from seven to ten) who gained notoriety for their departure from European painting traditions, creating a more distinctly Canadian style. Today, they are considered the quintessential Canadian artists… So much so, that one critic has claimed that looking at a painting by a member of the Group of Seven, is equivalent to hearing the Canadian national anthem!

[Left] © Diana Thorneycroft ‘Winter on the Don’ 2007 from the series ‘Group of Seven Awkward Moments’; [Right] © Diana Thorneycroft ‘Early Snow with Bob and Doug’ 2005 from the series ‘Group of Seven Awkward Moments’

So, tell me about the series called ‘Group of Seven Awkward Moments’.

First of all, those who believe the Group of Seven ‘represents Canadian culture’ are effectively disregarding the artistic contribution of anyone who is female, non-white or speaks a language other than English. When I began this series, it was my conscious intention to subvert the shallow reading of what the Group of Seven was supposed to represent.

Second, there is a belief in Canadian society – and I must admit I wanted to believe in it myself – that we are ‘more polite, less violent, and better than’ our American neighbours. The truth is that we, like any nation, are capable of treating our citizens horribly.

What kind of awkward moments do the images depict?

For the most part, the awkward moments allude to poor decisions made by the characters being depicted, like Santa Claus driving his sleigh when he was clearly drunk. In another photograph, a father and son are fishing outside their cabin on a lake, oblivious to the fact they are in bear country. The dad has caught a fish, which also happens to be in the mouth of a mama bear. That moment becomes even more awkward because her cub has his eyes on the son.

[Left] © Diana Thorneycroft ‘Air India Flight 182’ 2011 from the series ‘A People’s History’; [Right] © Diana Thorneycroft ‘Coach’ 2010 from the series ‘A People’s History’

The phrase ‘a people’s history’ is often used to describe the high points of a nation’s past, but in your series of that name you take a very different approach. What are you illustrating here with your images?

‘Canada: A People’s History’ was a highly successful TV series produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It was a celebration and glorification of our country’s history. It has been translated into Chinese, Greek, Hindi, Italian, Polish, Portuguese and Russian and, because of its enormous success, it is now part of the school curriculum.

Due to copyright issues, I decided not to use the word ‘Canada’ in the title of my series, but the reference remains clear. My ‘A People’s History’ is, instead, about institutional abuse of Canadians by Canadians.

© Diana Thorneycroft ‘Terre Sauvage’ 2008 from the series ‘A People’s History’

Tell me about story behind the young girl having her pigtails cut off and burned.

The phrase “kill the Indian, save the child” [meaning kill the Indian identity in the child so that they can be ‘assimilated’ into western culture] pretty well sums up what was done to the kids when they were removed from their homes and forced to live in Government-run residential schools. Their culture was destroyed; their traditional clothing was replaced with white mans’ clothes, their hair was cut, and if they spoke their own language they were severely punished. In my photograph I depict what I imagine could have happened to one of the young Indian girls upon arriving in her new ‘home’. 

How do people react to your work?

A man once told me: “Your work makes me so angry!” I responded: “That is perfect! I was really angry when I made it!” By giving him permission to feel what he felt, we ended up having a great conversation.

[Left] © Diana Thorneycroft ‘Louis Riel’ 2010 from the series ‘A People’s History’; [Right] © Diana Thorneycroft ‘The Klan in Canada’ 2012 from the series ‘A People’s History’

In one of these images you depict Louis Riel, the Manitoban leader of the people of mixed European and Native Canadian blood called the ‘Métis’. He was hanged as a rebel, but for many he has become a national martyr. How do you want him to be seen in your image?

Louis Riel was a fascinating character, a politician ahead of his time, a man with a vision for Canada who was ridiculed by the ruling English. He also struggled with mental illness. In my photograph I wanted to show his strength, the violence of his death, but also his struggle with the voices he heard in his head.

What is the significance of the blackbirds in the image?

Some people assume they are all crows; they think that the work is a reference to the phrase “a murder of crows” [in English, a ‘murder’ is the collective noun for a group of crows]. While that might work conceptually, it’s not totally accurate. The image contains several kinds of birds – eagles, storks, doves and so on – but all are painted black. To me, they signify madness: Louis Riel’s own struggle with mental illness, but also the madness of the horrific ending of his life. 

On social media, individuals can say whether they are friends or in a committed relationship. A third alternative offered is “it’s complicated” suggesting an ambivalent ‘in-between’ state. What are you illustrating in your series ‘Canadians and Americans (best friends forever… it’s complicated)’?

Exactly that, that we both love and hate our neighbours to the south. In theory, we should be best friends, but it’s mostly a one-sided relationship. At times, because of their size and power, the US act like bullies; but if Canada was ever attacked, they would come to our aid in a heartbeat.

Much of your work addresses dark themes. Do you find it cathartic or do you despair of humanity?

My black-and-white self-portraits were certainly cathartic. But it always took time after making the photographs to understand what they meant. It sometimes took me a couple years to ‘get it’. 

To answer your question, yes, at times I feel evil is winning the battle, and yes, I feel despair. But, while I have experienced loss and abuse (and that is why I can make work that is dark and filled with anger), compared to many people, I am blessed. 

© Diana Thorneycroft ‘Lake O’Hara (Clark, Northern Dancer and the Evil Weasel)’ 2012 from the series ‘Canadians and Americans (best friends forever … it’s complicated)’

Biographical Notes

Diana Thorneycroft was born in Canada in 1956. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts with Honours from the University of Manitoba (1979) and a Master of Arts from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA (1980). She has exhibited and published widely across North America and Europe, and also in Australia. Her work is held in many prestigious collections including the National Gallery of Canada, the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation and Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland. In 2002, she was selected for ‘BLINK: 100 rising stars in photography’ [Phaidon]. She has since received numerous awards including the 2016 Manitoba Arts Award of Distinction, an Assistance to Visual Arts Long-term Grant from the Canada Council, and a Fleck Fellowship from the Banff Centre for the Arts. She lives and works in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Photo © Paul Martens

This article was first published in Chinese, in the August 2015 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.