Montreal is a pretty striking city, given its distinctive architecture and multicultural, multilingual populace. British-born photographer Steve Walls says he was completely thunderstruck when he arrived in the city after a decade of travelling.
“I had been through Singapore, Sydney, New York, Detroit, through Spain and Korea, and even spent some time in Vanuatu,” Walls says. “I thought I knew cities, but this one felt different. What drew me to Montreal was the fact that, more than any other city, it was defined by its culture, not by its industry or its buildings or geography.”
Walls spent several months gathering images of people who captured his imagination. He followed the backstage antics of Glam Gam, a local burlesque troupe that performs at the trans club Cleopatra’s. And some of his subjects were found in more random ways: “There was one woman who had this striking set of tattoos,” he recalls. “I followed her home as she was walking her dog.”
Walls has pulled together 65 of his most striking Montreal photos, all of which will be unveiled on Friday, Jan 28 in an exhibit called I Guess We’re Strange. Since many of the photos are collaborations between photographer and subject, portions of the sales will go to those in the photos. Walls chatted with Xtra about his latest show and what makes Montreal so important to him.
Xtra: What inspired this series of photos?
Steve Walls: The photos were inspired by the fact that this is a city built on a culture, rather than on it having a million tourist attractions or multinational offices or themed bits and pieces. It’s a city that feels different, more challenging, more artistic, more dangerous. But somehow the people responsible for giving the city its heartbeat – the people getting out and doing things, making costumes, putting on shows, filling the night with stuff worth being at, just weren’t really celebrated. This is a city that owes a lot to the people who give it a pulse and yet is kind of blasé about supporting them – leaving them to support each other instead.
Xtra: I like that you really get at the creative spirit of the city.
SW: I love that the people involved in creating things in this city are families, not cliques. In a lot of places you get people who dominate one space and who guard their territory fiercely. Here you have groups who support each other, turn up for each other’s shows, help out, put up posters – laugh, love and live together. The difference is that the doors are wide open to new people; if you’re up for it, you’re in. That’s the coolest thing about here.
Xtra: The image of Montreal performance artist Michael McCarthy dressed as Jesus with an erection is pretty racy, and hot. What was the inspiration for that particular photo?
SW: Michael wrote a really cool piece about this, which will accompany the exhibit. Growing up Catholic, sexuality is pretty much repressed. The trouble is when you repress sexuality, it bubbles up in weird places, and you can’t control that. For Michael it reared its head around images of Jesus, half naked, surrounded by soldiers and covered with a pretty scanty cloth. Throw in the ritual, kneel before him, head at crotch height on a priest as he literally feeds you the flesh of Christ, and you can end up with sexuality really rearing its head. This was about us shedding all of the guilt of that and understanding that there was a reason that we had the feelings that we did – and that reason isn’t that we’re depraved or evil.
Xtra: You’re not actually from Montreal, you’re British. Do you think being an outsider helped you to identify different things about Montreal?
SW: I’ve lived in a lot of places: working backwards over the last decade, Detroit, New York, Sydney, Singapore, Otjiwarongo and London. I’m a constant outsider, always learning a language and, more importantly, learning body language. It’s good not to really “get” something instinctively – it makes you work that much harder, makes you look at things differently.
Xtra: What do you hope people will come away with from this exhibit?
SW: I’m hoping that they come away with a picture. Everyone in the show could use the cash – and they’ll stretch every dollar in endlessly creative ways. But if your pockets aren’t that deep, then I hope that they come away with an appreciation for the time, talent, effort and energy that goes into making this a city that people are drawn to. And if they come away with some kind of puddle in their pants, well that’s good too.