Cutline: We Are not a Hippie Paper
Neil Grassick, Pity the motorist lost in a fog along Commissioners Street in Toronto if he tries to follow any one of these white strips, c. 1953, gelatin silver print, 23.0 x 17.5 cm. Gift of The Globe and Mail Newspaper to the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada
Among the photographs in the exhibition Cutline: The Photography Archives of The Globe and Mail is a 1953 print showing a deserted road, marred by unsightly hydro poles, crooked fissures and a motley pattern of painted lines. Pity the motorist lost in a fog along Commissioners Street in Toronto if he tries to follow any one of these white strips, reads the caption.
Such wry humour, both visual and verbal, is dotted throughout this captivating exhibition. Cutline brings together 175 black-and-white press photographs with the captions — or “cutlines” — typed onto their versos. Most of the works date from the postwar period, 1950 to 1970.
Organized in collaboration with Toronto’s Globe and Mail and the Archive of Modern Conflict (AMC), the exhibition draws upon a gift of some 24,000 vintage prints from the venerable newspaper to the newly opened Canadian Photography Institute (CPI) of the National Gallery of Canada (NGC). Cutline was shown earlier this year in Toronto as a primary exhibition of the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival, installed in the newspaper’s former printing hall, which is slated for demolition.
Unidentified Photographer, To have a black cat cross your path at any time is unfortunate, but on Friday the 13th – oh, my! – which is just what Jean Craig said, 1953, gelatin silver print with retouching, 22.7 x 15.2 cm. Gift of The Globe and Mail Newspaper to the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada
Cutline offers an immersive view of Canadian society and the newspaper industry in a bygone era — a time when most faces in the news were male and white, when brim hats and fur coats were in style, when editors pored over contact sheets, marking them up with red grease pencils, and, when a photograph was still something held in the hand.
The photograph as artifact is, in fact, key to the approach taken by the exhibition’s curators, Roger Hargreaves, Jill Offenbeck and Stephanie Petrilli, all from the AMC. “We now live in an age of mediated metadata, and the original physical print is obsolete,” said Hargreaves in an interview with NGC Magazine. “It was important to us as curators to make these historical objects the centre of the exhibition and not to use reproductions or blow-ups.”
As the title Cutline indicates, the exhibition gives the written word equal standing with the image. “Cutline is a journalistic term referring to the extended caption on the back of the print,” Hargreaves says. “It was intended as a guideline for editors, and not meant to be reproduced verbatim.”
Unidentified Photographer, Mrs. John Kennedy watching RCMP musical ride in Ottawa, 1961, gelatin silver print, 22.8 x 18.2 cm. Gift of The Globe and Mail Newspaper to the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada
Often the text adds to the retro atmosphere of the show, as in Pity the Motorist, mentioned above, or the caption Mrs. John Kennedy on a portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy. “We wanted to stew the exhibition in the juices of the authentic period language of the newspaper,” says Hargreaves, “since image and text are integral to the concept of the newspaper photograph.”
The exhibition documents some of the defining moments in Canada’s postwar history: Marilyn Bell’s historic swim across Lake Ontario; the “wildcat” strike by postal workers that won collective bargaining rights for the entire public service; the opening of Toronto’s new City Hall and Montreal’s metro system; the building of Canada’s first satellite; the mounting of strategies against the atomic bomb threat; and the ongoing poverty in Indigenous communities.
John McNeill, Believed to be one of its kind in Toronto, diner lives on borrowed time, c. 1963, gelatin silver print with grease pencil, 17.4 x 23.6 cm. Gift of The Globe and Mail Newspaper to the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada
At the same time, these are not necessarily the best-known, “iconic” images of those events. “Our curatorial approach was deliberately not to tell a chronological history of postwar Canada,” insists Hargreaves, “nor to select the ‘greatest’ singular images of the newspaper. We wanted to make the exhibition about the archive that had accumulated over time, rather than about the individual pictures.”
