Toronto. In Scotland, the word ‘Kirk’ means church. Last century in the Bronx, it meant a very talented Armenian photographer christened Kourken Hovsepian and his Studio.
At the February, 2021 meeting, we saw the finished version of “Photos by Kirk” by Jamie Day Fleck via streaming to ZOOM. This time, Jamie and a panel of three experts fielded queries afterwards. Jamie first gave us a taste of her film on Kirk when we saw a copy at our June, 2015 meeting. Tonight’s presentation was our third meeting organized on Eventbrite and hosted on ZOOM. We owe a thanks to Programme Director Celio Barreto for his co-ordinating acumen. The $9.99 General Admission screening and Panel Discussion tickets included a digital copy of the film. PHSC members were exempt from this fee, unless they wished to purchase a copy of the film. I counted 46 attendees at one point.
The approximately 25 minute documentary consisted of interviews with family members and clients carefully interspersed with black and white photographs taken mostly by Kourken Hovsepian (Kirk). Note that ‘Kirk’ was the name he used for his studio as his Armenian name was difficult to say in English.
The documentary records some very emotional interviews. It also uses a few home movie clips – each uncorrected for the colour shifts that occurred over time. These clips added some poignancy. Kirk’s photographs recorded not only special events (candids, portraits, weddings) but the history of his neighbourhood in the Bronx (New York City). Like many studio photographers, Kirk used a very big camera in his work. He was born around 1900 and had only a few years of formal education. His education was abruptly cut short by the 1912 Armenian genocide. The Turks in the Ottoman Empire were muslim and turned on the christian Armenians in the Empire. By the time the purge ended, about a million and a half Armenians had died. Death and destruction littered the land. Bodies were everywhere, including those of Kourken’s immediate family. He survived but by inference was another victim of the purge.
As a young man, Kourken Hovsepian sailed to America where an uncle already lived. His uncle taught him photography. Kourken became a professional photographer and opened his own studio called, “Photos by Kirk”. Like him, Kirk’s daughter Mimi lives and works at home in a building with a storefront. While Kirk chose photography as his medium, his daughter prefers paint.
Prior to the film screening, the audience was asked to switch their sound and video off to save bandwidth. After the documentary ended we took a short break so Celio as host could organize the panelists. Participants were encouraged to text their questions via the ZOOM built-in chat feature. The panelists were Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) Tasha Lutek in NYC; Cassandra Tavukciyan from the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa, and Pierre Tremblay, Jamie’s documentary mentor at Ryerson. The discussion was moderated by Paulette Michayluk host of the ‘Defend The Darkroom’ podcast. PHSC president, Clint Hryhorijiw, opened with an overview of our society and its monthly Toronto meetings.
First up, Paulette acknowledged that our piece of Southern Ontario was once aboriginal land, listing each tribe of record. Noting that in Kirk’s day there was neither immediacy nor technology, Paulette stated that a professional photographer was necessary to record significant events and even family photos.
Jamie answered a few questions: She knew nothing of Armenian history when she began the documentary, and was attending school in NYC. She identified the Project Save Armenian Photograph Archives in Watertown, MA as the source of many of Kirk’s old photographs. She discovered a cassette of Kirk speaking with his daughter Mimi when he was 70 years old. Kirk often used glass plate negatives, but when Jamie found them, they were dusty, and dirty. She carefully cleaned each one, inserted it in a glassine envelope, and returned them all to Kirk’s family. Kirk himself was married in NYC in early 1926. While he did annotate some wedding negatives, there is no record of who photographed his wedding (or if he even photographed part of it himself). While Kirk used a style traditional for studio photographs of his time, his abilities made all the difference in their impact.
The Q&A was longer than the streaming with active participation by all panel members as well as Jamie. It nicely expanded on the documentary, Kirk’s history and that of his adopted neighbourhood. One of the last questions was addressed to Jamie regarding her newer work. She explained that her husband’s violin maker is also Armenian. She did a very short documentary of the violin maker as well two other documentaries – ‘Affairs of the Heart’ and ‘In My Back Yard’. Jamie can be contacted via her Facebook channel or her company website.
The meeting ended with Clint’s wrap-up and thank you to the panel and Jamie. Once again it was an excellent job by Celio who attracted a stellar panel and audience to view and comment on the documentary.