Instant Niagara: an intimate landscape held in your hand

Recently, I found myself in Niagara Falls: not the touristy, shiny veneer that wears off quickly ‘Falls’, but the real city, which is sometimes invisible – or ignored, as some politicians there would like to keep it out of sight so it can be out of (their) minds. If you appreciate reality over political spin from the likes of Jim Diodati, you can watch an interesting and unvarnished piece, titled As Niagara Falls, here. Just because it fractures assumptions doesn’t mean it’s not true.

Some spaces are growing however, and offering a sense of community and place that isn’t just around profiteering. While at Third Space Cafe, I encountered a variety of artworks there, by Niagara based artists of variant stripes and styles ( I also took the opportunity to go right next door to Birgie Ludlow’s art store, as she and her husband have a diverse selection of works: I found myself picking up a conversation I had with Birgie about her paintings, from a previous chat, and her husband’s images of various sites in Ontario were very enjoyable. My attention was focused on spaces I’d lived in, from Windsor to Ingersoll to the Niagara Region. Visit them.).

This idea of place is manifest in the works of the artist I’m highlighting here (and someone who’s been recognized this year with a nomination in the Emerging Artist category for the St. Catharines Arts Awards). Her bio from their recent promotions of that event is succinct and as follows: ‘Kate Gottli was raised in Niagara and is inspired by the landscape and landmarks that surround her. With the recent re-release of polaroid film, she began experimenting with her collection of family polaroid cameras and was inspired by her early results. She started taking photos of local St. Catharines and Niagara Landmarks and offering them for sale at pop up markets and through her instagram account: @instant_niagara.’ She also has a space on FB, which can be seen here, and her site is extensive, as well.

Before I speak about some of her images, I’ll ‘take’ more of her own words, that offer some insight to her approach and conceptual framework: “…I started Instant Niagara after my therapist suggested for the 200th time that I take up a creative project…specifically one where I wouldn’t force rigidity and structure on myself or start hating myself if because I was unable to achieve ‘perfection’. The project officially began when I learned that Polaroid was making film that was compatible in some of their older cameras. And I just happened to have a very old Sun 600 on my shelf as a decor piece. I loved how in 2018 I could use a camera from 1981 and the photos that came out looked like they were taken in the 1960s.”

What attracted me to Kate’s images initially was that they’re small, and you can literally hold the landscape in your hand: “Here’s a piece of my Niagara for you, a moment to be shared” went through my head. There’s an immediacy to these ‘snaps’ and they’re so in the moment. As I’ve talked about previously, we come to know a place, ‘own’ it, in a way that is not necessarily proprietory but more about knowing it, by creating images of our spaces.

Some sites will be known to you (as I continue my writer’s residency in Welland, the mural just off East Main is close by and brightens ‘my’ Welland, and her selections of St. Catharines include Mahtay Café & Lounge downtown as well as Sts. Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Catholic Church , a beautiful landmark in the Garden City). Others are more anonymous, almost more personal: the quiet cemeteries, or urban spaces that you might recognize, if they’re part of your ‘neighbourhood’, but still have an evocative quality even if unfamiliar to you.

Again, as with my recent response to the works of Ross Beard, my interaction with Kate Gottli’s work is informed by my role as curator for Sandy Fairbairn‘s Welland: Times Present Times Past. We create and consume (in a positive sense) our own images of where we live, of the worlds within which we exist. Often times, places exist more in our heads (or perhaps in our hands – literally, in the nature of Kate’s work, or more metaphorically, in how we ‘make’ images of our places) than in bricks and mortar. This is especially true in sites that no longer exist physically (like her shot of the St. Catharines General Hospital, now finally fully demolished) or that resonate in our memories and experiences moreso than in reality (to return to my opening commentary on Niagara Falls).

I’ve included just a taste of her images, here, and more can be seen at her site and on Instagram, and she often is selling work at various craft and artisan markets in Niagara.

As someone who grew up in Niagara, and (to paraphrase a conversation I had with the artist, educator and activist Elizabeth Chitty) nearly broke a leg to ‘escape’ and now have returned (and find myself nominated in the 2020 St. Catharines Arts Awards, though in a different category than Kate), Gottli’s images have a special relevance to me. This is not just conceptually, in terms of the spaces and places, but her technique, with film that adds a formal flavour that informs interpretations of ‘memory’ with a photographic aesthetic that is ‘old’ or ‘historical.’ Susan Sontag once observed that we’ve come to rely on photographs to shape our memories, and that gives a power to these images and ‘objects’ (polaroids have a very physical nature, outside the image itself), in defining Niagara. It is both ‘instant’ but also reaches backwards, with both historical and social considerations.

There’s a wonderful book by Craig Davidson, titled Cataract City (a slang name for Niagara Falls). One his characters ruefully observes the following: “What was the most awful thing about living as an adult on the same streets where you grew up? It’s so easy to remember how perfect it was supposed to be. Reminders were always smacking you in the face. Good things happened—sure, I knew that. They just happened in other places.. . . . I came to sense a sinisterness about the city, too. It wasn’t anything you could pinpoint—how could a city be evil? A city was just concrete and steel and glass, feeling no pain, retaining no memories. But then houses are made of the same stuff, and people go around claiming they’re haunted all the time.”

But that, I suspect, is just my own subjectivity responding to Kate Gottli‘s works: there is overall a simple joy in her tiny works, like souvenirs or mementos, of places we’ve experienced, or might yet experience, that makes me smile.

All images are from Kate Gottli’s site, and are copyright of the artist: besides her current images, she also does custom orders, further playing upon history, memory and the mixed feelings of sentiment and sentimentality many of us have for Niagara, whether having grown up here, or having come in later on.