Canadian Photography Institute: The Full Spectrum

Luce Lebart, 2016. Photo: NGC 

Luce Lebart, the newly appointed Director of the Canadian Photography Institute (CPI) of the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), is almost as passionate about social media as she is about photography and its history. “It’s an extraordinary way to share images, to share knowledge, discoveries, emotions and memories,” she told NGC Magazine. “And social media knows no borders.” 

A photo historian, archivist and author with a particular interest in scientific and documentary photography, Lebart arrived in Canada just two months ago from the Société française de la photographie, in Paris, and her excitement about the CPI is palpable.

Announced almost one year ago, the CPI brings together three outstanding collections of photographs. The cornerstone is the NGC Photographs Collection, which was started in 1967 and now numbers more than 40,000 images. It includes many treasures of photographic history, from salted paper prints made in Britain and France by pioneering photographers William Henry Fox Talbot, Hippolyte Bayard and Charles Nègre, to masterpieces of 20th-century American photography, and contemporary works by photographers such as Edward Burtynsky, Lynne Cohen and Jeff Wall.

Hippolyte Bayard, Country House (c. 1850, printed 1965), gelatin silver print, printed by Gassmann père & fils, 16.9 x 23 cm. NGC

The second collection comes from the former Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, which grew out of the National Film Board’s Still Photography Division, and was transferred to the Gallery in 2009. It contains some 17,000 photographs, along with 144,000 negatives and transparencies, including fascinating documentary images and experimental works that help recount Canada’s visual and cultural history.

The newest collection is a large and generous donation of photographs from Toronto collector David Thomson and the Archive of Modern Conflict (AMC): his award-winning Toronto- and London-based organization devoted largely to photojournalism and the history of war. As Lebart says, the AMC collection has always been “a bit disruptive and very forward-thinking. The AMC never followed the same collecting route as other museums and collectors around the world. It took an interest in many things, long before they became subjects of study or interest for researchers, historians or curators. It’s an amazing vernacular collection.”

Also pivotal to the establishment of the CPI was the unprecedented pledge of $10 million from Founding Partner Scotiabank to support programs and research. According to Lebart, Scotiabank’s commitment was essential, not just from a financial viewpoint, but also because of the institution’s history of sponsoring photography projects — notably Toronto’s Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival and the Scotiabank Photography Award. “They are so experienced in photography,” she says, “and so passionate about it.”

William Henry Fox Talbot, Specimen of Lace, c. 1839–45, salted paper print, printed by Nicolaas Henneman, 19.1 x 23 cm; image: 18.7 x 22.8 cm. NGC

The union of these three superb collections and the partnership with Scotiabank present tremendous potential for radical ways of doing things, according to Lebart. “It creates a completely new kind of aggregate that doesn’t exist anywhere else, and which is very conducive to rethinking the history of photography, exploring and experimenting on all levels, whether curatorial, or in exhibitions, research, partnerships, working methods, collaborations and publications. It offers possibilities for engaging new communities while satisfying the photographic community’s insatiable curiosity, whether at the local, provincial, national or international level.”

It has been a busy start for Lebart, as she and her team prepare this week’s opening of three inaugural CPI exhibitions at the National Gallery.  

Josef Sudek, Last Rose, 1956, gelatin silver print, 28.2 x 23.2 cm. NGC. Gift from an anonymous donor, 2010. © Estate of Josef Sudek

The Intimate World of Josef Sudek presents the stunningly lyrical works of Czech photographer Josef Sudek (1896–1976), known as the Poet of Prague. The exhibition was well received at the Jeu de Paume in Paris this past summer, and opens in Ottawa in the new, dedicated CPI Galleries, on the building’s upper floor. 

The PhotoLab, an experimental gallery space located within the CPI Galleries, presents the first in a series of installations, titled PhotoLab 1. Inspired by Sudek’s diaphanous views from his studio window, the installation explores how the shop window, with its ability to frame one subject and reflect another, has been a recurring motif in art. The exhibition includes works from the CPI collection by 19th-century French photographer Eugène Atget, along with 20th- and 21st-century photographers such as American artist Nathan Lyons, and Canadians Clara Gutsche, Pascal Grandmaison and Phil Bergerson.

