The Photographic Historical Society of Canada

A Night at the Gallery (AGO)
Maia Sutnik
Program date: February 18, 2009

Maia Sutnik by Robert Lansdale
Maia Sutnik by RL

AGO Interior by Georege Dunbar
AGO Interior by GD

AGO interior by Georege Dunbar
AGO Interior by GD

AGO interior by Georege Dunbar
AGO Interior by GD

AGO in February Night
AGO - east

AGO west end
AGO - west

war chest by Robert Lansdale
War cabinet by RL
Wayne Gilbert (L)
George Hunter (R)

Maia Sutnik - AGO
Maia Sutnik

Documentary display by Robert Lansdale
Documentrary by RL

Maia Sutnik AGO
Maia Sutnik

Maia Sutnik AGO
Favourite Penn Print

Maia Sutnik AGO
AGO

Maia Sutnik AGO
Stereo Display

Maia Sutnik AGO
Wonder

Maia Sutnik AGO
Wonder

Wonder display by Robert Lansdale
wonder by RL


AGO

Maia Sutnik AGO
1851 Report

Maia Sutnik AGO
Great Exhibition Desk

Maia Sutnik AGO
Spacious

Maia Sutnik AGO
Wrapping up

Gang is all here by Robert Lansdale
Gang's all here by RL

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is open again after being closed for many months for a major building transformation by internationally celebrated architect Frank Gehry. The PHSC members were invited by Maia Sutnik, AGO Curator of Photography to visit the AGO on a wet and chilly February evening. The beautiful new building and its photography gallery more than made up for the weather. Ms Sutnik is a member of the PHSC and she gave a presentation on the AGO photographic holdings at our May 2007 meeting.

The mandate of the photography department is to build a collection of primary photographic material of artistic and social significance – that is, to consider the history of photography in the broadest terms – not only fine art by great artists but works of amateurs who love photography for the sake of the medium, including works assembled into personal albums. Our guided visit began in the “Works and Art on Paper” Hub which includes photography (further back in the facility is the “Prints and Drawing Study Centre” which is available for the close-up study of images. Arrangements to use the centre can be made with Maia).

Just at the entrance to the photography gallery (named the Betty Ann & R. Fraser Elliott Gallery), we stopped at an area dedicated to photographic memories of the Great War. A small number of display cases with drawers contain some of the 465 family albums from the AGO’s rich holdings. The albums on display are in open storage and visitors can look at a small selection of the albums at any one time. The photographs were mostly taken by soldiers or their families in Britain, Canada, France, Germany, and a few Eastern Block countries. They depict intimate family gatherings, along side views of military industries, aerial surveillances, and the brutal aftermath of war and conflict.

Just inside the photography gallery is an image by contemporary photographer John Massey introducing visitors to the gallery. (Massey is one of the photographers celebrated in Maryanne Camilleri’s opus “Carte Blanche”) Maia hopes that the gallery will have shows year round from the AGO’s permanent collection of over 40,000 photographs. The present show is a sampling choosing themes and ideas covering the history of the medium.

The pioneering days of photography are represented by works by the French photographer Charles Nègre, who explored the medium of paper and collodion glass negatives in the 1850s. In one example, dated 1852, he photographed a building, but he was too close or his lens’s angle of view wasn’t wide enough. To compensate, he chose to photograph the upper and lower half separately and unite them in the print.

The next photographer we viewed was the work by British army officer Linnaeus Tripe, who was commissioned by the Madras establishment of the East India Company army. Appointed in 1855 as the first Official Photographer to the Government of India Mission, he was charged with documenting geographic areas in Burma and South India. The decision to hire photographers, rather than artists or illustrators, was to get more objective views, but Tripe’s work was anything but objective. Like Nègre, Tripe experimented with paper negatives, much inspired by William Henry Fox Talbot’s calotypes and albumen prints, the size of the final print. He was exploring the new medium while the government wanted a recording of landscape and architectural sites. Working with few assistants, fighting typhoons, rain and pollution, he made quirky photographs. His compositions cut off parts of buildings, were taken from odd angles, and his use of high contrast and wide perspectives created dramatic effects. The cost of Tripe’s operation exceeded budgets, and seeing photography as too expensive, the Government took the opportunity to close down his establishment.

