Amongst Timeless Women

Concordia Graduate’s Photo Exhibition Empowers Women Past and Present

Josephine de Lambilly observes Marisa Portolese’s portraits at the FOFA gallery in Concordia’s EV building. Photo Marie Brière de La Hosseraye
Marisa Portolese presents her research, juxtaposing the portraits she took and the ones William Notman shot. Photo Marie Brière de La Hosseraye

For Marisa Portolese, women are the subject on more than just International Women’s Day.

Portolese has been photographing women since 2002, in her series Belle de Jour. The third installment, Belle de Jour III, is currently on display at Concordia’s FOFA gallery.

Upon entry, the viewer is immediately faced with portraits, staring at them with conviction, inevitably raising questions in the viewer’s mind. At first glance, the force of Portolese’s work is destabilizing.

“I like strong women. That’s why I produce images where my women are very strong,” Portolese said. Indeed, the artist doesn’t just take pictures—she creates them.

“I choose the wardrobe, I choose the model, I choose the location and then I try to put the images together like a storyboard.”

The result is stunning, striking, captivating: exactly how Portolese wants people to see her subjects.

“It’s about representing the codes and conventions of female representation, but also presenting these women in a very bold, provocative and strong way,” she said.

The exhibition is laid out so that the pictures spread their energy. The room is airy, well lit and the photos spring off of massive white walls.

It’s an invitation into the intimacy of women who are the subjects of the photographs. Wearing nightdresses and posing in soft atmosphere—forests, gardens and dressing rooms—the strength of their stances contrasts heavily with a background of common life.

“It’s about the contemporaneity of the women that she photographs,” said Zoë Tousignant, the curator of the exhibition. “There’s something really raw and honest about the way she represents women and people in general.”

At first, Tousignant was Portolese’s model. Now, as curator, her role in the accomplishment of Belle de Jour III has been to accentuate the artist’s work.

Josephine de Lambilly observes Marisa Portolese’s portraits at the FOFA gallery in Concordia’s EV building. Photo Marie Brière de La Hosseraye

“I didn’t change anything about it, but I tried to bring certain things out so that the viewer might understand better,” Tousignant said.

After graduating from Concordia in 2001, the next year saw Portolese produce her first exhibition with women at the centre—the birth of Belle de Jour. Since then, she has continued evolving with women: from retro porno, to fashion photography, she presented this third exhibition alongside Victorian photographs.

“I [immersed] myself in thousands of 19th century portraits of women in [William] Notman’s photographic archives,” Portolese explained. “The images that I produced in Belle de Jour III engage in a dialogue with them.”

She spent several months going back and forth between the archives of Montreal-based photographer William Notman and her own photographs, delving into the past.

“I describe her as a visual researcher. It is research in the same way of art historians, but it’s primarily at a visual level,” Tousignant said.

The new works confront the past. Comparing Notman and Portolese, contrasts in portrayal are obvious.

“Women are very comfortable with him and they’re not weak. They are not objectified, they are very much in control of their image,” Portolese said.

According to her curator, Portolese has a unique way of embracing the past to better illustrate the present.

“She is not afraid of confronting the past and recognizing the history of both female representation and what part photography, as a medium, has played in that representation,” Tousignant said.

Belle de Jour III // FOFA Gallery (1515 Ste. Catherine St. W.) // Until April 8 // Free