Ted Grant: The Storyteller
Ted Grant (1929–2020), who passed away earlier this year, was one of Canada’s greatest post-war photojournalists. Although he occasionally created images for gallery display, most of his work was made for publication in articles and magazines. Grant produced some of his most captivating photographs for the Photostories series generated by the National Film Board’s Still Photography Division (NFB). From 1941 to 1984, the Division was closely tied to the federal government and mandated to promote Canada through photographs. The Division archive, which is divided between Library and Archives Canada and the National Gallery of Canada, is filled with optimistic, promotional photographs. Grant shot thousands of them. Although never a full-time staff member, he was one of the Division’s most frequent and reliable freelancers, beginning in the 1950s. With NFB Photostories now available on the Gallery’s website, Grant’s work has come into view again.
In his work for the NFB, Grant made photographs speak. Like many photojournalists, he approached the photograph as a narrative form, telling stories visually through fleeting gestures, dynamic compositions, lighting effects and gaze. The shot had to be set up carefully, and the photographer skilled in the use of available light. As Grant said about his role, “It’s great to have my work hanging in a museum and to be referred to as an artist, but generally I call myself a photojournalist. Photojournalists, as far as I’ve ever related to it, are people who did photo stories, photo essays. They told stories using pictures. And that’s where the photo and journalist came together.”
Although Grant understood himself as a working photographer and not an artist, his images are highly crafted by a refined use of light and shadow. Individuality is conveyed through a minimal lighting of features, while areas in shadow instil a sense of inner life. An example of this idea is seen in his photograph of Robert Stanfield. Here, Grant places the viewer on the same level as the prominent Conservative Party politician. Light subtly models the features of Stanfield’s face and left hand, creating the semblance of both an intimate glimpse into his political life, and a sense of privacy as he concentrates on his tasks.
Grant avoided studio lighting and the flash. He often used what is termed "Rembrandt lighting," positioning himself on the shadowed side of the subject. The results are striking. As Grant explains, “If you … go to the side where the shadow is and the little catch of light catching that near eye, and what have you, it’s gorgeous. What happens is, there is a modelling to the face. It lifts, it creates all of the form and shape. You know what? You can take buildings and use Rembrandt lighting and it’s gorgeous.”
Grant’s skill at depicting his subjects through this use of light and shadow is also evident in his photo shoots while working in the field. However, such subtleties could not be easily conveyed in magazines or newsprint. As a result, many of these more delicate depictions were never used, as seen in two NFB Photostories, Cattle Roundup and Canadian Cowboys Drive Herds to Winter Ranges, published 16 January 1968 (Photostories 460A & 460B). Of the 369 photographs taken by Grant on this shoot, only twelve were published, with most of these providing greater context for the story. His skilled use of lighting in his portraits of cowboys and even a horse, were left out of the story.
For Grant, the roundup was an experience of a lifetime, as he recounted in an interview, “There may have been others that had much more exciting times, but I would think I’d class that one as the most memorable…. [H]ere I am a city kid in this with all these cowboys and horses and cows, all these old weather-beaten cowboys. It was awesome, and it was all in black and white.”
Many NFB Photostories of this period visually supported stories about Canada during a period of tremendous growth and prosperity. A 14 February 1967 Photostory, Helping Forge Canada’s Vibrant Future / Le Canada ouvre ses portes à 150 nations (PS 436), demonstrates Grant’s skill with visual narrative. This photostory reflects the opening up of some (although, certainly, not all) immigration restrictions and, in this, is typical of pictorials produced by the NFB to support a turn towards emergent multiculturalist policies during the country’s centennial year. Of course, photostories like this example were collaborative, produced by a team of NFB photo editors, writers and photographers. Yet, the photographs largely tell the story. Grant focuses his lens on the gazes of new immigrants. Families interact with an immigration officer and a doctor. On the right-hand side of the layout, two small children look back at the camera – and the viewer. Their gazes arrest the viewer’s attention creating a semblance of connection and exchange.
Other images by Grant belie a masculinist perspective that characterized photojournalism for much of the mid-20th century. This is evident in his many shoots on Canadian industry. The 18 May 1965 photostory Big Equipment Industry Grows in Canada / 40% du matériel lourd canadien exporté (PS 390B), for example, features four photographs by Grant of Quebec industry. Each image pairs a labourer with heavy machinery, emphasizing skill and massive scale. They promote industry by highlighting a sense of power and masculinity.
In thousands of images and dozens of photostories, Ted Grant told stories. He excelled in creating dynamic narratives visually through a skilful manipulation of existing light and dramatic compositions. His photographic style suited the NFB’s mandate to promote Canada’s enormous economic and demographic transformation in the post-war period. But most of all, Grant loved his work – and it shows. “The assignments that I prefer, of course, are with people. I’m a very people person. I enjoy being with them, whether they are kings and queens or street people, whatever. Whether it’s one person or a whole bunch of them, you allow them to do what they are going to do. And then you quietly find the magic.”
See more Photostories at photostories.ca as well as in Virtual Tour on the National Gallery of Canada's webpages. Share this article, and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to discover more about art in Canada.