Focus on the Collection: Alain Paiement

Alain Paiement, Masses/Particles, 2019, ink jet prints

Alain Paiement, Masses/Particles, 2019. Ink jet prints, 243.5 x 116.8 x 3 cm each. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Purchased 2021 © Alain Paiement. Photo: NGC

In Masses/Particules, Alain Paiement focuses on the phenomenon of the crowd. The artist understands the crowd as a manifestation of the “body politic” en masse: a constant element in the expression of social and political concerns. As individuals gather, their groupings gain force as spectacles, which catch the attention of passersby, as well as that of news agencies.

Demonstrations are variable in purpose and outcome. Crowd momentum can fluctuate between the peaceful and the violent, their function ranging from uprisings against dictators to identity-related confrontations. Other crowd scenes — such as those associated with war, migration and exile — are less deliberately organized, but nonetheless have force as expressions of political, economic and social concerns. Individuals in all of these different types of crowds become subsumed into a single entity, which can take on a life of its own.

To create this work, Paiement gathered tens of thousands of images from the Internet. After stripping them of their metadata, he grouped them in terms of scale (farthest to closest), and view (front, back, and profile). Most of the individuals were participating in outdoor events, such as festivals, carnivals, religious celebrations, and political demonstrations. This social context was removed through radical cropping to focus mainly on the individual’s face.

With the deletion of context, the ideologies driving the event were also removed. In addition, close cropping eliminated any markers that would situate individuals in a particular place, such as a city or building. Divorced of these elements, the image is “democratized” or, as the artist notes, “The more radical rub elbows with the more moderate, left wing with right wing, and it’s impossible to say which.”

Alain Paiement, Masses/Particles (detail), 2019, ink jet prints

Alain Paiement, Masses/Particles (detail), 2019. Ink jet prints, 243.5 x 116.8 x 3 cm each. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Purchased 2021 © Alain Paiement. Photo: NGC

In terms of individual identification, Paiement presents a tableau of such density that it would be impossible to accurately name any one person depicted. He focuses instead on the loss of individuality, the readability of an endless sea of people dissolving in the distance into subtle shades of grey.  

As a black-and-white image, the work also homogenizes individuals into one mass, with vitality of image provided through tonal variations. Images of human heads vary in size, tiny ones grouped at the top, and larger ones — approximately 5 cm across — placed at the bottom. The dense placement of heads creates a sense of pulsation or, as the artist puts it, “It’s a bit like watching thousands of insects without understanding how they are organized. The mass is pulverized in a swarm of countless particles. It becomes a hallucinatory texture, a random movement of dust, a weather map, a celestial evocation. Or an energy substance.”2

In effect, as individuals lose context and features, they become participatory in an unknown event whose purpose resides outside them. What motivates those depicted remains a mystery. The artist provides an insight into his own reasons for representing humanity in such a manner. Assembly is a vital aspect of human nature, he notes and, by imposing a narrative on his own creation, he hopes they have been assembled into one voice against global upheaval in the environment. In addition, given that they are placed outside media exploitation, Paiement’s crowd shows how individuals can be close as a way “to situate ourselves in the world, with empathy.”3


Learn More About the Artist . . .

For almost thirty years, Alain Paiement has been a key figure in contemporary Canadian photography. Previous works in the 1990s and early 2000s researched the interrelation of mapping techniques and photography. The artist was interested in the translation of two-dimensional renderings into what are understood to be inhabitable, physical spaces, and visa-versa. Aerial photography was particularly fascinating for its reduction of three-dimensional areas, such as landmasses, into a two-dimension transcription. Architectural plans were also important source material for his work.

An early user of Photoshop, Paiement began to play with underlying spatial “norms,” such as perspective, by introducing distortions and multiple perspective points into his work. The rationalization of space and time through perspective and graphic renderings became an element to play with, allowing him to blur and confound societal and psychological boundaries, such as the demarcations between public and private space and interior and exterior realities — and especially how we orient ourselves in space.

In relation to this latter idea, Paiement challenges viewer expectations about how place is depicted, by flipping a vertical view with one that is horizontal; moving something that should be far away with an image of something in proximity; and removing or moving shadows to confuse notions of depth. Through these means, Paiement explores the complex and changing relationships between the subject, its gaze, and its environment, and ultimately the resulting sense of control, authority, and possession — both in terms of the self and others.


1 Alain Paiement, “Foules/Crowds” Ciel variable, no. 114, p. 29.

Op cit., p. 30.


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Supported by

Scotiabank Photography Program


Soutenu par

Programme de photographie Banque Scotia