Jeff Bierk, Jimmy James Evans
With a practice grounded in respect and consent, Toronto artist Jeff Bierk creates images evolving from an ongoing collaboration with his close friends, who live on the city’s streets. His photographs are made to highlight the strength of this community, and their resilience in surviving the precariousness of life. With For Jimmy, he presents billboard-sized portraits honouring his friend Jimmy, one of his earliest and closest collaborators.
Presented at this massive scale, Bierk’s images celebrate an enduring relationship, while giving Jimmy’s presence the level of prominence it deserves. Here, Jeff shares his letter to Jimmy about the years they have spent together:
I’m trying to remember the first time we met. I know you would say it was about 20 years ago, but I wasn’t even in Toronto then, and you would have been living on the Lakeshore with Melissa. I want to say it was summertime. I remember the blackness of that night, I can feel it, endless, the thick, damp air. I see it in flashes—your smile, a weathered green shirt. You are sitting on a milk crate in front of Superfresh. I can see you laughing, your eyes sparkling. Sarah is beside you. Maybe we shared a smoke? I must have asked if I could take your photograph.
Fuck. It could have easily been in the afternoon though, down the alleyway behind my apartment with Bluenose and Derek. I see you there now, too, in a similar way—the green shirt, your smile, “How’s it going?”
All of these memories blur together in my mind. I’ll have to dig around and find the photograph to make sense of it all. Whatever the truth of that first experience is, it doesn’t matter, because both the memory and the photograph are real—neither is more honest or reliable.
It feels like a lifetime ago. Everything was very impulsive then. It felt new and easy. Our meeting place was The Back 40 and it changed me forever. There are a lot of things that I don’t remember clearly, or at all, about my own life. There were some brutal things that happened to me as a young boy. Those things destroyed me. Death too, tremendous, endless loss, that left me so formed, but at once, a young adult with no idea who I was. I try so hard to remember before all of that. I know there was a time when I felt free to express who I was, when I felt joy. I have no clear memory of it, but I can feel it. I can feel those times in my childhood, running and laughing in the summertime, the sweet smell of grass, dirt, the hot pavement, the wind, the feeling of dusk, endless days and nights, lighting fires and smoking cigarettes. Those years with all of us in The Back 40 are the closest I’ve come to feeling that way again. They were some of the most beautiful times of my life.
After all these years, after we are all gone, I’m still with you there in that sacred place. Bluenose, Shawn, Suzie, Ramses, Donnie, all of us. Your face is framed behind museum glass on my walls, and you lie, draped, printed on a blanket on my sofa.
The photograph is a record of that place and that time; it serves as a placeholder for memory. It’s printed, it becomes an object, and it changes into something else. It’s a reminder, we were here, this happened, and each experience with it in this form is an encounter with the memory. But also, as we return to it, it holds everything that has passed in between. It becomes an object embedded with much more. This is the magic of it. The real complication.
Photography is a language, a way to translate the complex and the spiritual parts of all of this, of our existence. There’s a deep clarity—like a clearing—that I get in moments of crisis and wonder, a feeling of connection, an understanding, a knowing. The camera is one way to capture these short, fading moments, to make them feel eternal. The images we’ve made together are poems and prayers. They are fiercely for me and for us in a way that they aren’t for anyone else. They are layered with time and meaning, with memory. That isn’t where the revelation ends, there’s more. They change, shifting into something else entirely with the viewer (the real outsider), the stranger’s gaze, a new conversation. One that makes the private meaning I just described invisible, one that speaks truth to the viewer, one that tells them more about themselves—the things that have formed them, their relationship to beauty, their beliefs. That’s the trick we’ve been playing this whole time. We’ve just never had the chance to speak to it, as the conversations have been trapped and entangled by the viewer’s (critic’s, academic’s, gallerist’s) own bias and assumption, misreading, misunderstanding. Always from the outside looking in.
I love you. I feel so grateful for our friendship. You live so beautifully outside of all of the things that feel suffocating about living in this time. The freedom of your existence is stunning. Your beautiful carelessness, the attention you have for your friends, the freedom in which you live—so simply present to each moment, your charisma, humour, your generosity. The way you have remained grounded in a kind of child-like truth of living, of life, have all been such great lessons for me. Thank you.
I’m really starting to see the photographs before they happen now. I’ve been watching the sky all day, we meet up and catch it. I know right where to find you. You lay down in the puddle at our spot and tell me I’m crazy. The sky blends into the ground, surrounding you. You pose, intuitively, and the flash goes off. We make the photograph that’s lived in my head for weeks. We catch up, reminisce. You laugh and tell me someone recognized you at The Beer Store. You can’t remember their name. A year later we see the photograph together, mounted on a panel, painted into and framed on a wall in the gallery. All of our beautiful friends are there, and so many strangers. They know you by name, it’s on the invite, in the catalogue, in the titles, but some of them don’t know how to talk to you. You could care less. We laugh and reminisce, catch up, tell our memories of one another, stoked by their visual representation on the walls surrounding us, embellished and confused, beautiful. A year later, back at the spot, we talk about it all over again: laying in the puddle with the sky, making the photograph, about the gallery and the image on the wall, the strangers. We catch up, reminisce, and catch the sky again.
I’m so excited for you to see these billboards. I feel so grateful for Darcy and Ben at CONTACT. I haven’t told you yet. I’m going to take you someday soon. I can see it. We’ll leave the spot where we made the photograph together with the golden sky that day. I can see the clouds as we drive up Dupont toward your building. I point to the billboard and there you are, larger than life. In that moment everything sits perfectly, all of the memories, everything before, in between, and the yet to come. You are smiling so big, laughing, and none of it makes sense. It shouldn’t make sense. It’s unbelievable. Between us there is no illusion about the virtue of what it means to be an artist right now. We are living in The Absence of Paradise. The photographs are just these markers, proof of our existence, containers, poems, stories. The narrow pathways of art and money are only new panning spots, places where we dance and play our game. You will sit there, postered on a billboard on Dupont, watching as people pass by. You will always have my highest praise.
I love you,
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