The Big Picture

Lutz Dille, New York City (detail), 1959, printed 1995, gelatin silver print, 23.7 x 30.3 cm; image: 22.5 x 19.3 cm. Purchased from the Photography Collectors Group Fund, 1999. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa 

In one fell swoop, the art world got a major boost when the National Gallery of Canada announced the creation of the Canadian Photography Institute (CPI). Gallery Director and Chief Executive Officer Marc Mayer hopes to make it the world’s biggest collection of images within 10 years. If you’re a photography lover, this announcement is huge news.

Photography is perhaps the most segregated of all art forms. Its practitioners have a tendency to divide fashion photography from photojournalism, fine art photography from documentary photography. The new CPI will take a larger view – the big picture, if you will.


Thanks to major gifts from Scotiabank and collector David Thomson, the centre will house one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of photography, with photojournalism (including images from The Globe and Mail archives and the astoundingly deep Archive of Modern Conflict), historical documentation, scientific photography, fine art photography and more. The CPI’s ambitious goal is no less than to cover the entire history of the photographic medium. (And yes, you can even study the literal medium of photography here. The collection will have everything from early daguerreotypes to modern-day inkjet printing.)

The Gallery’s existing photography collection already includes more than 50,000 photographs by important practitioners such as Diane Arbus, Lynne Cohen, P. H. Emerson, Frederick H. Evans, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Hill and Adamson, Leon Levinstein, Arnaud Maggs, Lisette Model, Charles Nègre, Mark Ruwedel, Josef Sudek and William Henry Fox Talbot. What’s more, the Gallery is already expanding its interest in African, Asian and other non-Western photographs. With the new resources of the CPI, the depth of the museum’s holdings cannot be overstated.

Walker Evans, Photographer's Display (c. 1936), Gelatin silver print, 25.2 x 20.3 cm; image: 24.1 x 19.3 cm. © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Gift of Phyllis Lambert, Montreal, 1982

But the centre will be more than just a place to study photography. It will be a place to study anything by way of photographs – history, culture, anthropology, science – you name it. And, it won’t just be a resource for professional scholars: the collection will be fully digitized and accessible to the public.

Images are central to our modern lives in ways that earlier generations could scarcely have imagined. Before photography, people may have seen images in stained-glass windows or royal portraits; a family might have spent a small fortune commissioning a painting of loved ones. But they didn’t see hundreds – or even thousands – of images every day in the way we do. With our electronic devices, we don’t even have to leave home to see or create images. We think in pictures, remembering major events through iconic news photos. We post pictures of our lunch. We are the photography generation.

Gary Schneider, John in Sixteen Parts, III (1996), printed 1997, gelatin silver prints, toned, 92.7 x 74.7 cm; image: 91.4 x 73.5 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Gift of Kathryn Finter and Jim des Rivières, Ottawa, 2000

Photography touches nearly every element of our modern lives. The new Canadian Photography Institute is for all of us.

The CPI will feature year-round photographic exhibitions. Upcoming projects to be presented in Ottawa include Canadian Contemporary Photographs 1960–2000 (2017); The Origins of Photography (2018); Oscar Gustave Rejlander (2018); and The History of Canadian Photography (2019). The CPI will also present special initiatives, starting with Cutline: The Photography Archives of The Globe and Mail, at The Old Press Hall in Toronto on April 30, 2016, organized by the National Gallery, The Globe and Mail and the Archive of Modern Conflict.

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