By Deirdre Hanna
NOW | NOV 2 - 8, 2000 | VOL. 20 NO. 9
Review of ROBERTA BONDAR: PASSIONATE VISION, Royal Ontario Museum, to February 28, 2001.
Astronaut, physician, research scientist, pilot and photographer Roberta Bondar is a classic overachiever. Since making history as the first Canadian woman to fly in space -- aboard the 1992 shuttle Discovery -- Bondar has picked up 21 honorary doctorates, been awarded the NASA Space Medal and Order of Canada and, in 98, was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame as a space medicine pioneer.
After picking up yet another professional credential -- studying nature photography at the Brooks Institute in California -- she made her artistic debut in a group show at the National Gallery of Canada in 97.
It almost seems unfair. That kind of resume, and her photography is good.
But then, Bondar never quits.
"On the final orbit of my space flight, I realized that it's wonderful to go into the history books for a single achievement. But if I want to live up to being a role model, I have to keep on achieving things," she explains.
Having spent two years and $2.2 million, including her own savings, half a million dollars from a federal Millennium Projects fund and some corporate backing, photographing all 41 of Canada's national parks, Bondar is exhibiting her stunning, large-format colour prints in a high-profile tour that comes to the Royal Ontario Museum from Saturday (November 4).
The show, Passionate Vision, is joined this month by a coffee-table book featuring the same body of work and -- talk about timing -- a forward by the man of the moment, the late and much-lionized Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
When I ask this heavily-medalled neurologist, who laughingly says she can always fall back on medicine (Bondar observes one day a week at North York General to keep her credentials current), just why she turned to photography, she tells me bluntly that it's a way to stay at home.
"The space program cost me a lot personally," she confides, "and now I want to live in Canada and contribute to Canada's culture. I've been offered jobs in the U.S., but no Canadian institution could sustain a space medicine chair."
Just looking at Bondar's technically meticulous and aesthetically accomplished images, though, it's clear that Passionate Vision is far more than just a way to buck the brain drain.
"I had always done my own scientific photography, and that was one of my jobs on Discovery, using medium-format Hasselblad cameras. I used to shoot in black-and- white, and in space everything except the planet is black and white. Dead light. By contrast, the light from the sun being reflected off the Earth is only nine minutes old and blazes colour. It was an experience that sensitized me to vibrant colour and made me switch to colour as a medium."
There were also nationalist and environmental issues.
"Very few people have ever stepped back from the planet and observed it. Passing over Canada, I was struck not only by the country's size, but also by the incredible amount of water we have. It's a resource we need to take the lead in protecting. And it's easier to want to protect something if you have learned to love it."
Bondar feels that while it was expensive for her to take on documenting Canada's national parks -- return airfare to Ellesmere Island is $26,000, for example -- her notoriety as an astronaut means that her environmental message has a chance of making an impact.
"A book could have been made using stock photographs of Canada's national parks. But because of my profile -- and I'm very proud of it -- people are curious. If I have taken time from my life to deal with this, then maybe they should, too."
NOW is Toronto's Weekly Alternate Paper.
Deirdre Hanna has written extensively on art, literature, design and cultural issues for magazines including C, Canadian Architect, Canadian Art, Details, Images, Masthead, Modern Painters, Opera Canada, Saturday Night, Toronto Life, Vanguard, The Walrus and NOW, where she was Art Editor for 14 years. Her writing has also been published in The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star, on website Amazon.ca, in literary magazines including Capilano Review and Kiss Machine and earned her the San Diego Reader's Zine Envy Award. She has made television and radio appearances on CBC, CFRB, TVO, BRAVO, CITY-TV and WTN. Her website can be found at www.deirdrehanna.com