In the next area of the gallery, the theme of Performance is explored - "what happens when people get in front of the camera?". Posing and placing the subject are a large part of two approaches; the attempt to be ‘scientific’, as represented by Eadweard Muybridge and his “Animal Locomotion” series, the movement-study documents by Etienne-Jules Marey, and Harold Edgerton’s use of strobe lights to record high speed motion to capture the dramatic sequences beyond what the human eye can see, except in photographic prints. The multiplicity of ways to think of performance was explored in the work of Barbara Morgan’s dance montage, Lotte Jacobi’s camera-less image (she “performs” by moving the light sources over photographic paper to create abstract images), and motion in the 1920s “Ballet mechanique” film clip.

Our next stop was the Contemporary photography exhibit. Included was a number of contemporary photographers; The large wall piece “Holy Hope” of 1982, by Gilbert and George, two artists whose performance often involves posing themselves as ‘living sculpture’ in various locations. A montage by Barbara Astman completed in the pre-digital year of 1981. Every object was photographed, pasted into the montage and then painted. She used a Polaroid to to capture each object, assembled the Polaroids into a montage, then photographed and enlarged the montage. It was a performance for both camera and artist. And finally Nan Goldin’s "Cody", a transvestite captured in a startling moment in frank confrontation in front of the camera.

When we moved to a Henri Cartier-Bresson photo-journalism image as a bridge from performance to Documentary photography. Cartier-Bresson’s early 1964 photograph “Rue Mouffetard, Paris, ( young boy running with wine bottles) is well known. This particular print came to the AGO as a gift of the late Tess Boudreau. A Canadian, she went to work in Europe, met and married Kryn Taconis who was associated with Cartier-Bresson at Magnum Photo. She too was associated with Cartier-Bresson as his caption writer. Taconis went to Algeria to document the FLN organization fighting the government (Cartier-Bresson felt his photographs were too pro FLN and rejected them, and Kryn and Tess moved to Toronto - this work was not published until after his death). Years after the FLN disagreement, Cartier-Bresson made amends by giving Tess his famous print, signed and noted “for Tess with thousand thanks, Henri”. (Tess became a published photographer of Canadian artists and has been exhibited at AGO ).

Maia also told an anecdote about the photograph. After the boy in the photo (Michel Gabriel) grew up, he wanted compensation as the ‘model’, but he was turned down by Cartier-Bresson who pointed out that he was underage at the time. He gave him a choice: fame and no money, or money and be charged for having alcohol while underage. Michel chose fame, and remained a life-time friend of Cartier-Bresson!

The Documentary section communicates world events through the illustrated presses which flourished with magazines that were just as popular as television became to be. The original prints on display from the Klinsky Press Agency Collection form moral stories and narratives used in the German illustrated press predating Life Magazine and its photo essays. The example discussed by Maia shows a woman with a cook-book. Four of the original ten pictures in the series “You work, I will cook” are shown. The meal a mess and in end the husband reads the newspaper while she cries. The moral is “learn to cook before promising a meal”.

The prints are installed on a large ‘press wall’ emulating their mass circulation uses – you can even see pin marks on some. These prints had a wide circulation, going from magazine to magazine, agency to agency. The collection ended up in Amsterdam when WWII broke out. It was rediscovered, bought and donated to the AGO. Many Alfred Eisenstaedt photographs are included in the 10,000 prints in the collection, which with a subsequent gift has increased to nearly 20,000 original documentary photographs commissioned and or distributed by the Klinsky Press Agency between the two World Wars.

