THE PHOTOGRAPHIC HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF CANADA

PHOTOGRAPHY AT THE AGO - MAY 16, 2007

Maia Sutnik

"The AGO was founded in 1900 by a group of private citizens as the Art Museum of Toronto, the Art Gallery of Ontario is now the 10th largest art museum in North America, with a physical facility of 486,000 square feet." - from the AGO web site.
 
The AGO has exhibited photographs since 1917 including prints from the Toronto Camera Club, The Camera, the Royal Photographic Society and other international salons. In 1935 and 1938-39 major monographic exhibits were mounted. Photo exhibitions came to a halt when World War II broke out. Post war, photography moved very much on to the printed page. Photography's marginal position with the art world lasted into the 1960s and 70s when the medium underwent a revitalization as an object of interest and a collectable with market value. Today, most of the strong market interest in photographs flourishes in New York and Los Angeles in the US and London in the UK.

Maia Sutnick by Robert Lansdale
Maia Sutnik
by Robert Lansdale

Maia Sutnik joined AGO in the mid 1960s. One of her early tasks was documenting the gallery holdings. She noticed the lack of photographs in the collection and worked hard to gain recognition for photographic media. At the time, photographs were not considered to be fine art, mainly because prints were not considered to be unique -- any number of prints could be made from a negative (no one in the Art world minded that artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein could pull off large editions of serigraphs from one work).

Today, Maia follows the photography market closely. She has been building the AGO collection through donations and savvy buying -- there is virtually no money available for photographic acquisitions. For example, at a recent Sotheby's auction in New York, historical photographs sold for an average of 8 to 10 thousand dollars US - the highest price attained in May 2006 was for "The Pond -- Moonlight" (1904), by Steichen, which fetched 2.9 million dollars US. Prior to this phenomenal sale, the highest price paid for a photograph was one million dollars US for a large colour print by contemporary photographer Richard Prince. Christie's and Sotheby's catalogues have beautiful reproductions of the photographs being auctioned, accompanied by detailed information (Swann Galleries in NYC is smaller, offering slightly more affordable lots). In Canada, auctions of photographs tend to be marginal endeavours - the excitement generated in America and Europe has not yet reached here.

Maia reminded tonight's audience - mostly camera collectors - that their favourite cameras and lenses produced a residual product: photographs. She didn't have to remind those who collect photographs that images have shot up in value in recent years - for example, you would have to mortgage your house today to buy a single fine quality photograph by Man Ray!

The AGO collection developed through a combination of luck, opportunities and the generosity of donors. The tipping point was the 1974 acquisition of the Henry Moore collection. Henry Moore was a well known sculptor (think of "The Archer" in Phillips Square at Toronto city hall). His collection included sculptures, paintings, drawings - and photographs. The photos were of Moore and his sculptures taken by many well known photographers including Roloff Beny and Karsh.

Maia initially collected photographic portraits of artists by recognized photographers such as Arnold Newman's Henry Moore collage c1966, done in 1972; Cecil Beaton's c1950 portrait of Moore; a photogravure of Matisse by Steichen; a vintage George Platt Lynes portrait of Yves Tanguy - a French surrealist artist; and Picasso photographed in his studio with a stove whose heat exchanger has elements resembling his sculptures. The portrait of Picasso was taken by French photographer Brassai, c1925 (whose estate still holds its copyright).

While the AGO has many photographs taken by well known names in photography, Maia views the collection as a parallel along the margins of traditional photographic history. She seeks out arresting images in the genre of the masters, many created by affiliates of lesser renown. The artistic merits of a photograph are more important to her than the reputation of the photographer. After introducing us to the AGO and the background to photograph collecting, Maia presented a wonderful selection of slides depicting some of the AGO holdings. As each slide popped up, she commented on the artist, sometimes the model, the significance of the image, its history, and its journey to the AGO. Following are just a few of those stories:

Frederick H Evans was famous for his platinum prints. During the late 1920s and 30s in London, he shared an enthusiasm for pianola pianos with a Canadian by the name of Gordon Conn. The friendship resulted in the Conns receiving a number of Evans prints. Back in Toronto, years later, Conn and his wife Rheta offered the prints to the AGO. Unfortunately it was a time when the AGO did not collect photographs so the offer was turned down and most of the prints went to George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. Years later, Rita Conn offered to donate some of the prints she had kept back -- one being a portrait of Aubrey Beardsley taken c1895. Times had changed and this time the donation was gratefully received by the AGO. The AGO later mounted an Exhibition of Frederick Evans's magnificent prints of Kelmscott Manor (the home of William Morris) but had to borrow them from George Eastman House.

Aubrey Beardsley by F H Evans c1895
Aubrey Beardsley
by F H Evans c1895

The AGO has more than 140 M O Hammond prints donated by the photographer's grandson. Hammond, from Toronto, was a journalist and a writer. He held a number of jobs over the years including various editorial positions at the Toronto Globe (now part of the Globe and Mail). He had a life long interest in politics and the arts and is best remembered for his photographs. A self taught amateur photographer and a beautiful print-maker, M O Hammond was a member of the Toronto Camera Club. His photographs were displayed in many exhibitions of the day -- and he often used them to illustrate his newspaper articles. A memorial exhibition was held at the AGO in 1935.