Unknown Photographer, The Globe and Mail press room, 1952. Gift of The Globe and Mail Newspaper to the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada

Cutline: The Photography Archives of The Globe and Mail is on view in the Gallery’s Lower Contemporary wing. Organized in collaboration with Toronto’s Globe and Mail and the AMC, Cutline was shown earlier this year in Toronto as a primary exhibition of the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival. Cutline presents both a slice of Canadian life from the 1940s through the 1970s, and a peek into the intervention of photo editors and their red grease pencils. 

These three exhibitions exemplify the broad range of photography represented in the CPI collection, which covers the entire history of the medium, from its invention to the present day. It also includes virtually every genre, be it family albums and other vernacular photographs, studio portraits, street photography, documentary and scientific photography, photojournalism, landscapes, and conceptual or experimental work. 

Marc Mayer, the National Gallery’s Director and CEO, is enthusiastic about the impact the CPI will have on intellectual and cultural life in Canada and beyond. “What we learn about the world and ourselves through photographs of every kind is simply immeasurable,” he said in an interview with NGC Magazine. “Photographs are a point of departure for thought. That an art museum can put at everyone’s disposal a collection on this scale, with large numbers of examples from every manifestation of the photographic medium, gives Canadians a great advantage in the world — not only as a rich picture-making culture, but as a society that can use the full spectrum of photography as a resource for thinking, feeling and knowing. The CPI will be a great place to come and study human nature.”

One of the highest priorities in establishing the CPI has been to give it a dedicated exhibition space. Never one to shy away from a challenge, the Gallery’s Senior Designer Ellen Treciokas has taken on the job of transforming the upper level Prints, Drawings and Photographs Galleries into the more nimble CPI Galleries. “We want photography to be on view at all times,” Treciokas told NGC Magazine, “and we tried to be innovative.” 

Nathan Lyons, New York City, New York, 1965, printed before April 1970, gelatin silver print, 11.2 x 16.6 cm. NGC

One key change is the creation of the PhotoLab, which is a small space intended for rotating, informal photographic installations. Treciokas designed the space with ease of use in mind. The walls are currently painted a dark colour to provide a consistent backdrop for the display of photographs. Behind two large glass vitrines embedded in the wall, photographs are propped up on magnetic panels and shelves. “It allows the curators to develop more experimental exhibitions,” says the designer, “to work with objects in a way that might not be the conventional way we display things.”

The inaugural installation, PhotoLab 1, is a case in point. “It was a fun, quick collaboration that we did when Luce arrived,” says Treciokas. “From my standpoint, it was really interesting, because I was able to get together with the curatorial team, who have a deep knowledge of the collection, and collaborate with them to come up with a selection of works. And in consultation with the conservation team, we thought about how best to display them in the vitrines.”

Treciokas is thrilled at how it all came together. “We’re able to show photographs in their entirety, as raw photographs without their mats. So we look at them intensely as objects, as opposed to art hanging on a wall.” 

Meanwhile, Luce Lebart is putting the finishing touches on her latest academic article on “Esperanto photography,” with her smartphone firmly in hand, thinking about all the new, dynamic ways she can engage young audiences in the CPI’s activities. “One of the most important things for me is to work with youth, with all that is emerging in photography  to draw in young people and teenagers to interact with the Institute and its collection. They are the future of photography.” 

The Canadian Photography Institute will hold its official opening on October 26, 2016. The Intimate World of Josef Sudek is on view from October 28, 2016 to February 26, 2017 in the CPI Galleries. PhotoLab 1 is on view from October 28, 2016 through winter 2017, in the PhotoLab of the CPI Galleries. Cutline: The Photography Archives of The Globe and Mail is on view from October 28, 2016 to February 12, 2017 in Galleries B102 and B103. For more information on the Canadian Photography Institute and its activities, please visit the CPI website.

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