Photography in Canada: A History of Experimentation and Expression

Yousuf Karsh, Kenojuak (b. 1927), 8 April 1976, printed 1987, gelatin silver print, 50.2 x 40.3 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Gift of the artist, Ottawa, 1989. Photo: NGC

During the second half of the 20th century, the world changed at a faster pace than at any other time in recorded history. It was an era that revolutionized social mores, put men on the moon, birthed personal computers, cellphones, and the World Wide Web, and hinted at environmental disasters to come.

The National Gallery of Canada (NGC) exhibition Photography in Canada: 1960–2000 includes more than 100 images drawn from the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography (CMCP) and the National Gallery of Canada collections that are now a part of the Canadian Photography Institute (CPI). These works explore the interests, concerns and preoccupations of seventy-one contemporary photographic artists over four decades. Curated by Andrea Kunard, Associate Curator of Photography at the NGC, the exhibition also offers visitors a rare opportunity to examine a period of considerable growth in the production, collection, and display of photography in Canada.

Dave Heath, 7 Arts, New York, 1959, printed c. 27 October–6 December 1982, gelatin silver print, 14.9 x 21.6 cm. NGC. Photo: NGC

Each work has been carefully selected to encourage consideration of the unique ways in which individuals used photography during this pivotal period. It was a time that arguably saw the cementing of photography as a means of artistic expression, rather than a simple documentary tool, when photographers not only pushed the physical and artistic limits of the medium, but also used photography to express notions of identity and community.

In an interview with NGC Magazine, Kunard notes that, while some of those featured in the exhibition will be familiar to visitors, Photography in Canada aims to present different ways of experiencing the world by including the work of household names as well as meaningful images by lesser-known artists.


Jeff Thomas, Bear at Champlain Monument, Ottawa, Ontario, 1996, gelatin silver print, image: 31.3 x 22.5 cm; support: 51.2 x 41.1 cm. CMCP Collection, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

One photographer who uses the medium to convey personal identity is urban-Iroquois artist and curator, Jeff Thomas (b.1956). Thomas’ wide-ranging body of work explores and revises Indigenous histories from an Indigenous perspective. Part of Thomas’ practice includes photographs of contemporary Indigenous peoples. For example, in Bear at Champlain Monument, Ottawa, Ontario (1996), Thomas’ son, Bear, sits at the edge of the Champlain Monument at Nepean Point.

Although historical images of Indigenous peoples were traditionally created from a Eurocentric point of view, and were often stereotypical in nature, Thomas allows the people in his images to express their individuality. As Kunard explains, Bear at Champlain Monument acknowledges the modern context of Indigenous people living in urban environments. This particular work also contests the problematic, static Indigenous “life” presented through stylized monuments and statuary. 

Suzy Lake, Sixteen Over Twenty-eight, 1975, gelatin silver print, graphite, coloured pencil, 83.7 x 61.9 cm; image: 83.7 x 61.9 cm. CMCP Collection, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Through the use of photography and other mediums such as performance, video, drawing, and printmaking, artist Suzy Lake (b. 1947) has created an important corpus of feminist and conceptual works over the past four decades. In Sixteen Over Twenty-eight (1975), Lake explores the politics of identity, aging, and the female body. As one of five works from the larger Over 28 Series, this gelatin silver print consists of two overlapping images: the right side features a photograph of Lake at sixteen, while the left side is a graphite drawing she made of herself at twenty-eight. This mixed-media series underscores the complex and changing relationship between physical bodies and personal identity, and is representational, as Kunard explains, of Lake’s continued interest in the politics of aging and the policing of women’s bodies.

Claire Beaugrand-Champagne, Ti-Noir Lajeunesse, the Blind Violinist, Disraeli, Quebec, 25 June 1972, gelatin silver print, image: 22.8 x 33.9 cm; support 40.5 x 50.6 cm. CMCP Collection, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa 

Claire Beaugrand-Champagne (b. 1948) was the first female press photographer in Quebec, and has become known for stunning images that often convey emotional representations of the human condition.

Her practice has focused on documenting the lived experience of people in different communities in Quebec, as reflected in the two works chosen for the exhibition by Kunard. Both The “Garde Ste-Luce,” Disraeli, Quebec and Ti-Noir Lajeunesse, the Blind Violinist, Disraeli, Quebec belong to the photography project that Beaugrand-Champagne created with fellow photographers Roger Charbonneau, Cedric Pearson, and Michel Campeau: Disraeli, une expérience humaine en photographie [Disraeli: A Human Experience in Photographs].

The two thoughtful portraits — one of a crowd watching a marching band, and one of a musician sitting outside in a field — demonstrate the significance that can be placed on everyday experiences, framed in this instance by the residents of Disraeli, a small community in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. Although the series initially faced controversy from some residents of the community, Disraeli is now considered a highly influential example of Quebec photography. 


Thaddeus Holownia, Rockland Bridge 1981–2000 (detail), 1981–2000, gelatin silver print, images: 16 x 14.4 cm; supports: 20.2 x 46.9 cm. CMCP Collection, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Thaddeus Holownia’s (b.1949) compelling Rockland Bridge is also featured in the exhibition. Taken over a period of nearly twenty years, the sixteen photographs that make up the series document the disintegration of New Brunswick’s Rockland Bridge, following its January 1978 destruction by high tides and heavy winds in the Bay of Fundy. The work is a strong example of Holownia’s interest in the passing of time, as well as human relationships with the natural environment. The images of this structure’s slow decay encourage viewers to consider the impact we have on the natural world, and how, in turn, the natural world has the power to affect our built environments.

Kunard acknowledges that there is still more research to do on the CPI collection. However, she hopes visitors will appreciate the diversity of human experience the photographs express, and that they will “think about some of the stories, ideas, or issues that these photographers are bringing to them.” She emphasizes that Photography in Canada: 1960–2000 is “a way to connect, not just with what was happening thirty years ago, but with what is happening now.”

Photography in Canada: 1960–2000 is on view in the Canadian Photography Institute Galleries at the National Gallery of Canada until September 17, 2017. A catalogue available in both English and French editions accompanies the exhibition. Also on view until September 10, 2017 in the CPI Galleries is PhotoLab 2: Women Speaking Art.

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