Moyra Davey, The Faithful, 2013. 12 C-prints, tape, postage, ink. Courtesy of the artist, greengrassi, London and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York

February 16, 2022 – April 9, 2022

Moyra Davey: The Faithful

Curator: Andrea Kunard
National Gallery of Canada

Organized by the National Gallery of Canada
Supported by the Scotiabank Photography Program  

Moyra Davey: The Faithful follows the myriad turns, experiments and archival reconsiderations in the Toronto-born artist’s decades-long practice, which explores the relationship between photography and language, and between the still and moving image. Videos interweave personal history with critical concerns on art, film and literature, while photographs are often revisited and reassembled to juxtapose temporalities that can be many years apart. Through her varying and iterative approach to the photographic image and its open-ended promise, Davey has studiously devoted her practice to a life recorded and reckoned with.

This survey includes major ongoing photographic series, some dating back to the 1990s, such as Copperheads, which reproduces on a macro scale the American one-cent coin, alongside more recent suites of video work. Among these is Davey’s latest film, i confess (2019), which began as a meditation on James Baldwin’s novel Another Country, but then took an unexpected deep dive into the turbulent separatist politics of Quebec in the 1960s and 1970s, as filtered through Davey’s childhood recollection of the events.



Moyra Davey’s work comprises the fields of photography, video, and writing. Trained in photographic and moving image practices throughout the 1980s, Davey became a mother in 1996, prompting her to edit the collection Mother Reader: Essential Writings on Motherhood (2001), a survey of texts on creative life and maternal ambivalence. Subsequent to this period of research, non-fiction writing in tandem with video, took on greater significance in Davey’s artistic work. Since 2005 she has produced six narrative videos, including the Les Goddesses trilogy, focusing on the imagined, intersecting lives of the female British Romantics, and those of her five sisters; and i confess (2019), an essayistic work anchored by the emergent themes of race, poverty, and language in twentieth century Quebec. Davey took a hiatus from photography in 2003, but resumed making still images six years later, almost by accident, when a gallery’s invitation to participate in an exhibition from afar, prompted her to fold and mail photographs. This method of treating the photograph as a “giant postcard” enabled a new approach to the image, and soon became a staple of Davey’s practice.  She has authored numerous books, most recently an essay collection, Index Cards (2020), and The Shabbiness of Beauty (2021), in collaboration with the estate of Peter Hujar. Davey has exhibited widely and has participated in the Whitney, São Paulo, Montreal, and Toronto Biennials, as well as documenta-14 in Athens and Kassel. Her artworks are held in numerous public collections, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and Tate Modern, London. A survey of her videos will be presented at Museum of Modern Art, New York in 2022. Davey is a 2020 John S. Guggenheim Fellow.


Andrea Kunard earned her PhD in 2004 from Queen’s University, and taught survey and seminar courses on the history of photography, Canadian Art, and museology for over a decade at Carleton University, Queen’s University and Nova Scotia College of Art & Design University. As Senior Curator, Photographs at the National Gallery of Canada, Kunard explores the intersections of contemporary and historical issues in Canadian photography, focusing on cultural uses of the medium, and its capacity to challenge and reconfigure accepted understandings of the public and private, subjectivity, memory, and knowledge. Exhibitions include Shifting Sites (2000), Peter Pitseolak (2001-2002), Jeff Thomas: Scouting for Indians (2003), Shelley Niro: This Land is Mime Land (2003), Susan McEachern: Structures of Meaning (2004), Steeling the Gaze: Portraits by Aboriginal Artists (2008-09, co-curated with Steve Loft), Scott McFarland: A Cultivated View (2009), Fred Herzog (2011), Clash: Conflict and Its Consequences (2012), Michel Campeau: Icons of Obsolescence (2013), Photography in Canada 1960-2000 (2017), Marlene Creates – Places, Paths, and Pauses (2017), Anthropocene (2018) and Moyra Davey: The Faithful (2020). Virtual exhibits include Photostories Canada, which presents government uses of the medium that attempt to align identity with narratives of nationhood. Co-editor of The Cultural Work of Photography in Canada (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008), she has also written articles on contemporary and historical photography in The Journal of Canadian Art History, the International Journal of Canadian Studies, and Early Popular Visual Culture.



