Reimagining the Photographic Image at MOCCA

Paul Strand, Photograph (before June 1917), photogravure, 23.1 x 16.9 cm. NGC. Gift of Dorothy Meigs Eidlitz, St. Andrews, New Brunswick, 1968

With the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival once again taking over the streets and galleries of Toronto, the National Gallery of Canada and the Museum of Canadian Contemporary Art (MOCCA) are staging exhibitions at MOCCA that prompt visitors to consider where photography came from, and where it’s going.

Part Picture, produced by MOCCA, examines how contemporary artists are mixing photography with sculpture and painting to advance the use of photography in art. Past Picture: Photography and the Chemistry of Intention, on the other hand, is an exhibition of photographs from the National Gallery of Canada collection, surveying the evolution of photography from as far back as the 1840s.

Part Picture focuses on the work of a group of young photographers from North America who have begun to blaze a new photographic trail through an image landscape dominated by dematerialized images,” said Chris Wiley, curator of Part Picture, in an interview with NGC Magazine. “Their work, at its most basic level, attempts to rematerialize the photograph by intermingling it with aspects of other media — specifically painting and sculpture. This has engendered of a whole host of novel approaches to the photograph, which have expanded the understanding of what a photograph can be.”

Man Ray, Untitled (c. 1921–28, printed 1963), gelatin silver print, 26.5 x 21.5 cm. NGC

Wiley says that these contemporary explorations of how photography can be used with other mediums have not only opened up possible paths forward for photography, but have also had a ripple effect that extends backwards into photographic history. This creates new contexts for viewing and understanding artists of previous generations whose work has been highly influential, but which has been largely overlooked by the general public.

In crafting his exhibition, Wiley pitched the idea of having an accompanying @NGC partnership exhibition in the adjacent space. This exhibition would examine historical photographic work, from the early days of the medium’s invention, to the early days of 20th-century Modernism. The NGC’s Curator of Photographs, Ann Thomas, and Jonathan Shaughnessy, the NGC’s Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, took the reins from there to organize Past Picture

Anna Atkins, Polypodium crenatum, Norway (1854), cyanotype, 32.9 x 23.6 cm. NGC

“The exhibition that we have covers some very early works,” Shaughnessy told NGC Magazine. “We are showcasing the National Gallery’s renowned collection of early photography — a collection that owes a great deal to Ann Thomas’ research in this area. Starting from early William Henry Fox Talbot, we go through Anna Atkins, Charles Nègre, and onwards. The exhibition is really focused on the period from 1850 to 1950, with a few exceptions — so essentially a century of photography.”

Shaugnessy goes on to say, “There are a few artists — Hiroshi Sugimoto, for example — who are working now, but whose works in the exhibition refer back to earlier traditions. So it all fits in nicely.”

One example of how old meets new can be found in Talbot’s work, Leaf of a Plant (1844), which was created by simply placing a pressed leaf on photographic paper and exposing it to light. This method, says Shaughnessy, is indicative of early photographic experimentation, as practitioners applied scientific methods to explore the new medium. Today, that same experimentation is still taking place, but for different reasons.


Charles Nègre, Reproduction from Nature (c. 1864), photogravure, 32.3 x 23.8 cm. NGC

“Its all about the pictures of the past,” says Shaughnessy, “and how the experimental methods used by these early photographers still resonate with young artists who — in a digital age, when there are so many different ways of making, receiving and using images — still seem fascinated by previous chemical and analog traditions of image-making.”

Past Picture will include a total of 36 photographs. Early works from the 1850s to the 1880s by Atkins, Nègre and Etienne Leopold Trouvelot will be shown with works from the early 20th century by photographers such as Paul Strand, Anton Bruehl and Albert Renger-Patzsch. Spectacular photograms from the 1920s (printed in the 1960s) by Man Ray, and work from the 1980s by Vancouver’s Share Corsaut will also be on view. Wiley is hopeful that these and other photographs in Part Picture will work in combination with his Past Picture exhibition to create an exciting visitor experience.

“Beyond simply presenting viewers with a compendium of novel approaches to photography, which this exhibition certainly has,” says Wiley, “I hope that interest in the show will also be generated through its presentation of a cohesive moment in photography, and of a group of artists who have not only influenced one another, but in many cases maintain close personal relationships. The show is intended, in other words, to provide an partial snapshot of a burgeoning photographic movement, along with the work of artists of previous generations, who serve as its touchstones.”

Part Picture and Past Picture are on view at MOCCA from May 2 to May 31, 2015. The Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival opens May 1. For more information on venues, exhibitions, as well as a large selection of photographs, please click here.

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