We moved on to a section called “Remember” which probes “what role does photography uphold best?”. It captures a moment in time. “Photographs are memories - things shift and change the moment after the photograph is taken.” This section addresses cultural memories, travel and tourism, and personal memories. Pictures that offer cultural memories were represented by Edward Burtynsky, Roman Vishniac, Edward Curtis, Larry Towell, and Irving Penn. The huge picture by Ed Burtynsky was taken at the Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze river. Flooding the Yangtze valley affected 140 villages and over 80,000 acres of arable land. Dust and smoke make areas of this photograph appear to be out of focus. You can see people still working salvaging rebar and bricks to rebuild elsewhere. A poster of Mao’s days from the Cultural Revolution, still clings to a remaining wall.

Roman Vishniac captured the life of Jews in 1937 Warsaw, Poland, and their expulsion into restricted ghetto life. His photograph of Jewish newspapers, and a grandfather and granddaughter tell the story of a cultural loss. On the back of the photograph Vishniac wrote, “and there was nothing I could do”. In fact, he had to flee himself, with rolls of film sewn in his coat-lining waiting to be printed in the USA.

Edward Curtis spent many years capturing images of the North American Indians beginning a bit late, in 1900. The AGO has many pictures by Curtis including those of the BC Haida. He made large prints for subscribers to raise money to finish his monumental project, and printing complete sets of a smaller size. But his objective to record all the native peoples was never fulfilled due to a shortage of money. [If you are in downtown Toronto, check out Barberian's Steak House on Elm St. The times I was there, the decorations included some Curtis Prints].

Larry Towell, from Ontario was represented by a photograph he took in Guatemala in the 1980s and 90s during the cultural upheavals caused by military action.

Irving Penn created Maia’s favorite picture in this section: a portrait of two little Peruvian children taken in 1947 when Penn stayed behind after a Condé Nast assignment. He photographed some of the native people using an old 19th century studio as a workshop and prop. In the 1970s, when photography became popular again, Penn decided to reprint some of his negatives, this time as large platinum palladium prints. To do this, he had to make a negative the size of the desired print since platinum paper must be contact printed. Prints of this particular subject is now highly desirable and sought after on all the photography markets. Maia noted that size and material make the image very different - often new interpretations can be regenerated by the photographer at a later date using different papers, proportions, sizes, or treatments as he re-thinks his work (A good example is Bill Brandt, who revisited his early negatives to create more dramatic effects).

A contemporary perspective to Remember was represented by a Steven Evans’s interior view of a 19th century distillery tank in the Gooderham and Worts site before that area of downtown Toronto became the Distillery District. All the tanks and other gear were removed - only the Evans photograph is a reminder of this history. Another example was a print by Geoffrey James whose panoramic view of Roman architectural ruins blended historical consciousness with modern sensibility.

Niagara Falls is a prime tourist attraction. Even in the 1860s and earlier it was a huge attraction for people and photographers. Studio photographs could be had with a painted backdrop of the falls. Tourist pictures were available from any book store. The visitor simply chose a selection of albumen prints, and bought an album to glue them in so they didn’t curl. Today, these old albums are often bought and the individual pictures are removed and sold. While the albums and photographs were commercial, and produced in large volumes, today they are becoming rare as albums were damaged, thrown out and lost over the years.

A small display is devoted to stereo cards. Stereo was a popular parlour past time in the Victorian era. The more valuable cards are displayed behind glass. A few “flea market” variety cards are sitting on a shelf with a couple of viewers so AGO visitors can feel the thrill of viewing the old stereo cards. Included in the display is a tintype showing two girls using a stereo viewer.