Sunlight in the OAC by M O Hammond 1938
Sunlight in the OAC
M O Hammond 1938
Ann Johnson by M O Hammond 1928
Ann Johnson
M O H 1928

Eugene Haanel Cassidy was born in Tokyo, Japan of Canadian parents. While living in Japan, he became interested in photography, taking many photographs of Japanese subjects in the 1930s. When the Sino-Japanese war broke out in the late 1930s, he moved to Hawaii where he photographed Hawaiian plants and flowers in close-up compositions. In 1939 the AGO presented an exhibition of his work. Years later, Maia received a call from a collector in California who offered a number of Cassidy images. The collector confirmed that Cassidy, in his 70s, was still alive and living in Ananda, a co-operative in northern California. Maia took the opportunity to fly to California to assess the photographs and organized from them, an exhibition in 1981, which in part recreated his earlier installation at the AGO. Some years later, Cassidy's daughter donated the archive of her father's work to the AGO.

Hawaii Plant Forms by E H Cassidy 1938
Hawaii Plant Forms
E H Cassidy 1938

Just Oiled Umbrellas by E H Cassidy
Just Oiled Umbrellas
E H Cassidy

John Gutmann was a painter who fled Nazi Germany in 1933. Settling in San Francisco, Gutmann decided to buy a camera, intending to become a photojournalist and record people and events in his adopted country. One can only imagine his shock in 1935 when San Francisco's city fathers welcomed dignitaries from Germany with German and Nazi flags draping city hall along side Old Glory. A memorable photograph he took to record the event is called "news photographer". In 1985 his photographs were featured in an AGO exhibition.

newsphotographer John Gutmann 1935
news photographer
J Gutmann 1935

Lotte Jacobi, commissioned by Life magazine in 1938 to take a portrait of Albert Einstein, posed him wearing his favourite leather jacket. Life never used the photograph feeling it was too informal, treating Einstein without the dignity the great scientist deserved. Ironically, in time the photograph became one the most famous and popular of his portraits. The AGO discovered another photograph tucked in behind their print: it was a very poorly developed print of Stieglitz. Jacobi was poor in those days and reused her materials. She went on to create photographs during the 1950s "in the purist state" by drawing directly on photo-sensitized paper with light instead of using a camera. The AGO owns an example created by moving strips of cellulose over the paper. Jacobi would experiment with placement and exposure until she created an image she felt was worth printing.

Albert Einstein by Lotte Jacobi 1938
Albert Einstein
Lotte Jacobi 1938
cellulose on paper by Lotte Jacobi
Cellulose on paper
Lotte Jacobi

A portrait of Lorna Hayes was donated to the AGO by Hayes's daughter. Ms Hayes, now a film editor in New York, was with her mother in Paris when the photograph was taken in 1928 by Man Ray. Surprisingly, Hayes is still alive at 96 and continues to do editing. The portrait, mounted on a board, was dropped while in a frame. The damage to it caused an emulsion break across Hayes's delicate forehead. Rather than ruining the print, the mark adds an unforeseen interest - one that Man Ray, a surrealist at heart, would likely have approved.

Lorna Hayes by Man Ray 1928
Lorna Hayes
Man Ray 1928

Maia noted a new sector in photography, Pop Photographica. Items in this sector are day-to-day objects adorned with photographs. Examples shown were a American marriage certificate from 1886 which is embellished with small carte de visite portraits of the groom and his bride; and a plate hand decorated with an albumen print. The print is from the late 1880s. It is attached to a decorated plate made in Buffalo NY by a pottery-maker who was established in 1902 -- nearly two decades after the print was made. These personal objects, popularly referred to as 'vernacular' - keepsakes, jewellery, memorials, souvenirs - are usually the product of anonymous creators.

c1880 print decorating a post 1902 china plate
c1880 print decorating
a post 1902 china plate

The last images in tonight's show were taken by Josef Sudek, considered to be the most famous Czechoslovakian photographer of the 20th century. In 2000, an anonymous donor gave the AGO a major gift of 975 Sudek images, spanning the photographer's working life. The range of images in this gift gave the AGO its first opportunity to assess the working life of a famous photographer.

gathering by Josef Sudek
gathering
Josef Sudek
view from the studio by Josef Sudek post 1945
view from studio
Josef Sudek >1945

In closing, Maia discussed some generalities regarding the current photographic image scene: her wish list of photographers and photographs; other Canadian cities with galleries collecting photographs; her reluctance to de-accession any donated materials without a prior agreement with the donor; and how expensive vintage photographs have become today - but for her, the excitement of photography prevails.

glasses and eggs by Josef Sudek
glasses and eggs
Josef Sudek

Most images on this page were taken off the screen during Maia Sutnik's slide presentation using a Sony F828 digital still camera. All images were subsequently adjusted in Photoshop CS2 and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom V1. Contents and most images are ©2007 Maia Sutnik and the AGO and may not be used without permission. Any PHSC images may be used freely provided the source is clearly indicated. Contact PHSC at info@phsc.ca if you would like more information on the items discussed on this page.

Note that this is the first page I have created with Dreamweaver CS3 on an iMac. While you can click on each thumbnail to see a larger version, the larger images each open in a separate pop-up window. Be sure to close them as you finish each one!

 

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