Life on the edge of Canada’s eastern shores

Life on the edge of Canada’s eastern shores

Melinda Blauvelt’s intimate photos of a small fishing village in New Brunswick offer a look inside a way of life that is quickly receding into the past.

In 1971, Melinda Blauvelt became the first woman accepted into the Yale School of Art MFA photography program. That same year, she collaborated with Walker Evans to help curate his retrospective exhibition, Forty Years. In doing so she becoming deeply immersed in his intimate chronicle of tenant farm families struggling to survive during the height of the Great Depression in Hale County, Alabama.

The experience shaped her view of what photography could be and do. “Walker and I spent countless hours searching and discussing his archives and designing the exhibit,” Blauvelt remembers. “Looking at his photographs of portraits, signs, and buildings, as well as watching him photograph on road trips was an extraordinary education in learning what Walker meant by having an ‘eye.’”

During the summer of ’72, Blauvelt took those lessons to heart, purchasing a used 4x5 Deardorff camera for an immersive project wholly her own. She headed north to work with the Quebec Labrador Foundation, which placed American students in remote villages on Canada’s eastern shore to work at day camps with local children.

Blauvelt landed in Brantville, a small fishing village in New Brunswick, where she lived with French-speaking Acadian villagers, Ulysse and Jeannette Thibodeau, and their three young children. The Thiobodeaus welcomed Blauvelt with open arms, including her in family meals, beach adventures, weddings, and birthday parties with extended family members and friends.

“The community was tiny, inclusive, and meant people were related to one another,” she says. “Everyone was eager to embrace the Americans.”

By day, Blauvelt ran the day camp, playing games, giving swim lessons, and making puppet shows. She spent her free time reading books from a list Walker Evans provided to ensure she was “properly educated” in the works of Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, and Gustav Flaubert.

And then there were the photos: slow, thoughtful, collaborative works collected the new book, Brantville (Stanley/Barker). The book brings together Blauvelt’s portraits of the community made over four trips between 1972–74, offering a look inside a way of life that is quickly receding into the past.

“The view camera was initially a curiosity but everyone wanted to participate,” Blauvelt recalls. “If I saw something I liked — teenagers sunbathing on buoys, children playing near tar-papered houses, old barns, boats, and majestic fishing nets — they were patient while I made a photograph.”

Although Blauvelt couldn’t develop the film until she returned home, the kids delighted in performing for the camera. “The collaborating and posing seemed more important to them than the idea of the photograph itself,” says Blauvelt, who reconnected with many of the people she photographed when they were shown at the Beaverbook Art Gallery in New Brunswick.

“Fifty years later, the sense of community, generosity, and trust that I encountered when Jeannette Thibodeau welcome us to Brantville with a tub of boiled lobsters for breakfast seems rarer and more precious than ever,” she says. “The photographs and this book are theirs as well as mine.”

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