The Wistful Beauty of Bruce Deachman’s “Ghosts of the Highway”

ABOVE: Ghost of the Highway is on display at the Heritage House Museum in Smiths Falls until July 2, 2023. 

A camera asks two questions: where and when? Point and shoot. It’s that simple. The details, the subject, the relationships, and the stories told within the frame are limited only by the photographer’s imagination. In the case of Bruce Deachman’s Ghosts of the Highway, “where and when” are answered with an ambiguity that draws the viewer into a state of reverie.

His current exhibit at The Smiths Falls Heritage House Museum is a pleasant daydream, with just a touch of the wistful.

There’s no point in me re-writing the words of a great writer like Bruce (of the Ottawa Citizen), whose creative photography aspires to “explore the intersection between memory, history, and space.” He achieves just that via a sublime and seemingly simple process that merges two of his favourite activities.

First, capture the interior of abandoned buildings (a movement known as ruins photography in which the picturesque is revealed in the aesthetics of the dilapidated). Second, rummage through vintage black and white photos at flea markets and in antique stores to acquire images of people in situ. Subtract the second, layer it over the first with just enough transparency to make it apparitional, and find therein Bruce’s invitation “to reflect on the power of memory, the fleeting nature of time, and the beauty of the stories that can be found in the spaces we inhabit.”

The Heritage House Museum is the perfect setting for Bruce’s 13, almost three-dimensional, metal prints. The museum, situated next to Old Sly’s Rapids on the Rideau Canal, is housed in the once-elegant Victorian home of Joshua Bates. He built this fine-frame house even though his ambitions of mills and railways had cost him his shirt. Eventually dying in debt, Bates’ assets and house were acquired by his competitor Truman R. Ward, one of Smiths Falls founding fathers.

Today, the museum is a convincing simulacrum of lives once lived. Dishes once washed, chairs once sat upon, a piano once resonant with happy tunes for family and guests. Like Bruce’s magical images, Bates House is now filled with guests displaced in time who cannot interact with the context of rooms and artifacts.

Back to Bruce’s seemingly simple process. Technicalities aside, it is the thoughtful selection of elements from what must be thousands of possible mash-ups that fill these images with stories. The human characters are realistically scaled to the settings. They are convincing if you accept the paradox of the living being set against decay beyond repair. It’s like that old joke: “Time Travellers Meeting to be held last Thursday at 7 p.m.”

ABOVE: Pillars, by Bruce Deachman

Bruce loves to time travel, camera in hand, into spaces that echo with the past. Pillars is the result of a four-day exploration of buildings on the old EB Eddy site. He originally populated the scene with 12 children, possibly engaged in a game of hide-and-seek in a place where their fun might have invited a scolding. Bruce opted for a different story. A single child stands forlorn and remote among cement sentinels, as though expecting a retrieval by concerned adults.

Room 128 features two fellows in front of a door that leads to a refrigerator, perhaps? A butcher’s apron offers a clue, as does a lamb fondly held in a lap.

ABOVE: Room 128, by Bruce Deachman

Sometimes stories intertwine, only to go their separate ways. The Kiss is a risqué make-out scene from a time when social behaviour was a bit more bashful, especially in the presence of a camera. An overheated couple, engaged in a clothed version of a Rodin pose, sneak a private peck. Not so private had Bruce gone with the idea to place the Room 128 butcher in the doorway, like a jealous lover who’d discovered his shaky place in a love triangle unfolding in a tawdry motel. In the end, Bruce opted to leave the amorous couple to their desires.

ABOVE: The Kiss, by Bruce Deachman

My personal favourite is called Sweethearts. A young, happy couple, him fit and virile, her beaming contentedly while reclining on a settee, share a sunny room that has succumbed to entropy. Over her shoulder, a trespasser, perhaps, scrawled a big red heart on an otherwise crumbling wall. A vine creeps into the scene through an open window. Nature overtakes the man-made, as is its way.

ABOVE: Sweetheart, by Bruce Deachman

Bruce Deachman’s Ghosts of the Highway is on display at the Heritage House Museum until July 2nd. Metal prints and cards can be purchased through Bruce’s website, but you must see them in the museum to get the full effect. You’ll leave seeing the museum itself and your surroundings in a different light. That’s the wonder of inventive photography.

The Smiths Falls Heritage House Museum is open Wednesday – Sunday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.