A melancholic tone underlies Davey’s thoughts on photography, where each image is seen by the artist not only as a moment in time but as a memento mori and record of a receding life. At the same time, the photograph is rarely a unique object for Davey. She constantly revisits and renews her images. She does this by reprinting them, viewing them again through the video camera, and referring to them in her narratives. The mailers that make up EM Copperheads from 2017, for example, are redeployments of the first hundred photographs of a series commenced in the 1990s. Davey considers her black and white portraits of her son and his friends from 2018 as complements to a series of photos she took of her sisters at the end of the 1970s. As a memorial device, photography records generations and lives lived. It is also generative, as Davey exploits photography’s inherent reproducibility to look again, to bring variation and inflection to the past seen from the present moment.


The different ways Davey works with photographic series and groupings.

How does Davey weave photographs into the narratives of her videos?

What value does an original or unique photograph carry? What is at stake in restaging, reproducing, or manipulating photographs?


In her work Davey both reveals and repeats elements from her life. She’ll tell you of her childhood in Montreal and her teenage years in Ottawa. She points to her time as an art student at Concordia University in the early 1980s, then in San Diego and on to New York at the start of the 1990s, noting the changes in her art practice along the way. You hear of her husband, Jason and son, Barney, of conversations with her best friend, Alison Strayer, and of the lives of her three sisters, Claire, Jane, and Kate. She recounts deaths in their family, her worries, needs, and affections, and speaks of the experience of aging, her body image, and changes in her health.


What biographical elements become familiar to you?

What associations does Davey make between personal experience, literature and theory, and historical events?

What connections can you draw between the photographs found in the gallery and the information, both visual and verbal, imparted in the videos?

The Unsaid

In the video Les Goddesses, Davey mentions her “Pathography”: a private document reserved for memories she resists saying out loud. Within she records what she refers to as “The Wet,” describing in the same video her “insistent preoccupation with narrating certain aspects of the discredited past, things I may never be ready to tell.” Under this category, Davey assigns her memories a formless, sensorial, and even abject character. “The Wet” can also be seen as the primary material of psychoanalysis. As a theory and talk therapy, psychoanalysis focuses on pauses, slips, stray remarks, and errors in order to uncover repressed emotions, impulses, and memories. And despite her mixed feelings about the process, as noted in Fifty Minutes chronicling five and half years of psychoanalytic sessions, Davey acknowledges that what is left unsaid or what can’t be said bears on the shape of her work.


Listen and look for the sensorial and emotional terrains mapped out in the works.

How would you name the feelings at play between the words as heard in her work?

Can you look for the unseen in the photographs just as you listen for the unsaid in the videos?


Chance, contingency, or accident in photography are all variations of an idea shared by some of Davey’s abiding references. Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Janet Malcolm, and Susan Sontag each write of how our viewing of photographs, specifically everyday photos, can be guided or interrupted by details other than the principal content. Setting off a string of unexpected associations and narratives, these minor details can reveal an underlying emotional tone or steer the image into surreal terrain. They can also plant the seed for a fixation and compulsion to find the same image again. By consequence, the seemingly plain objectivity of a vernacular photograph gives way to a complex array of relationships, feelings, and fantasies at play within and outside of its frame.


Compare what draws your attention in Davey’s interior photographs (Paw, Long Life Cool White, for example) and her street photography (the Newstands series and Subway Writers).

Examine The Faithful and observe how Davey’s focus of attention changes from image to image.

Throughout the exhibition, where does your attention differ from Davey’s focus or fixations? What draws you to look?


In her work, Davey frequently occupies the role of a reader or receiver. Just as Davey exposes her reading process, important for her are those rare moments when an author reveals their own “writing life.” Moments of self-reflection whose “effect can be electric,” as she notes in Wedding Loop, a feeling she also searches for in the personal writings of photographers, theorists, and critics. One way to describe this way of working is absorptive. In entertaining numerous and simultaneous fixations, Davey is absorbed in her reading and the pleasures of associative thought. At the same time, she absorbs her sources into her narratives, finding ways to both relate to and inhabit them through speech and images. This can be seen in Les Goddesses where Davey enmeshes the family history of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughters at the end of the eighteenth century through to the nineteenth with her life and those of her sisters at the end of the twentieth century.


