As I prepared for my annual Christmas visit to my hometown in Newfoundland I began to think about change. It has been almost twenty-five years since I lived in Placentia and every time I visit I am struck by a few recurring thoughts. On the one hand the general feel and look of the place has remained fundamentally the same over the years. The terrain, winds, tides, clouds, and light which so dominate the local atmosphere do change, but the change is transitional and continuous. Tides rise and fall each day, the winds shift in direction and intensity, sun, rain and snow cycle with the days and seasons. Yet even here there has been a subtle shift. A sense that the climate is changing. Violent late summer hurricanes and tropical storms have become almost annual events and the weather patterns of my youth have shifted, the sea has warmed.
On another level the iconic social fixtures of my youth have undergone an even greater shift. The institutions and architecture which once seemed so permanent have disappeared. Replaced by new structures which I’m sure would be quite jarring to the less frequent visitor. The schools, hospital and town hall demolished and replaced with new modern structures. The towns iconic harbour entrance lift bridge, so associated with the town that it became featured on the municipal coat-of-arms in the 1980s, now sits, sadly rusted, and in an almost shocking state of decay as its successor rises next to it.
On a socio-economic level the area has also seen profound change in the past thirty years. In the 80’s the town enjoyed a relatively comfortable prosperity via heavy industry (the nearby phosphorus processing plant), the traditional cod fishery and the Cold War (via the U.S. Naval Station at Argentia).
In rapid succession beginning at the end of the 80’s all this changed. The global shift away from phosphate based detergents resulted in the closure of the phosphorous plant. At around the same time the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War ended. As part of the peace dividend the United States began closing military facilities around the world, one of which was at Argentia. In between, the historic Newfoundland cod fishery was closed and the fishing industry virtually shut down overnight. These events threw the community into an economic crisis for the rest of the decade. If it wasn’t for the service industry, and a cohort of workers who had reached pensionable age by the time of the closure, the community would have surely become a ghost town.
Then things turned again. The global commodities boom lead to the construction of a new state-of-the-art nickel processing facility on the site of the former phosphorous plant. Newfoundland became “cool” and tourism boomed, the fishery shifted focus to high value crab and shrimp and the oil industry promised new construction projects on the site of the former navel base.. Prosperity returned for about a decade and much change came with it. Then the tide went out again.The global economy cooled and the price of minerals and oil with it. Promised new projects were put on hold, the massive construction projects previously started wound down. Yet the renewed prosperity still lingers. This isn’t (yet) a replay of the 90’s.
All this was on my mind as I contemplated a new photography project. The sense of wanting to connect the past and present led me to the decision to pull out my Leica R8 and order some rolls of Ilford HP5 black and white film. This would be primarily an analog project, a quest to find fragments of memory and the past in the present day while looking at the present for what it is.
I arrived just after Christmas Day when the new winter had just begun. This is always a time of transitional and unpredictable weather in Newfoundland. One day may bring bright sun with the deepest blue sky then the next day rain or even 20 cm of snow. The winds blow almost constantly, pounding one with frozen sea spray or wet, sloppy snow flakes. Photography is always a challenge at this time of year yet I try to get out there each day.