Culture  Quebec, from the outside in: Gabor Szilasi at the McCord

A s students living in Montreal, many of us can be considered outsiders. We are an eclectic mix, hailing from various cities, countries, and even continents. This variety can alienate us from Montreal’s unique culture, but there are many opportunities to experience its stylish, thriving lifestyle. Gabor Szilasi, a Hungarian-born photographer whose exhibition The Eloquence of the Everyday is currently on display at the McCord museum, experienced a similar feeling in 1956.

After immigrating to Canada, Szilasi settled in Quebec and became engrossed in the Canadian – and specifically Quebec’s – lifestyle. He was fascinated by the everyday person, and therefore deemed it necessary to pull out his small 35mm camera and document Quebeckers and their environment. He began by looking at rural Quebec, the landscape and the people. Focusing on areas such as Charlevoix and Lac-Saint-Jean, he used his lens to do justice to the beauty of these regions. Although Szilasi found interest in the outdoors, more importantly he saw the significance of photographing the interiors of rural Quebec homes. Many of his photographs illustrate a homeowner posing in their living room or bedroom, which allows the viewer to better understand the individual’s cultural heritage, their personal style, and ultimately how they go about living their life. “I am a people person,” Szilasi says, a quality that gives his photographs an intimate edge.

Szilasi chose to develop many of these interior shots in colour. “Colour is important to define social traits and differences,” he says. In his portraiture, however, Szilasi prefers to use black and white: “Colour can also be a distraction, the colour of the skin does not matter, it too often emphasizes blemishes, which are just temporary.” Through his lens, Szilasi was able to capture a certain realism that caused many of his followers to develop both personal and emotional ties with his work.

Szilasi eventually travelled to urban Montreal with a larger 4x5mm camera to photograph Montrealers and the commercialism of Ste. Catherine. “I saw the photographs of Canadian and American photographers who used a larger camera,” Szilasi explains. It was these works that inspired Szilasi to try something new.

Upon viewing Szilasi’s exhibit, the most admirable thing is his ability to capture a recognizable Montreal. The photos of Ste. Catherine are contemporary, yet evoke a sense of nostalgia for the cheeky, Mordecai Richler-esque city we have come to admire. Among the plethora of photographs of store fronts and lit-up signs rests a collection of pictures of Montrealers engaging in everyday activities: a fashionable woman riding her bike alongside infamous downtown traffic, or a group of children waiting for the bus as a pesky blanket of snow obscures the form of their snow suits. These photos give a sense of inclusion in Montreal culture, echoing recognizable everyday scenes. As a Torontonian, I too have peeked into Montreal life and felt the need to capture its splendour with my measly camera.

It is for these reasons that Szilasi’s photographs hold a special place in Canadian culture and are easily relatable to anyone who has felt like a spectator, observing the cultured, cultivated, and commercial Montreal. Szilasi’s exhibit offers a viscerally alternative way to experience those scenes we see every day – a visual representation of a familiar city seen through the eyes of a fellow outsider.

The Eloquence of the Everyday is at the McCord Museum, 690 Sherbrooke O., until December 1. Open Tuesday, Thursday, Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Entry is $7 for students with I.D., with free entry between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Wednesdays.