Listen and look for the ways Davey reveals her artmaking and thought processes.

How does Davey turn the act of reading into a productive process?

How might you adopt forms of active and associative reading in the ways you visit the exhibition?


Davey also reads to and for the viewer. Camera in one hand, she’ll take a book and flip through to the page she’s looking for, filling the frame with text as she reads out the selected passage. At other times, fragments of her readings are heard as voice-overs to images shot while traveling, with family, or on her own. In her apartment, she recites her scripts with a measured and remote voice, her microphone occasionally picking up the tinny murmur of her pre-recorded prompts playing back in her earphones. Or, in the case of the photo series Trust Me, Davey quotes the author, sending folded photos to Lynne Tillman each affixed with a sticker bearing a segment from Tillman’s novel American Genius, A Comedy.


What actions or remarks by Davey result from her readings?

When are you offered the intimacy of direct speech from Davey and when does she deliver other texts to you?

In what ways is the impulse to read extended beyond books, for example with Newspaper, Coffee (Receipts) II?

The Everyday

From her book-strewn apartments to the stuff of pockets—pennies, receipts—and down to dust, views of daily life make up much of the visual elements to Davey’s work. Out in the city and its environs, she photographs the last of New York City’s iconic newsstands, subway riders absorbed in their writing, and record collectors focused on their hunt. By printing, folding and mailing her photographs as letters, Davey transforms the art object into a mobile, manipulable and relatable object. Upon arrival at their destination, these works are then returned to her and mounted again as objects for exhibition. Displayed as a grid, the arrangement suggests a cool, rational, and impartial inventory, while the images within this system offer intimate views guided by a fascination with what draws vision in. 


What ways of viewing does the grid formation invite or make possible?

What role do the figures of the collector, the writer, and the amateur, play in Davey’s works?

Can the body or bodies still be found among images focused on objects? 


Davey builds extended photographic studies by following chance discoveries and accidents. The Empties series, as one example, arose from a misfire of an empty liquor bottle found on a contact sheet, leading to a five-year process of photographing empties with time, consumption, and habit in mind. Her mailed works reprint and circulate earlier photographs and video stills. Folded, taped, and stamped, then collecting further marks en route to their destination, when opened they reveal both the image and a new abstract pattern on its surface. Noting in Wedding Loop of her admiration of “long-take writers” such as Elena Ferrante, Hervé Guibert, Karl Ove Knausgård, and Leo Tolstoy, Davey lends a cinematic character to the compulsion to return and examine one’s own life, opening extended views on what might have been thought of as past, ordinary, or simply background.


What do you qualify as “everyday” and how do things—objects, activities, thoughts—become so?

What questions can you ask of the everyday in order to activate it or see its influence?

In what ways can a life be recounted through ordinary and recurrent details?



Order of works corresponding to the exhibition floor plan

1. Long Life, Cool White, 1999
Chromogenic print, 51 x 61 cm
Courtesy of the artist, greengrassi, London and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York

2. Newsstands Nos. 19, 10, 9, 16
   Newsstands Nos. 2, 12, 5, 1994
7 chromogenic prints,
25 x 25 cm each
Courtesy of the artist, greengrassi, London and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York

3. The Faithful, 2013
12 chromogenic prints, tape, postage, ink
30.5 x 44.5 cm each
Courtesy of the artist, greengrassi, London and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York

4. Subway Writers, 2011-2014
76 chromogenic prints, tape, postage, ink
30.5 x 45.7 cm each
Courtesy of Payal and Anurag Khanna Collection, India

5. The Whites of Your Eyes (for Bill Horrigan), 2010
24 chromogenic prints, tape, postage, ink
30.5 x 44.5 cm each
Private Collection, Boston

6. Newspaper, Coffee (Receipts) II, 2015-2016
12 chromogenic prints, tape, postage, ink
30.5 x 45.7 cm each
Courtesy of Nion McEvoy Collection, San Francisco

