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October 20, 2017
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Arnold Newman's Henry Moore, Much Hadham, England. Marie Cosindas' Sailors, Key West. Photographs courtesy of AGO.

The Art Gallery of Ontario's (AGO) ample photography collection of over 40,000 photographs is a gift that keeps on giving. This month, the AGO, along with its co-presenter, Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival and supporter, Aimia, launched the first of two installments of its photography exhibition, Light My Fire: Some Propositions about Portraits and Photography.

Light My Fire focuses on portraits by photographers, "some famous, some anonymous - created over a 150 year period." Filling three rooms with over 200 photographs - some that have never before been shown to the public - the exhibition is certain to please many and ignite an interest in photography in others.

The deep aubergine coloured walls of the first presentation room draw you right into the exhibit. One of the many delights in this large room is Canadian photographer Christopher Wahl's portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, The Queen In Winnipeg (2002). Her Majesty stands arms crossed, wearing her typically charming and conservative suit and pearls, her hair tidily coiffed; but she's smiling - no, grinning - with her eyes closed. Standing in front of The Queen you can't help but smile back.

Christopher Wahl’s The Queen In Winnipeg (2002). Source: ago.net.
Christopher Wahl’s The Queen In Winnipeg.
Source: ago.net.

Wahl's portrait highlights photography's inextinguishable, almost magical, property: capturing a moment in time that's shared between a photographer and subject, sparking intrigue and seeing the subject in a new light - like the Queen's jarringly childish grin, or how architectural and strong the skin between the eyebrows can look when it's being pinched, as seen in Michael Mitchell's Ihor Holubizky.

"For a portrait to capture our attention, in most cases, something has to occur between the photographer and his or her subject - some spark, some interaction - and the photograph is an expression of that interaction," explains Sophie Hackett, curator of Light My Fire and the AGO's assistant curator of photography. "In some cases, they [the photographer and subject] are friends: Robert and Frances Flaherty had regular dinners with Frances Loring and Florence Wyle, and Ihor Holubizky finally let his friend and neighbour Michael Mitchell take his portrait late one night when they crossed paths."

"In some cases, they're strangers: it's likely Marie Cosindas did not know the sailors who agreed to pose for her, and William Notman would not have personally known every client who visited his busy Montreal studio. And in other cases still, the subject is unaware of the photographer - like in Paul Graham's Untitled #55. But the settings they each chose, the medium they each used and the way they each approached their subjects, produced distinctive portraits."

Graham's Untitled #55 is perhaps the most arresting of the exhibition. It is the largest photograph on display and its orange hue pops against the deep aubergine of the room creating a sort of calm transcendence. As Hackett pointed out, the young woman in this portrait - reminiscent of Edie Sedgwick - is unaware of the photographer. But, it's all part of Graham's voyeuristic master plan: he shot a series titled End of an Age of young adults in nightclubs across Europe from 1996 to 1997.

Paul Graham's Untitled #55. Source: ago.net.
Paul Graham's Untitled #55.
Photograph courtesy of AGO. 

The grainy texture of Untitled #55 illustrates the uncertainty these young people were facing in those moments of their lives: a young woman with a peroxide-bleached, pixie haircut in a cheap white tank top stands hunched over, arms crossed, inhaling from a cigarette in a deep orange haze. This photograph doesn't provide a clear depiction of the subject's face, but it does comprehensibly illustrate the subject's inner-workings. In retrospect, it isn't so much a portrait of a youth, as it is a portrait of youth.

Other portraits more purposefully avoid the subject's face, but are equally successful in communicating their personality. In André Kertész's Mondrian's Pipe and Glasses, the namesake items are messily, or even exhaustingly, left on the table. That's it. Yet, through these objects we see Mondrian - the painter, the worker, after a long day. Interestingly, this portrait is highly reminiscent of Patti Smith's black and white photography. As is Nan Goldin's My Bed, Hotel la Louisiane, an intimate and ghostly portrait reminiscent of Smith's Virginia Woolf's Bed I, Monk's House. Don't believe me? Go check it out for yourself - Patti Smith's Camera Solo exhibition is in a nearby room.

Hackett's masterful curatorship creates an organic transition between the three rooms. In the second room - egg-shelled coloured, somewhat bland, but for a reason - sprawl Joan Didion's words of wisdom from 1968: "For however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable 'I'."

When I ask Hackett why she chose this specific quote for this specific room, she replies: "The Joan Didion quote is included in a gallery [titled "We Are Monuments"] with works from the 1860s by two photographers, Julia Margaret Cameron and Jacques-Philippe Potteau. In Cameron and Potteau's time, the prevailing view linked outward appearance with inner character. One hundred years later, that view, as Didion expresses it, had changed radically. In that gallery, I wanted to contrast ways of making - Cameron used photography to evoke and Potteau to describe - and also ways of seeing - the 19th century versus today."

André Kertész’s Mondrian’s Pipe and Glasses. Source: flickr.com
André Kertész’s Mondrian’s Pipe and Glasses.
Source: flickr.com.

Arnaud Maggs' string of memorable self-portraits where he poses as the mime Pierrot, leads us into the third room, titled "We are Multiplied". (Interestingly, the AGO is also currently hosting Self-portrait. As I think to myself, an exhibit that explores self-portraiture through paintings, drawings, and sculpture - is it only a matter of time before selfies are included as well?) Here, expect to see many variations of group portraits - mainly, collages of countless white, male figures to the point of overwhelm and humour.

Speaking of humour: don't miss the two black-and-white photographs hanging outside the second room that are manually coloured to give them some life - they're sure to get a giggle out of you.

Light My Fire shows the abundant and creative possibilities of portrait photography. The exhibition reminded me of - and even restored my faith in - the magical property of photography, presented and experienced in a physical form and space, instead of digital.

When I mentioned this to Hackett she says, "I like that word: magical. I think that experience or renewal you are talking about has a lot to do with experiencing the works themselves in all their glorious diversity in the galleries, which requires, in fact, looking away from the flow of images we encounter digitally. Digital images have a certain equality to them because we typically experience them on a similar device, on a screen. Objects in a gallery, on the other hand, are necessarily granted a different kind of presence. The most intriguing people making photographic objects these days are pushing this physical relationship between the work itself and its viewers."

So put away your smartphone, close your laptop and turn off the television; head over to the AGO to experience photography old-school style.


Part I of the Art Gallery of Ontario's photography exhibition runs from May 4 - October 20, 2013, located at 317 Dundas Street West in Toronto, Canada.

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