Still Photography in Canada

by Tom Reaume October. 08, 2017 645 views
Along The Boulevard

Along The Boulevard

Photography In Canada, 1960–2000 is a 176-page catalogue self-published by the Canadian [still] Photography Institute (CPI) within the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) in Ottawa, Ontario. This 27 x 20 cm soft cover book contains the works of 71 photographers, each with 2 pages of images and text written mostly by 1 of 2 curators with the NGC. The title of the book would have stood out more if the text was white instead of an orangy-red, which is somewhat hard to read against the blue sky and dark green vegetation of the cover photograph.

A couple of years ago I visited MoMA in New York City. One large room was dedicated to dozens of small b&w still photographs, perhaps from the 1960s–1980s when 8x10 inch images were fashionable. I walked along the walls rather quickly, stopping only occasionally, as did others. Overall, the images in the show seemed old and tired. Not one image really stuck with me. Looking at Photography in Canada, 1960–2000 brought back those same feelings. The images within also seem old and tired, mostly b&w with a scatter of color. About a dozen names are familiar to me. I am not included among the 71 artists. Just as well, since my pure abstract images would erupt from this book of still photographs.

I found the cover image lazy, but screaming at the same time. Taken by Jim Breukelman, it shows the too-detailed front of a small home in Vancouver in 1987, under the series, Hot Properties. The front gate is visible, with a little blue sky above and a small border on either side of the slightly decorative home. Of course, Jim was armed with a large-format camera. Armed is an ideal word for any still photograph. Armed, shoot, take. All quite forceful. The cover picture itself, from my distant anti-still view, is incredibly ordinary, vernacular, and screams at the viewer the NGC and CPI don’t really want anything to rock their status quo. It would have been one of the last pictures I would have chosen for a cover of a photographic book, which is why I could never work at the National Gallery of Canada.

Several still photographers in the catalogue I found intriguing and worthy of mention. Exploratory was Jack Dale with his gum bichromate works. The long blurred exposures of gestures used to make a bed or wash a window by Sorel Cohen were compelling. One of her images would have been perfect for the front cover of this catalogue. Images by Evergon are always thought provoking. The blurred scenes by Angela Grauerholx are timeless, as are the pictures of people by Fred Herzog. The staged landscapes by Holly King are fantastical. The documented workers of Pierre Gaudard are worth an extra second look. Ken Lum’s text adjacent to portraits are unsettling and expose the tactics of advertising.

This catalogue provides a snapshot of snapshots. Hopefully, most of the still photographers have gone on to different subjects and techniques from when these images were taken. The text for each still photographer is typically hard to understand and read. It is a style museum’s curators world-wide churn out month after month on photography, which makes us believe the art form is more complex than it really is. I remember attending a photographic conference in Toronto 45 years ago. A few invited American professors and critics gave their talks in the mumbo-jumbo you might read in an artistic journal article or some over-the-top art magazine. The photographers from the audience I talked to at the bathroom break, didn’t understand what the male professors were talking about. Finally, a woman professor spoke in normal language with normal context and imagery, and was given a huge applause, well beyond that of the male professors combined. The male professors’ words didn’t communicate to their audience anything worthwhile. All of the experts, save one, failed to reach and interact with their intended audience. They didn’t know or understand how. They came to Toronto, they spoke, and they failed completely.

Photography in Canada, 1960–2000 can be enjoyed for some of the images, which are, unfortunately, mostly small. 64 portraits in a 16 x 4 mosaic by Arnaud Maggs is presented with each image best measured in single digit millimeters, and 90 teeny-tiny images are jammed together in a 10 x 9 mosaic by Suzy Lake. At such microscopic sizes, they become visually useless, especially when the latter mosaic by Suzy Lake was presented opposite one full-page portrait. I am going to donate this $65 catalogue to the London Public Library, so others may or may not relish this photographic book event. It is not worth adding to my personal library.

Tom Reaume’s new 93-page photo ebook, Photography Traditions, is free at

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