The next section, “Personal”, presents photographs by Robert Bordeau, Carl Chiarenza, Josef Sudek, Constantin Brancusi, and Riva Brooks. Bordeau has a large name in Canada. Influenced by Minor White, he takes an emotional approach to his photographs. Chiarenza often uses a montage-like style. Brancusi is a sculptor who used photography to determine the effect of light on the form of his sculpture and the pedestal shape for aesthetic compatibility. He also photographed arrangements of plasters before cast in bronze. (His photographs are closely aligned to his sculptures, and to be familiar with the reading of his sculpture helps the understanding of his photographs.) Josef Sudek we are familiar with thanks to an earlier talk at a PHSC meeting by Maia. The example chosen for this exhibit is his “Veiled Woman”, an image that evokes loss and bereavement. Riva Brooks of Toronto accompanied her painter husband Leonard Brooks to San Miguel Allende, Mexico, in 1947. There she recorded life in villages, including the postmortem photograph of a child shown in this exhibit.

The last section of the exhibit is called “Wonder” - how photos work in real world. Photographs as memories; the awe of common things. There are dimensional photographs you can hold, photographs that are very personal - the small cased daguerreotypes, cups and mugs with photos on them. And the family albums which became family memories. An example is a picture plate. The photograph was cut from a c1880 cabinet card image and added to a plate at least 20 years newer made by Buffalo Pottery which began operations in 1902. Why was the photograph enshrined? It appears to be a hand-crafted cottage industry object compared to a commercial plate with pictures burnt-in from a carbon print and decorated with an expensive trim.

Also in this section are images made with the very early processes. There is an ambrotype of Charlotte Bronte – it is an early drawing by George Richmond, likely photographed after her death in 1855. This suggests that people had an interest in pictures of the famous. Two daguerreotypes by Mike Robinson, in collaboration with Spring Hurlbut, titled “Mannequin” demonstrate that the art of the daguerreotype still thrives. Another is the 1856 portrait of volunteer fireman John Shiels of Kingston whose history was researched by Robert Lansdale and recorded in Photographic Canadiana.

Painted daguerreotypes are light sensitive and carefully monitored by the photography conservator and displayed for a short time before being retired to the vault – the Kilbourne daguerreotype in this exhibit is beginning to show a slight colour shift and a milky cast. Maia reminded us that cased images in their own time were opened from time to time for a glance to ‘remember’ the face of someone cherished, and not left exposed to bright lights for months. However; a properly sealed daguerreotype without any tint or paint will have a long life as long as its environment is securely sealed.

A final item of interest is a beautiful wooden cabinet housing a number of large red leather bound books with silk linings. The books were published in 1852, recording in detail the exhibits at the Great Exhibition of 1851. The exhibition was held in a new building made of steel and glass dubbed the Crystal Palace. The exhibition was Prince Albert’s suggestion to promote British Industry. It attracted over six million visitors. Maia noted that photography was shown under “philosophical [scientific] instruments”. The exhibits and goods were juried and the four volume illustrated report was published in the following year with 156 salt prints from paper negatives and albumen glass negatives. The photography was by Hugh Owen (British) , and Claude Marie Ferrier (French). Some 140 copies were printed the following year (1852). Navigation through the different volumes is a time consuming, but rewarding task. Canada had many entries listed under Upper and Lower regions, but we were represented by “putrid” soap, and admired for our “fine “ lumber. The cabinet and books at the AGO were originally owned by William Crossman of the Royal Engineesr and donated by David Thompson fulfilling a long time wish of Maia’s.

In closing, Maia mentioned the “ Works of Art” campaign where AGO staff concentrate on acquiring desired prints from personal collections. Jane Corkin donated one ‘mamoth’ albumen print by Edouard Baldus, “Toulon”, 1861. The final print, also by a French photographer, Gustave Le Gray, gifted by Ann and Harry Malcolmson, was made by printing two collodion wet plate negatives together to make a sumptuous lyrical seascape. Le Gray was well known for using several negatives , and he exposed separately for the sky to avoid otherwise empty skies. His technique was often seamless, yet when observed closely, there are tell-tale signs in the tilt of shadows and perspectives that make his work even more intriguing.

After a short Q&A, we left for coffee and tasty sweets courtesy of Maia at the Art Square Café across Dundas from the AGO.


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