Having worked with a number of European and North American archives as Curator of Press Collections for the AMC’s London (U.K.) office, Hargreaves has learned that “certain patterns and tropes emerge through accumulation.” As he and his colleagues were examining the Globe and Mail archives, certain themes emerged organically, and ended up forming the thirteen groupings used to organize Cutline.
Unidentified Photographer, Placards are carried by Erma Walters and Kay Grigrodis, companions on picket line in front of J. D. Carrier Shoe Co. Ltd. to protest use of material from struck Clarke leather tannery in the Carrier plant, 1962, gelatin silver print with retouching, 22.9 x 17.1 cm. Gift of The Globe and Mail Newspaper to the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada
One thematic section is devoted to prime ministers (John Diefenbaker and Pierre Trudeau); another to sports (Marilyn Bell, hockey great Dave Keon, and boxer Kid Gavilán, among others); and another to celebrity portraits (Glenn Gould, Oscar Peterson, Jacqueline Kennedy, Keith Richards and Joanne Woodward). Other groupings focus on demonstrations and picket lines, small-town main streets and urban development.
Among Hargreaves’ favourite photographs are the ones of men in hats and women in furs. “I instantly loved them,” he says. “They are very period and an homage to the long, cold Canadian winters. Of course, the trade in furs and pelts is integral to the history of Canada. However, attitudes to fur as a fashion item are very different today.”
Dennis Robinson, Richard Bolduc, Department of Transport investigator, at Toronto air crash inquiry, 1970, gelatin silver print with grease pencil, 17.5 x 23.8 cm. Gift of The Globe and Mail Newspaper to the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada
Each thematic group bears a unifying title taken from one of the cutlines. A section on industrial plants, titled Chemical valley has a heady smell of wealth and progress, Sarnia, Ontario, is a sorry reminder that belching smokestacks were once a sign of the country’s economic health. A group of images about the newspaper-making process carries the amusing title Adamson: We are not a hippie paper. Originally published in an article about the short-lived Winnipeg newspaper Omphalos, the caption could easily be a motto for the traditionally staid Globe and Mail.
“The Globe and Mail has always been the newspaper of record with a serious agenda and an apparent distaste for tabloid sensationalism,” says Hargreaves. “I hope we’ve reflected this and been true to our source.”
Indeed they have. A case in point is their choice of a 1948 photograph of a Toronto safecracker, shot dead at the scene of the crime. Appearing in a section of the exhibition on photo-editing techniques, the print shows that editors cropped out and masked the gruesome body, leaving only the benign image of a warehouse safe. As Hargreaves laments, the photojournalist had snapped a shot worthy of Weegee, the famous New York ambulance-chaser, only to see it completely sanitized for publication. “We all fondly imagined the despair of the disappointed photographer,” he says.
Unidentified Photographer, Dead body of William Poole after he was shot by police while trying to open safe of Toronto Florist Co-operative, 1948, gelatin silver print with grease pencil and retouching, 18.0 x 22.0 cm. Gift of The Globe and Mail Newspaper to the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada
A final section titled The Canadians makes for an interesting exhibition within an exhibition, with twenty-eight press photographs from the 1950s that are reminiscent of Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank’s landmark series, The Americans. Frank’s series, published in a 1959 book with an introduction by Jack Kerouac, was a casual, decidedly unglamorous look at American popular culture and everyday life that mirrored the vision of the Beat generation. The Canadians, which has also been published as an attractive book, with 80 photographs and an introduction by Douglas Coupland, seems a more sympathetic ode to a generation of fairly wholesome-looking Canucks.
Anchoring the exhibition are three fascinating films: two created by the AMC especially for Cutline, and Arthur Lispsett’s seminal 1961 film Very Nice, Very Nice, produced by the National Film Board. Lipsett’s work is a remarkable montage of film scraps salvaged from the cutting room floor and blended with sound. Alternately funny and disquieting, it creates a fitting aural backdrop for an exhibition that is equally funny and disquieting, but also, by times, charming, quiet and quirky. Like Canada.
Cutline: The Photography Archives of The Globe and Mail is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until February 12, 2017. For more information, please click here.