Capturing the Decisive Moment: The Canadians

Photo: Courtesy Bone Idle Press

Ottawa mayor Charlotte Whitton sits scowling, refusing to stand for O Canada, the new national anthem. NDP hopeful David Lewis hands out campaign pamphlets to attractive women on a city bus. American figure-skating star Andra McLaughlin Kelly bites her nails as she watches her husband Red take to the ice in the 1963 Stanley Cup opener.

Famous Canadians from the late 1940s through the 1980s are featured prominently in The Canadians, a new photography book from Bone Idle Press (a division of the Archive of Modern Conflict), but so too are everyday citizens. From suit-wearing men doing their laundry at a coin-op, to women playing bingo at the Canadian National Exhibition, to members of a motorcycle gang reacting to a police rebuke for “giggling,” this attractive volume — curated by Roger Hargreaves, Jill Offenbeck and Stefanie Petrilli — captures moments in time from the photo archives of the Globe and Mail.

Billed in promotional material as a “reimagining” of Robert Frank’s iconic The Americans, the book features nearly 80 black-and-white photographs, predominantly from the 1950s and 1960s. All of the pictures — part of a recent donation of some 20,000 images to the Canadian Photography Institute at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) — are also part of the national touring exhibition, Cutline: The Photography Archives of the Globe and Mail, recently presented in Toronto, and now on view at the NGC.

Fred Ross, Former Ottawa Mayor Charlotte Whitton, who refuses to recognize ‘O Canada’ as the national anthem, stays seated while others stand to sing, 1967. Photo: Courtesy Bone Idle Press

The Canadians — otherwise text-free, save for the original captions, or cutlines — opens with a brief but evocative introduction by Canadian author and artist Douglas Coupland. “How strange to look at these photos of a Canada that was almost dead when I was a child,” he writes. “So much of what I see in this book rings true to my life in this country, yet there is so much that came after the photos in this book that is so conspicuously absent: advanced human rights, minorities as people not minorities, ecology, critical theory, feminism, and on and on.”

Captured by Globe and Mail staff photographers and stringers, the images in the book focus largely on urban Southern Ontario, with brief forays into other parts of the country. Unlike the gritty true-crime snapshots of a Weegee, or the elegiac photo essays of a Gordon Parks or Dorothea Lange, the images here are one-offs, often catching people unawares. Doubtless snapped in the days before a signed release was de rigueur, many of the shots look hastily composed, grabbed on the run as the perfect moment presented itself.

Unidentified Photographer, Ballerina Martine Van Hamel in short fur piece and turquoise gown is escorted to the ballet by John Sauder, 1967. Photo: Courtesy Bone Idle Press

Interestingly, the book includes all the crop marks added by Globe and Mail photo editors. Generally limited to red grease pencil or black pen, the crop marks are sometimes slightly mystifying. Why, you wonder, would an editor want to use that particular portion of the image? Other crop marks are so multiple that it becomes an intriguing exercise to figure out how the resulting image would have fit onto a composited page.

Occasionally, however, the cropping must have been a source of grief to the photographers. Back in a day when photographers were essentially “hired hands,” they had little or no control over their final work. A carefully included piece of visual information might be casually cut off, leaving just the face and figure of a pretty woman. Or the weathered features of an elderly man might be excised, reducing the picture to his fingers around a soft drink bottle (brand name visible).

Boris Spremo, Mourners from all walks of life paid tribute at funeral of late Toronto Mayor, Donald Summerville, 1963. Photo: Courtesy Bone Idle Press

Crop marks aside, this is a book of marvellous images. There are moody photos of a nurse working the nightshift, and a singer in a smoky cabaret. There are flashlit glamour shots of local celebrities, and gritty depictions of shacks, gas stations, factories, and bus strikes. The full range of human experience is on view here — love, loneliness, sex, religion — but in a way that feels unmistakably Canadian. Where else would you find people queuing for the bus in a howling snowstorm? Where else would you find an establishment called the Uranium Cafe, or a well-dressed crowd politely listening to the “End is Near” message of a street-corner evangelist in winter?

In many ways, today’s art photography owes much to photojournalists. By capturing the “decisive moment,” photojournalists such as Boris Spremo, Eric Christensen, Fred Ross, Vincent DeWitt — and many others whose names remain unknown and unsung — essentially taught us all how to see. Whether we are taking a selfie, snapping a serendipitous visual, or developing our own photo essays, photojournalists have led the way.

Erik Christensen (formerly known as Erik Schack), At Millbrook Reformatory the job of making license plates for cars is a privilege awarded for good conduct, 1958. Photo: Courtesy Bone Idle Press

“In these pictures,” writes Coupland, “we see a Canada oblivious to physical beauty, a place where strippers have cellulite and the only technically ‘hot’ citizens are guys making Ontario license plates in prison.” And later, wondering on behalf of some of the photographic subjects where the old Canada went: “How did it dissolve? Should we mourn for it? Should we be glad it’s gone? And when it snowed back then, did the flakes come down gray like these photos would have us believe?”

As Coupland suggests, this outstanding collection of decisive moments depicts a country long gone. To contemporary eyes, the clothes are dated, the behaviours old-fashioned, the vehicles antiquated. Yet, as with all good photography, something familiar remains in the simple universality of human experience — captured, in an instant, for all time.

The Canadians is a publication of Bone Idle Press (a division of the Archive of Modern Conflict), and is available from the National Gallery BoutiqueCutline: The Photography Archives of the Globe and Mail is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until February 12, 2017.  

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