Jeff Bierk takes friendship to new heights at Contact Photo Fest
The portrait photographer celebrates a 10-year friendship with collaborator Jimmy James Evans in a photo series that subverts power dynamics
By Kelsey Adams
May 6, 2021
FOR JIMMY by Jeff Bierk and Jimmy James Evans as part of CONTACT PHOTOGRAPHY FESTIVAL. At Dupont and Perth and Dupont and Emerson. May 1-30. contactphoto.com.
At the corners of Dupont and Perth and Dupont and Emerson stand two odes to friendship. For Jimmy, a series of two billboards that are part of the Contact Photography Festival, is first and foremost an outpouring of love from Toronto photographer Jeff Bierk to his close friend, Jimmy James Evans. In one portrait, Evans’s royal blue hair is scattered in the wind, his eyes piercing and electric as if looking out to the horizon.
Bierk has thoroughly documented the friendship in recent years. Although they’ve been friends for around a decade (neither is exactly sure of the exact time frame), they have a closeness that feels like it spans an eternity. Bierk’s artist statement, a letter addressed to Evans, may be the first time he has let the outside world fully into the intimate dynamic. Near the end of the letter he imagines what it will be like for Evans, who now lives near Dupont, to see his face immortalized on a billboard in his own neighbourhood.
“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,” Bierk writes. “In that moment everything sits perfectly, all of the memories, everything before, in between and the yet to come.”
Art writers and academics have seen their friendship differently, questioning whether Bierk’s photos of Evans, who was unhoused when they met, are exploitative. But he stresses there is a reciprocal and collaborative nature to the images he makes with Evans.
“I’ve been developing this practice around the ethics of photography and around consent and transparency and power dynamics in photojournalism and street photography,” Bierk tells NOW in a phone interview.
Ten years ago, the two friends met in the alleyway behind Bierk’s Annex apartment. It was a meeting place for unhoused residents in the neighbourhood to congregate and socialize – a world all their own called the Back 40. Now that they’ve both moved to different parts of the city and into different lives, Bierk reminisces about those heydays. “I miss our proximity, when he was living in the Back 40, I miss hanging out all day. just sitting on milk crates and talking and laughing and playing blackjack,” he says. “My favourite moments with Jimmy are all blurred together.”
Bierk started bringing his camera around and they made images together, which slowly gained public attention. They laughed off the art world’s hand-wringing about the ethical validity of the work. In the group shots, like Family Portrait, Bierk’s friends aren’t subjects in the traditional sense. They have complete agency over how they’re depicted: grimacing, smirking, aloof or staring down the lens, they’re in control.
“I’ve always just thought there would be this point where we’d break through having those kinds of conversations. The thing is, with us, on the block or on the corner, in our places or at the studio, [that question], it’s actually just laughable.”
When he met Evans, Bierk was on a precipice. He was newly sober, trying to make sense of himself through art and ruminating about the kind of photography he wanted to do. Previously, he believed if he documented the lives of overlooked people, he could affect change in some way, but eventually he came to see that as an empty gesture. When an indie publisher asked him to do a photobook of rough sleepers, it became clear that profiting from this work wasn’t the route he wanted to take.
Bierk’s practice is about creating communal space for people of all experiences to convene and be in conversation, an idea that became the impetus for the Jimmy James Evans Friendly Meeting Place and Centre for the Arts on Dupont. Located exactly between Bierk and Evans’s homes, it’s a drop-in centre, an artist studio and hangout spot. Over the course of five years, the Annex went through a third wave of gentrification, they both moved to the west end and lost many of their friends.
“I opened [the Friendly Meeting Place] to be a clubhouse for my friends and it gave us an indoor space that was safe.”
It was really important for Bierk to have an art space that wasn’t focused on profit. He uses a barter system so artists can use the studio without having to pay. A Canada Council grant helped cover the first year’s rent in 2018 and now Bierk pays the rent out of his own pocket: “It’s killing me right now. It’s absolutely crippling me financially.” The Friendly Meeting Place has been shut throughout the pandemic but he opened its doors for friends who were drug users to live there during the past year.
Displacement of unhoused and other vulnerable people is intrinsically linked to the work Bierk does outside art-making as a founding member of the Encampment Support Network.
Thinking about the ethos of consent and transparency he has cultivated in his work, Bierk is critical of the ways the media has photographed encampments without forging relationships with the people who call them home. He considers that approach extractive.
“Unhoused people or drug users are criminalized and treated by the city in very inhumane ways and often that’s replicated in the kind of image-making that goes along with telling those stories,” he explains. “I wouldn’t photograph my lover or my grandmother and take an embarrassing photo of them and put that on the front page of a newspaper. Why is that okay for a drug user or for someone sleeping in a tent?”
The reason Bierk’s images resonate is because he’s clearly asking these questions of himself. The images are deeply humanizing but they’re also full of wonder and a bit of mischievous whimsy. From his intimate close-ups of Evans to his everyday shots of Moss Park encampment residents or the Back 40 crew, there is a sense of palpable camaraderie that can’t be faked.
Kelsey Adams is an arts and culture journalist born and raised in Toronto. Before covering food, life and culture for NOW Magazine, she wrote about music, art and film for several publications, including the Globe and Mail, The FADER, Complex CA and Canadian Art.