7. Early, 1999
   Receivers, 2003
Chromogenic prints
61 x 50.8 cm, 51 x 61 cm
Courtesy of the artist, greengrassi, London and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York

8. Fifty Minutes, 2006
Digital video, colour, sound, 50 min. 37 sec.
Courtesy of the artist, greengrassi, London and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York

9. Fifty Minutes Grid, 2006
12 chromogenic prints, tape, postage, ink, 30.5 x 44.5 cm each
Private collection. Courtesy of greengrassi, London

10. 1980, 2019
13 chromogenic inkjet prints with relief overprint on archival paper, tape, postage, ink, 30.5 x 45.7 cm each
Courtesy of the artist, greengrassi, London and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York

11. Nyro, 2003
    Shure, 2003
    Paw, 2003
Chromogenic prints, 61 x 50.8 cm each
Courtesy of the artist, greengrassi, London and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York

12. Portraits
Eric, 2017
Ethan 1, 2018
Eric (Polo), 2018
Barney, Eric and Leo, 2018
Untitled (‘Hands’ after JMC), 2017
Eric (Fade), 2018
Emma / Hazel 2, 2017
Emma (Spider), 2017
Emma / Hazel 1, 2017
John & Goya, 2019
Cisco (landscape), 2019
Plymouth Rock, 2019
3 Chickens (smoke), 2019
Blind mare (flies), 2019
6 Chickens (boots), 2019
Cisco (flies), 2019
Charlie (flies), 2019

Silver gelatin prints, 50.8 × 40.6 cm, 61 x 50.8 cm, 50.8 x 40.6 cm
Courtesy of the artist, greengrassi, London and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York

13. Empties, 2017
55 inkjet prints on archival paper, 30.5 x 45.7 cm each
Courtesy of Payal and Anurag Khanna Collection, India

14. EM Copperheads 1-150, Galerie Buchholz, 1990-2017
150 chromogenic prints, tape, postage, ink, 45.7 x 30.5 cm
Courtesy of the artist, greengrassi, London and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York

15. Trust Me, 2011
16 chromogenic prints, postage, tape, ink, 45.7 x 30.5 cm each
Courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Purchase, 2011 (2012.13.1-16)

16. Hell Notes, 1991-2017
HD video, transferred from Super-8 film, colour, sound, 26 min.16 sec.
Courtesy of the artist, greengrassi, London and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York

17. Video Projections

Program 1 (duration: 126 min.)

Les Goddesses, 2011
HD video, colour, sound, 61 min.
Courtesy of the artist of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Purchase, 2017 (47548)

Hemlock Forest, 2016
HD video, colour, sound, 41 min. 53 sec.
Courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Purchase, 2017 (47547)

Wedding Loop, 2017
Video HD, colour, sound, 22 min.  51 sec.
Courtesy of the artist, greengrassi, London and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York

Program 2

i confess, 2019
HD video, colour, sound, 54 min. 46 sec.
Courtesy of the artist, greengrassi, London and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York

Supplementary Resources


Moyra Davey and Andrea Kunard in conversation. National Gallery of Canada. November 24, 2020.


Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” In Image, Music, Text, 142-148. Translated from the French by Stephen Heath. London: Fontana, 1977.

— — — — –. Camera Luicda: Reflections on Photography. Translated from the French by Richard Howard. London: Vintage Classics, 2020

Benjamin, Walter. “A Small History of Photography.” In One-Way Street and Other Writings, 240-257. Translated from the German by Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter. London: NLB, 1979.

Chagnon, Katrie. “Moyra Davey : le réconfort de la répétition.” Spirale 275 (Spring 2021): 60-73.

Davey, Moyra. i confess/j’avoue. Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada; Brooklyn: Dancing Foxes Press, 2001

— — — — –. Index Cards. New York: New Directions, 2020.

Malcolm, Janet. Diana & Nikon: Essays on Photography. New York: Aperture, 1997.

Owens, Craig. “On the Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism.” In The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, edited by Hal Foster. Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 1983.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1973.

Stewart, Kathleen. Ordinary Affects. Durham, NC: Duke University, Press, 2007.