The intersection of Somerset West and Bank Street represents an unusual merging of people and neighbourhoods. Somerset Street is strongly multicultural, populated largely by apartment housing and small, locally owned restaurants and businesses. Bank Street, meanwhile, supports a unique combination of offices, independent businesses and upscale condos. The intersection also happens to be the main artery of Ottawa’s recently designated (but longstanding) gay village, making it a place in the city where worlds truly do collide.
This juxtaposition of worlds is the subject of The Assignment: Bank and Somerset, a collection of work from four local photographers — Josh Boyaner, Stephen Smith, Julien Braun and James Little — that examines and interprets the history and diversity of the spot where Ottawa’s main downtown arteries meet.
Boyaner, whose style is part photography and part collage, sought to examine the area’s history through his work by literally superimposing it onto the street. His image Spirit of Somerset features a look at the intersection on a typical day. Presiding over it all is the first Lord Somerset, namesake of the present-day street.
“I do a lot of street stuff,” Boyaner says. “I love that, you know — watching people, fashion, political messaging, graffiti — all that kind of stuff.” When the call went out for the Somerset and Bank show, he decided to try to show the area’s origins, as well as the character it exhibits today. “I think the picture does reflect that. I think you see, you know, street kids, street musicians, gay kids, housewives going down to Hartman’s with shopping bags — so I think that captures just the moment at the corner.”
Boyaner doesn’t shy away from some of the intersection’s darker aspects, either. “I see that there’s a lot of poverty at the corner, which is galling to me. I see so much of it in Ottawa and I think it’s such a scandal, but by the same token it’s a very diverse and it is an upscale neighbourhood as well, so you see so many different dichotomies there.”
Photographer Stephen Smith chose to focus on the architecture of the area, specifically the derelict Somerset House building that has been vacant since its partial collapse in 2007. “I really didn’t know too much about [the building], and as long as I’ve been around downtown it’s never been occupied or used or anything like that. It’s in that sort of stalled state, and it really got me sort of thinking about the curiosity and sort of wondering what it will be and what it has been,” he says.
Smith had a friend pose for some shots, then digitally combined them with images he’d taken of the building. “I had the idea of having someone sort of looking up as sort of an observer of the structure itself,” he says. During the time he spent photographing the building, he observed people walking by and looking up in puzzlement at the structure. “It’s in such a vibrant part of Centretown, and to have something like that that’s sort of vacant is sort of interesting, and I just think that’s intrigued a lot of people.”
“As far as Centretown and the Village, I see it more and more: art shows cropping up here and there and just the whole scene, I think, is really growing,” Smith says.
“A place is a place,” Boyaner adds. “Obviously, how you’re going to see it and how you’re going to experience it is really up to you.”