Visual Narrative, 1978-1979

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Barbara Astman, Visual Narrative, 1978-1979


Barbara Astman started using the Polaroid camera in 1977. She was lead to the Polaroid for art making via her experimentation with the colour Xerox. Within a portable apparatus, the Polaroid camera offered instantaneous photos which inspired a collection of responses from Astman. The series Visual Narrative, from 1978-1979 investigates properties of narrative by using text and repetition.


The medium of the Polaroid, specifically, the structure of the photos in sets of six and arrangement in a grid leads the viewer into a scene which is additionally aided by text typed directly onto the Polaroid’s frame. Astman's investigation in narrative through photography reflects concepts being investigated within the context of emerging video art, a newly accessible medium at the time. Polaroid's, like video’s ability to offer instant playback, could provide instant output of images (in contrast to film which had to be developed). This mirror-like property promoted a new vein of performances for the camera and, hand-in-hand with feminist centered examinations of the self, images addressing gender issue surfaced.


Exposing a complex relationship between the artist and the subject, Astman’s authoritative stance in both her self-portrait from this series as well as her use of women and men as subjects brings forth gender issues that reflect the social, cultural, and political climate of the 1970s.


Pre-digital, but on the cusp of the instant and excessive narcissistic culture that digital imaging has allowed, Visual Narrative provides an early and daringly personal investigation of a technical and cultural phenomenon. 

“Barbara Astman’s career has spanned more than 23 years of photo-based media innovations, but has always been about more than the lure of new technology. Astman’s staged and sequential work suggests issues of identity, systems of representation, gender perspectives and the anti-narrative of popular irony.” - Ihor Holubizky, art/text 1998


“In the early 1980s, there was a clear delineation between what was considered photography and what was classified as art, and I felt I didn’t fit into either category. That is when I started calling myself a camera artist--one that was working within the contemporary art world as a whole.” - Barbara Astman

Whether household wares or store-bought novelty items such as key-chains, mugs, and ashtrays, much of Barbara Astman’s work involves the use of objects. Imbuing these with memories and histories by means of her artistic process, she dematerializes the material and makes personal the impersonal. In installations such as Clementine Suite (2006) and Enter Through the Giftshop (2011), or series such as Newspapers (2006) and The Red Series (1981), she explores the role that mundane objects play in forming our personal and collective histories while commenting on our consumer culture. Astman was one of the first to utilize the polaroid in her art, treating the medium more like a three-dimensional, malleable material than a flat, two-dimensional surface. She often photographs self-portraits that have been carefully choreographed, so that her image becomes removed from reality: a symbol of a constructed memory. Then, in a process of scratching into, enlarging, Xerox-ing or printing over, the photograph is further removed from a document, becoming closer to an object itself.

Barbara Astman creates photographic series that target the personal world through recollection or revelation. Her early work responds to contemporary feminist issues by incorporating humor and stereotypes to challenge the roles of women domestically and in the work place. Her large-scale photographs from the early 1980s are striking in their bold, unusual use of color and scale.


Throughout her career, Astman pioneered the artistic use of both analogue and digital reproduction techniques. She is among the first to discover and explore the technological practices and concepts that are key signifiers in contemporary art.


Born in Rochester NY, Astman studied at the Rochester Institute of Technology in the late 1960s when multi-media practices were the hotbed for artistic innovation. Astman came to Canada in 1970 during the wave of draft dodgers from the Vietnam War. Since the mid 1970s she has been a professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto.