restricted access Imaged Communities: Putting Canadian Photographic History in its Place

“Imaged Communities” imagines Canada as a network of photographic knowledge. Co-written by six members of Canadian Photography History/Histoire de la photographie canadienne (CPH/HPC), a research team based at Concordia University in Montreal, this essay examines the meeting places created by photographic technology. The mapping of these histories addresses the central questions about photographic history and mediated experience that have motivated this research—What did Canadians know about photography, and when did they know it?–and supplements it with a third—Where did these encounters take place? The introduction establishes the sites and parameters of the contribution. First, the research draws on the digital anthology of Canadian photographic literature that the authors are putting forward as a history of the medium in Canada—a community imaged at every stage of its mutation from colony to nation and thereby imagined, in Benedict Anderson’s well-known formulation (1991). This is a fragmentary photographic history, which accounts for the polyphonic nature of this text. Second, the authors write as art historians and photographic specialists, mindful of the various turns in the humanities and sciences that have engaged with, and sometimes emerged from, discoveries in photographic studies, the spatial turn most pertinent to this inquiry. The authors point out, however, that photographic practice has more than kept pace with theory. There is much to learn from artists’, documentarians’, snapshooters’, and compilers’ projects: their uses of photography as instruments of investigation; their photographic formulations of philosophical ideas and social conditions; the heuristic circle formed by the circulation of their work; and the penetration of that circle by neglected interests. For that reason, this group includes a creation-researcher, whose art historical practice is informed by the making of a photographic work. His armchair-tourist colleagues write at the intersection of photographic knowledge and photographic experience; the introduction seeks to elucidate the structure of that space. A third element of the introduction is an explanation of the lack of an authoritative history of Canadian photography, and how CPH/HPC and its network of individual and institutional collaborators are working within that gap to create new historiographical models.

Five short studies follow, each using the intersection of photography and place as an organizing principle. In the first, a brief survey of photographic literature on or about the Canadian West focusses on two bodies of work: a professional tourist’s travelogue of the West (and further West) as he constructed it in 1909 from his railcar, his hotel, and his campground; and a photographer/filmmaker’s lifelong investment in the representation of his diverse community, the North End of Winnipeg, Manitoba. The second study closes in on a single city—Toronto—as celebrated and chronicled in two nineteenth-century publications, and as revisited in a late twentieth-century exhibition and catalogue project based on the photographic collection of Library and Archives Canada. These curatorial perspectives on the city illuminate the social values of their day. In the third study, post-Centennial selection and uses of photographs from the Isaac Erb studio (c1870-1924) in Saint John, New Brunswick, are closely compared with the uses of those photographs at the time of their making and with a more complete version of the Erb oeuvre preserved in the provincial archives, revealing a photographic record of material culture that reflects the port city’s emergence as a transnational, consumer economy. The fourth study moves to another Canadian port via the photographic holdings of the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, an ocean liner terminal and immigration shed-turned-museum. Through online display of its primarily digital collection, this doorway to Canada, selectively open between 1928 and 1971, is photographically preserved as a relational space, forever in between. Finally, a contemporary artist’s photographic study of photography and walking, conducted on boulevard Saint-Laurent in Montreal, creates a processual space of creation, bringing this essay full circle to the image and its imaginer. The conclusion underscores the dialogical structure of our relationships with photography, wherever we find it.