Visiting the Family Camera Exhibit at the ROM

The Family Camera exhibition at the ROM

Toronto.  Both Bob Lansdale and Wayne Gilbert were a bit under the weather Tuesday night (May 30th), so Carol’s cousin Al dropped me off at Kipling Subway and I came to the ROM via the better way. Fortunately as I walked up the subway stairs at Museum station, I spotted David and Louise just ahead of me. We popped out at street level by the ROM and went down the steps by the south entrance to the George Weston Wing (I would have used the wrong entrance, left on my own).

Waiting for Godot… actually waiting for our 7pm entry to the ROM – photo by George Dunbar

At 7:00 pm we were escorted inside and walked along towards Bloor Street. The guide brought us to a giant elevator and we slowly ascended to the 4th floor inside the giant crystal. A short walk and we were at the exhibit called The Family Camera. Entering the display area, the walls, floors, and ceiling gently tilted at various angles creating a clear and quiet space. The display area was at the appropriate right angles, of course, but high ceilings and angled walls eliminated noise and echoes. We walked around inspecting the many snap-shots on the walls. The images were accompanied by brief text labels identifying the people, place, date, medium and often the photographer, along with a story about the photograph itself. A few photos were placed adjacent to Kodak ads encouraging celebration of various scenes with suitable photos. Photos of girls with dolls were juxtaposed beside a Kodak ad showing a little girl with arms wrapped around a dolls. Each photo seemed to imitate the ad showing how ads played a role in shaping how families took photos. A couple of photos had been enlarged to gigantic proportions and displayed on walls, as a way to elevate the humble family photo to a monumental scale. The purpose of the exhibit was to show the complexity of family photography as a cultural practice.

In a few minutes we were joined by Dr Deepali Dewan, Dan Mishra Curator of South Asian Art & Culture at the ROM. Dr Dewan spoke to us back on September 18, 2013 about the famous Indian photographer Raja Deen Dayal. Since then, her research interests have expanded to vernacular photography practice beyond India. She explained how the exhibition “The Family Camera” came to be: seeing a lack of archives of family photos where the stories about the photos are preserved as well, she and her colleagues embarked on project to create such a collection. This is called The Family Camera Network ( The exhibition was a selection of 200 photos from the 10,000+ photos they have collected so far. Unlike archives where most family photos were those of well known and famous families, this one focuses on ordinary families, there was a distinct lack of information. Genealogy may give some details but there was little or no information about the cameras used, the photographer, the occasion snapped, the people recorded or the people not recorded.


For this exhibit, Dr. Dewan worked with a team of curators, each of whom contributed a personal photo to the exhibit as well. In the case of every object in the exhibit, the original photo was used and not a copy. Most images were lovingly matted and carefully framed and hung. One album was displayed, enclosed in thick acrylic and opened to two pages full of photographs.

A major concept in the exhibition was that of how our family photographs reflect and shape experiences of migration to and within Canada, in the recent or distant past. The photos depicted the movement over time from a family’s home country to a new home in Canada. They also show movement within Canada, from rural to urban locations and between provinces. One wall even shows the different kinds of movement that come together at major tourist sites like Niagara Falls. A variation was the impact such a move had on family gatherings – not all members could be included in one photograph. Deepali described how photos sent by mail helped the families today connect to those who were not in the same geographic location.

The exhibit spans a wide gamut of media from cabinet card-sized albumen prints to the digital era. Digital images were presented in an electronic frame on screen, not as a print. There was even a digital video of sharing family photos through their Facebook page. The copy was an accurate version of the actual web site. Only one example of home movies was displayed. The family in this case had many reels of 8mm movies seldom projected any longer. The folks at the ROM arranged for the sequence of movies to be digitized. The original movies and their digital versions were returned. To the delight of the family, they could once again view the old films via the digital files.

The wall mounted photos were surrounded a trio of floor cases containing a display of cameras popular with families, ranging from late 1800s box cameras featuring the then new Eastman roll film, to the more recent (but now dated) iPhone 4. All the cameras were inexpensive and easy to use – suitable for casual use by each family’s impromptu photographer. One display showed cameras suitable for children – even the Mickey Mouse Mick-a-Matic camera! PHSC members Les Jones, John Morden and Robert Wilson lent cameras from their collections for the display. Dr. Wilson did a brief impromptu talk on the box cameras.

After a delightful and informative talk about the exhibit, including the concept behind it, Dr Dewan led us back down to the main level and refreshments to wrap up the evening.

Photo by George Dunbar.

A montage of photographs. Photo by George Dunbar.

I take a closer look… Photo by George Dunbar.

Looking at the photographs. Photo by George Dunbar.

Listening to our hostess, Dr Deepali Dewan. Photo by George Dunbar.

Dr Deepali Dewan. Photo by George Dunbar.

A camera display. Photo by George Dunbar.

Another camera display. Photo by George Dunbar.

Photo Album at The Family Camera Exhibition. Photo by George Dunbar.

Selfie of me and George. Photo by George Dunbar.

The exhibition. iPod Touch photograph by Bob Carter.

Crystal on Bloor – the ROM. iPod Touch photograph by Bob Carter.

Futalognkosaurus dinosaur casting. iPod Touch photograph by Bob Carter.

Huge casting of a dinosaur at our post-viewing snack. iPod Touch photograph by Bob Carter.

The sole video in the exhibition. iPod Touch photograph by Bob Carter.

George Dunbar in action. iPod Touch photograph by Bob Carter.

Polaroids. iPod Touch photograph by Bob Carter.

Baby Brownies. iPod Touch photograph by Bob Carter.

A Brownie Hawk-eye camera like I used in Grade 9. iPod Touch photograph by Bob Carter.

Mick-a-Matic camera for kids. iPod Touch photograph by Bob Carter.

Photographs. iPod Touch photograph by Bob Carter.

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