Universal experiences and the aesthetic eye: images by Donald Buchanan
Donald W. Buchanan (1908-1966) may be one of the most important underappreciated figures in Canadian culture. Son of Senator William Buchanan, he excelled in a wide range of career choices. Founder of the National Film Society of Canada (now the Canadian Film Institute) in 1935, he worked for the Canadian Radio Commission (now CBC) and then the National Film Board as Supervisor of Rural Circuits during World War II. During this time, he also developed an extensive traveling display program for both the Wartime Information Board and the NFB. His displays, placed in Canadian offices both at home and abroad, included those of an economic and industrial nature, as well as ones dedicated to photography. From 1944–1959, Buchanan was editor of Canadian Art magazine and published many articles on Canadian art and design. His initial contact with the National Gallery of Canada occurred in 1934 when he received a Carnegie Corporation scholarship to work with Director Eric Brown. As part of the post-war reconstruction plan, Buchanan organized the Industrial Design Exhibition, a project that later led to his establishing the National Industrial Design Committee at the National Gallery. From 1955 until his retirement in 1960, he served as the Gallery’s Associate Director.
As a cultural figure, Buchanan was an important link between the federal institutions of the Wartime Information Board, NFB, and NGC, as he was aware, and at times capable of, combining their different approaches to art, photography, display, design, and education. In the late 1950s, he and NGC Director Alan Jarvis were especially supportive of photography. Buchanan and Jarvis (who was also a photographer) understood the medium in a similar way. Photography accorded with more liberal, humanist ideas of art prevalent at the time that emphasized the spiritual, moral and intellectual development of the individual. For both Jarvis and Buchanan, the medium was a means to integrate art and life, because through photography one cultivated the aesthetic eye. In Buchanan’s publications, photographs and text combined to anchor experience and consolidate memory and to present an ordered account of perceptions, observations, and emotions. He also understood photography’s capacity to render the world in visually dynamic ways. A highly accomplished photographer, his images display a strong formal tendency. Detail and texture are emphasized through maximizing depth of field, and radical cropping focuses the viewer’s attention on the interaction of shapes rather than the object itself in its own context. Buchanan and Jarvis believed the camera provided individuals with a means to frame the world; the camera lens brought reality into sharp focus.
The set of 27 photo albums and 59 gelatin silver prints recently acquired by the National Gallery of Canada reveals Buchanan’s use of the medium to communicate ideas of a well-considered life, one dedicated to travel, meetings with cultivated individuals, exploration of different cultures and appreciation of art and architecture. Although autobiographical, knowledgeable and witty testaments to the trials and tribulations of travel, they demonstrate his beliefs in photography’s capacity to shape experience of the modern and the new, and integrate past and present realities. As he notes in the catalogue accompanying his 1959 exhibition A Not Always Reverent Journey, the camera is a device that allows for a “broadening of vision, which can make more significant to us not only the objects of the past but also the more everyday of activities of the present.”
As a group, these works provide critical insight into issues of photography in mid-twentieth century Canada. In particular, Buchanan’s photographs reflect important social and cultural trends that affected Canadian cultural institutions, including the National Gallery. At this time, there was a concerted attempt to integrate art and life. In the burgeoning post-war economy, an abundance of new objects, some not well designed or manufactured, flooded the market. It was felt that the general public had the means to make what were felt to be improvements in their life but were overwhelmed by too many choices. Cultural figures had an important role to play in helping individuals deal with the new consumer lifestyle, especially in terms of making tasteful selections for their home. The role of culture during this period is also defined by the perceived threat of mass or popular culture to “higher” art institutions, especially with the increased presence of movie theatre chains, and, in 1952 in Canada, television broadcasting systems. Again, cultural figures and the government were understood to have an important role to play in shepherding the populace away from such “distractions” to focus on more “sophisticated” views of culture, as represented in art museums and other cultural institutions.
For Buchanan photography could demonstrate how, through concentration and effort, the fragments of modern life could be harmoniously arranged in the everyday. Buchanan’s photographs indicate how this world view was extended to travel and the experience of other lands and cultures; for him, art had an important role to play in helping individuals make sense of these new types of experiences. As travel journals and personal narratives, his images express the democratic ideals of dignity, equality and mutual respect for all cultures prevalent at the time, most popularly demonstrated in the Family of Man photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955, a version of which toured to the NGC in 1957. The show took as its theme the oneness of humankind, expressing how, no matter what differences may exist between groups of peoples and nations, all share common experiences and feelings. Buchanan, the erudite world traveler, incorporated such sentiments directly in his photographs and albums. For Buchanan, and others at this point, the role of art was salutary and unifying. Quoted in the Montreal Star in 1958, he notes: “For art is a part of all of us. It is a natural activity of the human race.”
The works are cited on the National Gallery of Canada’s online collection. See also contemporary photography in The Extended Moment: Fifty Years of Collecting Photographs, organized by the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada, on view to September 16, 2018. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page.