City Shields by Louise Levergneux

Peter Trepanier, ARLIS/MOQDOC Vol.16 no.2, Spring

 © 2007 Louise Levergneux, Peter Trepanier in front of volumes of City Shields at the National Gallery of Canada Library, Ottawa, ON

© 2007 Louise Levergneux, Peter Trepanier in front of volumes of City Shields at the National Gallery of Canada Library, Ottawa, ON

Over several years, Louise Levergneux has been photographing thousands of manhole covers in Canada, the United States, and Scotland. The project is aptly titled City Shields, as manhole covers protect access to the underground urban infrastructure. She reprints the photographs as colour digital prints on die-cut paper, then crops them to isolate the shapes of the individual manhole covers from their surroundings. The stand-alone images and bird’s-eye view of these discs, triangles, and rectangles further emphasize their sculptural qualities. They are grouped by city or region and stored in plastic Zip-drive jewel cases. An accompanying folder identifies the location of each manhole cover. 

Levergneux’s choice of an industrial component, her methodology of photographing in a standardized manner and the archival presentation share many similar characteristics found in the photographs of the German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. 

The Bechers have been photographing industrial structures such as water towers, blast furnaces, and cooling towers in a uniform and objective manner since 1959. They photograph “anonymous sculptures” from a precise frontal point of view and present them in a series format. While the pictures appear to be heartless and repetitive at first, they instead invite comparison and reveal individual characteristics within the groupings. City Shields provokes similar reactions. 

Levergneux’s standardized presentation reveals particular styles, shapes, motifs, and colours among her adopted “sculptures underfoot.” Fragments and traces of their individual histories surface: rust, dents, scratches, and even pools of water or blades of grass sprouting from the crevices are visible! City Shields calls on walkers to take notice and appreciate the beauty found in and among the humble manhole covers which dot our streets.

Peter Trepanier, National Gallery of Canada, Head, Reader Services