In 1977, the Art Gallery of Ontario purchased its first photograph — Arnold Newman’s collage portrait of Henry Moore, a fitting complement to the recent gift of Moore's plasters to the AGO. From this single photograph (and a few others that accidentally found their way into the building), the Gallery’s photography holdings have grown into a cornerstone collection that now numbers more than 50,000 works. And portraits remain one of its strongest threads.
Light My Fire: Some Propositions about Portraits and Photography — a Primary Exhibition for the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival in the context of its 2013 theme Field of Vision — celebrates the collection, how it came into being and how it has evolved since 1977. Presented as five propositions in two parts over the course of a year, the exhibition will feature more than 200 photographs from the collection, many shown for the first time. Each proposition offers a slice into the collection, eclectic, at times playful, but nonetheless historically grounded.
Part I spotlights three propositions. The introductory gallery brings together works under the proposition “Light My Fire.” The works here convey a certain lyric and pictorial intensity, created as the artists enhanced the impact of their images with colour, soft focus, materials or other techniques. Robert Flaherty renders Frances Loring and Florence Wyle in cyanotype. An unknown artist embellishes with velvet flowers and red frame a simple tintype of a young woman. Just over a hundred years later, Paul Graham delivers an existential cast to his portrait of another young woman, in a nightclub in soft-focus orange, as she takes a drag on her cigarette.
“We are Monuments” explores the idea of portraits as monuments in all senses — literally, formally and metaphorically. The statuesque full-length views of the patrons of William Notman's Montreal studio join Brassaï’s intimate look over the shoulder of sculptor Aristide Maillol. Edward Steichen animates Rodin’s sculpture of Balzac, while Gilbert & George mimic architecture on the steps of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.
Heralded by Lynne Cohen’s deadpan photograph Men’s Club, “We are Multiplied” looks at various manifestations of the group portrait, a signal of social belonging. James Inglis created a composite of hundreds of faces for his 1875 portrait of a gathering of Presbyterians in Montreal, while an unknown Ottawa photographer documents a corps of sea cadets in panorama.
The exhibition also includes works by Richard Avedon, Julia Margaret Cameron, Yousuf Karsh, Liz Magor, Arnaud Maggs, Michael Mitchell, Irving Penn and Christopher Wahl, among others.
Together, these works celebrate the creative possibilities of portraiture in photography. The rich variety of approaches evident in the show highlights the interplay between photographers and their subjects, the ways we have continued to invent ourselves and others in photographs, and how these visions have changed throughout the medium’s history.