Counterfeit History. Tod Ainslie’s Afterimage

The 1812 bicentennial is now in full swing, and that means plenty of innovative projects bringing that history to life. In Toronto, we’ve already had the mega-installation art project The Encampment, several new theater productions (including Single Thread Co.’s The Loyalists and a children’s opera), music, talks, and museum exhibits.

Now, the Royal Ontario Museum has opened an exhibit of photos of 1812—an imaginative anachronism, since photography wasn’t invented until the 1830s—by Burlington, Ont.-based photographer Tod Ainslie. In Afterimage, Ainslie used custom-made pinhole cameras to take antique-looking photographs of the war’s historic sites, covering their present-day existence with a patina of history.

As Ainslie explains on his website, his photos are an attempt to present the forts and battlefields as they “were seen through the eyes of a soldier who traveled through the eastern half of the North American continent during the War of 1812.” They certainly have the soft, silvery effect that we associate with nineteenth-century photography, but they’re also missing the mud, the stench, the people and the blood that are the constant companions of war.

Ainslie knows that he’s not recreating the past in his images, just the impression. He allows modern buildings to creep in, letting the present overlap with the past. It’s a sort of optical illusion. Look at it one moment, and you’re in the past. Look at it the next, and you’re back in the present, standing in front of a modern photo made with an ingenious but anachronistic camera.

I’d like to think that Afterimage challenges us about the seductiveness of counterfeit history—feeling like we’re really “there” while overlooking all the aspects of the past that are too disturbing to bring into the present. Looking at Ainslie’s photographs gives us a little frisson of touching the past, while reminding us that, no matter how close we feel to “being there,” we’re not, and we never will be.

Afterimage: Tod Ainslie’s Vision of the War of 1812 is on display at the Royal Ontario Museum until February 24, 2013.

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