Jake Werner has fond memories of the spring of 1977 when he was hired to document contemporary life on Prince Edward Island.
The young photographer had just graduated from Holland College and was doing freelance work when he was invited to join a duo of photographers – Lawrence McLagan and Lionel Stevenson – who were shooting images of Prince Edward Island.
“It was a real time of change and a really good time to document what was happening on the Island, observe the change and see what effects it was creating,” says Werner.
The three photographers met regularly above the Independent Order of Odd Fellows on Kent Street, where they shared a dark darkroom.
“We travelled separately, each deciding where we would go. Then we would see each other a day or two later when we came back to the darkroom to process film and make work prints.”
Every time they met, they talked about the people they met and the things they saw.
“It was like P.E.I. was being discovered. Young people were coming here and moving into the country. Americans were coming up. Many were trying to get out of the United States while the Viet Nam War was going on.”
In the towns and cities, there were changes as well. P.E.I. was experiencing rapid economic and cultural changes, and many Islanders developed a strong interest in P.E.I.’s heritage. Others worried that the Island way of life was being lost.
“We managed to capture the beginning of the change here,” says Werner.
During the seven-month project, he and his fellow photographers shot over 250 rolls of film. Their stunning black and white images were the basis for the 1978 exhibition at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery, “Document of Our Times – Prince Edward Island 1977”.
Fast forward to 2019, and their exhibition is being re-examined in a new show, “A Documentary Impulse: 1970s Photography of Prince Edward Island Life”.
Curated by Pan Wendt, it revisits the work of the original photographers as well as a selection of documentary images by some of the prominent photographers in P.E.I. at the time, including George Zimbel, Wayne Barrett and Richard Furlong.
Last week as he studied the black and white images taken over four decades ago, Werner became philosophical.
“The photos never change. But, for us, it’s 40 years later.”
Since the photos were taken, he’s gained new skills and has moved on to television production and studio management.
Currently living in Hamilton, Ont., he still has a soft spot for the Island and comes back as often as he can to see his family.
Werner hopes Islanders will come back and see the show, which runs until May 20.
“Most than anything I hope that people will take away a sense of place and a connection to the past …. All three of us liked living here so I’m hoping that comes out, too.”
Wendt also finds a certain sense of place from the 100 prints he has selected for the show.
“You really get a sense of how rich an art form documentary photography can be and how many great photographers were working on the Island in the 1970s. There's also some nostalgia. I grew up in the 1970s on P.E.I., so there were a lot of memories in those photos.”
Need to know
What: A Documentary Impulse: 1970s Photography of Prince Edward Island Life”.
When: Until May 20, at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery.