Photographic Treasures from the Archives
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Photographic Treasures from the Archives

King Street East. South-side between Yonge and Church streets, looking east, 1856. City Of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 2.

Apart from a few gentlemen captured in mid-conversation, or the occasional horse-cart, the streets are curiously empty in the earliest known photographs of Toronto. Taken by the firm of Armstrong, Beere & Hime from the rooftop of the Rossin Hotel in 1856–1857, these photos provide an almost 360 degree panorama of a colonial town that is at once familiar but unrecognizable. All twenty-five of these photographs, which served as inspiration for Michael Redhill’s Consolation (2006), have been reproduced in Toronto’s Visual Legacy: Official City Photography from 1856 to the Present (James Lorimer & Company, 2009), which is being launched tomorrow as part of the city’s 175th birthday festivities. Put together by Steve MacKinnon, Karen Teeple, and Michele Dale of the City of Toronto Archives, the book beautifully reproduces over a hundred photographs to offer readers fascinating insight into the Toronto’s transformation from the fledgling city recorded by Armstrong, Beere & Hime into the contemporary metropolis.

Prince Edward Viaduct, Don Section, Pier E – pouring concrete, Sept. 21, 1915. City Of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 10, Item 611.

History buffs will have stumbled across many of the images in a variety of thematic or neighbourhood histories, or at the exhibit held at the archives that developed into this hardcover volume. But rarely has the city’s photographic record been presented so comprehensively. With high-quality reproductions—a great many of which aren’t even available through the digitized collection of the archives—the book keeps drawing the reader back to discover hitherto hidden details, like a pair of long underwear drying on windowsill, or to imagine biographies for anonymous people. The extensive notes do a particularly good job of orientating the reader to a photograph’s unfamiliar terrain or context. And they point out how authors like Redhill, Michael Ondaatje, and Hugh Hood have used them for literary inspiration. For all this, Toronto’s Visual Legacy will remain an essential volume of local history. More than that, it is also a pictorial history of the myriad purposes for which the civic government employed photography.
First taken for administrative purposes, the photographs drawn from between 1875 and 1905—a period when growing municipal power translated into greater development of municipal infrastructure—focus almost exclusively on municipal properties, street crews, and construction sites. Between 1891 and 1911, the City Engineer’s Office commissioned more than six hundred photos from F.W. Micklethwaite, Josiah Bruce, and Arthur J. Rust. The resulting photos, used to illustrate departmental reports, show abundant pride for the city’s modernization.
With the appointment of Arthur S. Goss as official City Photographer in 1911, the camera was firmly entrenched as a vital municipal tool, though the range of subjects captured expanded to reflect the city’s broadening powers. Municipal works, such as the Prince Edward Viaduct and R.C. Harris Water Filtration Plant, were still favoured subjects. In fact, although images of these projects have been reproduced frequently in local histories, Toronto’s Visual Legacy‘s authors have done a good job of selecting less familiar images of their construction. While workmen may have appeared in the photos of Micklethwaite, Bruce, and Rust, the emphasis was clearly on the machinery of progress. People, however, are a central focus in Goss’s work.

Slum. Rear of 18 William Street. City Of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 326.

Whether it is in his images of the slums and immigrant districts undertaken at the behest of the Medical Officer of Health or in pictures of kids playing in city parks, the nameless people captured by Goss’s camera make the city come alive. They’re usually posing, of course, and self-consciously aware of the camera. And, as John Bentley Mays puts it in the book’s introduction, their presence entices us to imagine their biographies.
If there is a shortcoming to the book, it’s that the photographers themselves remain equally mysterious. Of all those whose work is included in the book—from Armstrong, Beere & Hime in 1856 to Peter Goodwin and Jocelyn Richards since the 1980s—Goss is the only photographer who emerges with a well-rounded biography. For the others, their work alone survives to tell their tale. Writing in the summer of 2001 in the Journal of Canadian Studies, Dennis Duffy once speculated that Goss, who’d been an accomplished amateur photographer in the pictorialist tradition, “almost certainly regarded his utilitarian, documentary work as bearing lesser import than his private, pictorialist work.” What would the other official or commissioned photographers think of their legacy?
The book places far less emphasis on photographs taken since the Second World War, though it does present many that are quite interesting. Lorne Waywell and Joe Underwood’s views from the rooftop of New City Hall in 1965, for example, let the reader flip pages to juxtapose these against the 1856–1857 bird’s-eye photos. The majority of the photos from this later period reflect a clear shift from recording government activities to covering VIP events and taking stock photos for promo brochures. It’s neat to see Allan Lamport with Natalie Wood, but it’s not exactly enlightening. We don’t learn anything more about our city. If something seems lost in these images of the cheering crowds at this-or-that municipal celebration, it might be that the scenes are too contemporary, too familiar. Although no less technically accomplished, they lack the aura of mystery surrounding earlier photos. With the time and distance of a generation or two, as the streetscape continues to evolve, so will our perception of the more contemporaneous photos in Toronto’s Visual Legacy. And the city they depict could come to seem as familiar yet unrecognizable as what Armstrong, Beere & Hime recorded.