Manitoba History: Book Review: John Paskievich, The North End Revisited: Photographs by John Paskievich.

by Dave Barber
Cinematheque, Winnipeg Film Group

Number 87, Summer 2018

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

Please direct all inquiries to

Help us keep
history alive!

John Paskievich, The North End Revisited: Photographs by John Paskievich. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2017, 248 pages. ISBN: 978-0-88755-797-2, $39.95 (paperback)

When photographer John Paskievich first turned his camera on the people of the North End in Winnipeg, it was a place already famil-iar to him from growing up there as a child. Born in Linz, Austria, Paskievich immigrated to Winnipeg with his family at the age of five and alternated between living there and in Montreal, but returned to Winnipeg at age twelve. Living in the north end of Winnipeg, he was surrounded by Polish, German, and Ukrainian immi-grants who served as a rich wellspring of influence on his photography. He studied sociology and anthropology at the University of Winnipeg, graduating in 1968, and later pursued photography at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute. After a trip through Western and Eastern Europe, he bought his first camera and began taking pictures.

Paskievich worked as a freelancer for anyone who would have him (including Maclean’s magazine), but grew tired of the hustle and constant travelling. Searching for something deeper, he embarked on a career as a documentary filmmaker for the National Film Board. His first co-directed short, Ted Baryluk’s Grocery, is a photo portrait essay of the last days of a North End grocery store, and a model of humour and candor. It was so good that it won Best Short Film at the National Genie Awards in 1983. From there, Paskievich embarked on longer, more complex documentaries. As writer Howard Curle cites (in an essay on his films), this includes “a disenfranchised Manitoba farmer (in The Price of Daily Bread, 1983), the adherents of an archaic Russian orthodoxy (in The Old Believers, 1989), and Inuit stone carvers (in Sedna: The Making of a Myth, 1992).”

But the recent re-publication of his book of photographs on the north end of Winnipeg (The North End Revisited) reminds us that he is at the front ranks of great photographers. First published in 2007 under the title The North End, this newly revised edition was the result of a special commission by the University of Manitoba Press, celebrating its 50th anniversary.

With eighty new photos in the new edition, The North End Revisited shows us a photographer with a deep humanity, sense of humour, and empathy with the dispossessed. Paskievich’s respect for the people of the north end of Winnipeg is deeply embedded in these photographs. He has an excellent eye for great imagery especially of people on the street and of decaying vacant storefronts and buildings. The hardest thing to capture in creating a great photograph is the right moment when to take the shot—where angle, balance of light and shadow, and composition work perfectly. This book is chock full of great photos. In the best ones, you see a sense of humour and a defiance of authority: women and men stooped over, frowning or smiling; kids behaving recklessly.

In the introduction to Paskievich’s 1987 earlier book of photos, A Voiceless Song—Photographs of the Slavic Lands, the great Czech writer Josef Skvorecky says the task of the photographer “is to make us feel the sense of reality, its beauty, its complexity, its mystery.” The same is true of his photos of the North End. Paskievich’s visual eye captures all of these with his respect for people on the street.

A few of my favourites include Photo 77, “Salter Street and Manitoba Avenue,” where a young boy is perched like a bird on top of a street sign at Salter and Manitoba. By scrambling high up the pole, he sits on top. He owns this neighbourhood. In Photo 27, “Henry Avenue (Between Princess and Main),” some kids are gathered around a man who is frowning. They could be his children or maybe just some kids in the neighborhood. Their joyful defiance is a stark contrast the sorrow on his face. In Photo 78, “Lorne Avenue,” a woman in sunglasses with a paisley matching top and pants is standing beside a tree and staring at the photographer. As you look at her, your eye moves sideways and you notice a little kid lying on the sidewalk, which you might miss if you only glance at the photo. If you look ever more closely, further back you see trees on the boulevard with the sun glowing through the branches. All three elements create a remarkable complexity to the photograph, indicating the work of a master.

Included in the book is the original essay by writer Stephen Osborne, a new reflective essay by writer George Melnyk, and a revealing interview by freelance arts writer and critic, Alison Gillmor, about John’s working methods, which fleshes out his background influences. As Osborne says, “His genius is to have created or perhaps discovered a singular photography: as Fred Herzog can be said to have created a Vancouver photography and Michel Lambeth a Toronto photography, so has John Paskievich created a Winnipeg photography.” Both Osborne and Melnyk give excellent context to the North End as a place, which grew with the arrival of new immigrants. Large Slavic and Jewish families arrived from Eastern Europe to work in textile factories and sweatshops. In later years, as they moved out, a new generation of Indigenous people are moving in. Melnyk says, “Now through institutions like Neechi Commons and Children of the Earth school, Indigenous people are creating their own equivalents of labour temples and language schooling.” In the new interview with writer Alison Gillmor, included in the re-release, John says, “I’ve always loved this area. I grew up here. And when I was a kid in elementary school and junior high school, I thought it was a wonderful place to be.”

In many ways, John is a hidden treasure in this country. He is quiet and doesn’t push himself on the art celebrity circuit, but the photos speak for themselves. Some of them are so good they rank with the best of his acknowledged mentors—Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand, and Josef Koudelka. From the late 1970s to 2018, John Paskievich has accomplished an unmatched body of great work as a Winnipeg artist in the disciplines of photography and documentary film-making: five major books of photographs and over ten major feature documentaries, including his debut award-winning short film, Ted Baryluk’s Grocery. John Paskievich’s photography is so original and unique it sets the bar for every Winnipeg photographer. This latest book of photographs of Winnipeg’s North End defines the soul and humanity of the people who lived there and are still living there. We see the city through his lens. This latest work should firmly reinforce his place in the Canadian landscape of great photographers.

Future projects for John include a newly commissioned documentary about Ukrainian Canadians in the Second World War, a short experimental film with Neil McInnes about John’s life as a stutterer, and a new book of his Arctic photographs, taken back in the 1980s.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 8 April 2021