Nina Raginsky: Portraits
For most of the 1960s and 1970s Nina Raginsky was an established photographer in Canada, participating in international exhibitions and publishing in international magazines. She freelanced as a photographer for the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) from 1963 onward, taught at Emily Carr University of Art and Design between 1972 and 1981 and in 1984 was awarded the Order of Canada. Since the mid-1980s, however, Raginsky has largely concentrated her creative efforts on painting and on raising her daughter Sofya; by consequence, her photographic practice has received less critical attention. While best known for her sepia-toned, hand-coloured portraits of the people of Victoria, Vancouver and the B.C. interior that date to the late 1970s, Raginsky’s photographic career is multi-faceted and reaches back to 1963 when she first turned to photography.
Raginsky was born in Montreal and studied sculpture with George Segal and painting under leading Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Following her graduation in 1962, Raginsky returned to Montreal and turned her attention to photography. Since this early period, she has, in the words of Andrea Kunard in the National Gallery of Canada's 2017 Photography in Canada 1960–2000 catalogue, “excelled at portraiture, creating sensitive portrayals of individuals from all walks of life."
Examples of Raginsky’s early work in Montreal point to her skilled manipulation of light to suggest a distinct mood, as well as to her ability to evoke a sense of ease between the sitter and photographer. In one of the pictures of a woman referred to simply as "Loretta", part of her early My Block series, Raginsky employs close cropping and dramatic shadow to elevate the emotional register of the scene. Against a nearly black background, Loretta appears in profile with a sliver of light illuminating part of her face. Her gaze, slightly downcast, is directed at something outside the frame, and the mood is distinctly pensive.
In another image taken in Montreal, Raginsky focuses on details of the urban environment to alert viewers to the context of time and place. In this picture, three young boys play in front of a wall emblazoned with the handwritten letters FLQ – an acronym for Front de libération du Québec, a radical separatist group founded in the early 1960s. Here, Raginsky contrasts the pleasure and innocence of childhood with a contemporary milieu of brewing social and political tension.
After a year spent in Mexico in 1965, Raginsky moved to London, where she contributed photo features to various publications, including Queen magazine (London) and L’Express (Paris). Returning to Canada on an NFB assignement to Old Crow in the Yukon two years later, Raginsky settled in Vancouver, and then Victoria, where she continued to focus her lens on daily life and the people she encountered while riding her bicycle around the city. Quoted in the 1979 Art Gallery of Ontario catalogue Nina Raginsky Photographs, Raginsky’s own words aptly describe her fixation on the human subject: “I am interested in the timelessness that surrounds the moment of interaction between the subject and myself. I am touched by, and in awe of the innocence, the awkwardness and the fragility in us all.”
In full- or three-quarter length poses, Raginsky’s portraits include key details of dress, demeanour and environment that emphasize the distinctiveness of her self-aware subjects. In their standardized form, their focus on people at their work and what NGC Acting Head Curator Ann Thomas once described as their “precision of observation”, Raginsky’s portraits invite comparison to the work of German photographer August Sander whose People of the 20th Century project is an encyclopedic compilation of the people of Germany, produced in the early half of the 20th century. While less systematic in scope, Raginsky’s photographs likewise emphasize individual character while at the same time functioning together as a sociological snapshot of a group of people at a moment in time.
In 1973 Raginsky began to experiment with her printing techniques, producing sepia-toned, hand-coloured portraits that hark back to a time before colour photography. Like commercial photographers of the late 19th century, Raginsky applied delicate colours to her prints in an effort to enhance both their realism and their artistic value. In a photograph of W.A.C Bennett, the former B.C. premier’s boisterous spirit is heightened by the rosy colouring of his cheeks. In another photograph, Raginsky accentuated a young art student’s personal style through subtle additions of colour to her barrette, necklace and lips. One reason why Raginsky may have been drawn to this older technique is explained by her interest in the tactility of the photographic object. She preferred photographs to be physically handled by their viewers rather than displayed in frames on a wall, echoing an earlier era of photography when hand-held forms such as the daguerreotype, and later the carte-de-visite, were circulated widely and cherished by their viewers.
Since its first display in 1977 at the NFB Photo Gallery, this body of work has been recognized as a reflection of art photography at the end of the 1970s, although it also sparked mixed responses. In a review of the same year, Ann Thomas stated that Raginsky’s colouring captured the subject’s “innocence….and vulnerability” and that in the context of modern colour processes her “decision … to tint is distinctive and the images become quite surreal.” In her 2015 article in the Journal of Canadian Art History art historian Karla McManus observes that the effect of the hand-coloured images gives them a “humorous twist.” Others, such as art critic Nancy Tousley, commenting in 1979, suggest that “these clever time-plays … seem the product of a good gimmick rather than original and significant personal vision.” Likewise, art writer Penny Cousineau-Levine, in her 2003 book on Canadian art photography, argues that the “personality of Raginsky’s personages recede behind her toning and hand-colouring, and finally collapse into caricature.” By contrast, in Kunard’s words, “Raginsky personalizes the mechanical production of imagery, drawing the viewer even more closely to these people’s humanity.”
Photographer, novelist and New York Times photography critic Teju Cole asserts that a great portrait contains “presence, tension, [and] a finely balanced amalgam of feeling and craft.” For me at least, this is precisely what Raginsky’s novel portraits capture.
For details of the 183 photographs by Nina Raginsky in the CPI collection at the National Gallery of Canada, see the Gallery's online collection. Extensive holdings of her work are also at the University of Victoria Legacy Collection and in the holdings of the Vancouver Public Library. Raginsky's work was included in Andrea Kunard’s 2017 exhibition Photography in Canada 1960-2000; the accompanying catalogue is available in the NGC Boutique. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.