Seeing the City in The Toronto Show
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Seeing the City in The Toronto Show

23-23 ½ Camden St., 2005 © Dario Zini

Anyone who grew up in the periphery of this city and took photography in high school might remember taking a class trip to Toronto. It was a way to shake us out of relentlessly photographing our friends leaning on cars and our parents’ dog sitting in front of that semi-privacy, pressure-treated, backyard fence. Simple idea—change of scenery, change of scale, change of pace. The results certainly weren’t earth shattering, but they were eye opening. Buildings were form and contrast, street corners were urban compositions. Maybe it’s the unfamiliarity that makes a place seem extra visible.
The converse certainly seems to ring true—that familiarity breeds invisibility. That, for many who know a place well, it becomes unnecessary or even impossible to really notice it. This is far from the case for Stephen Bulger, who searches out images of this city with the enthusiasm of an unfamiliar. The current exhibition at the Stephen Bulger Gallery, The Toronto Show, is a salon-style hanging of photographs from 113 years of the city’s history, as well as contemporary works.

Maquette of Ontario Government Building, circa 1925 © Photographer Unknown (Brigden’s Ltd)

The historical photographs range from 1870 to the mid-1980s, and come predominantly from the gallery’s impressive inventory. The images on display represent about five to ten percent of their Toronto collection. The installation doesn’t intend to tell one overarching narrative, but does meander through thematic pockets, such as a handful of photos from Yonge Street in the 1960s and early 1970s, or as Bulger calls it, “the Yonge Street that I remember.”

Santa Claus Parade Float, circa 1950 © Charles Devenish Woodley

A 360-degree panorama taken from the observation deck of the Bank of Commerce building in 1954 or 1955 gives a sweeping view of a city with a familiar street grid and an almost unrecognizable terrain mapped onto it. There’s a pressing nostalgia to the images, and it results from both their form as well as their content. They are indeed images of a much-changed place—events and streetscapes that will never be seen again—but the faded papers and inky tones of the prints themselves are a part of the story of these photographs. A tiny two-inch-by-two-inch image taken from the sidelines of the Santa Claus Parade sixty years ago owes half of its charm to the Mother Goose float and the other half to the minute scale. There is something inalienably honest about looking at these original old photographs that cannot be reproduced in print or digital media.

1086 Queen St. W., Toronto, 2002 © Estate of Volker Seding

On the contemporary side, a series of street-front façades by Volker Seding show a much more recent but still strangely foreign Toronto. Each image contains a single, three-storey segment of Queen Street. A project that Seding started in New York City’s Soho district, it shows these seemingly familiar buildings from a perspective so stern and frank that you’re taken aback by the newness of the sight. The uniformity of the framing and the seemingly clinical eye of the camera make these images sit together like specimens in an anthropological catalogue. It’s as if the artist is collecting Queen Street, and the series evokes the sympathetic work of Toronto’s Kevin Steele, City of Toronto Archivist Patrick Cummins, and the Whole City Project by Michael Awad.

Deconstruction, Bay and Adelaide, Toronto, ON, 2006 © Joseph Hartman

Despite this wealth of images on display and the gallery’s sizeable collection, the exhibition’s description says: “Although Toronto has been seen as Canada’s centre of the photographic industry for the past one-hundred years, images of the city are not as prevalent as one might suspect.” When Torontoist met with Stephen Bulger, we asked him why he thought this might be.
“For a lot of people it hasn’t been an obvious choice of subject matter. This is likely related to the fact that people who live here don’t see it in a glorious light. Most of the compliments that I hear about Toronto come from visitors. For people who live here, I think that it doesn’t quite measure up to what they expect their city to be. This means that there’s not a lot of demand for these types of images. I don’t think that this is a recent thing.”

Toronto Skyline, Canada, 2008 © Josef Hoflehner

Almost as a case in point, the banner image of the exhibition, Toronto Skyline, Canada, comes from Austrian photographer Josef Hoflehner, taken on a visit to Toronto in 2008. It’s a stunning and generous image of the city skyline taken by someone seeing it with fresh eyes. It’s tempting to use that fact to reinforce the notion that we can no longer, or choose to no longer, truly see our city. However, although it may be easy, it’s ultimately careless to generalize that Torontonians are jaded and blind to Toronto. There is such a wealth of visual enthusiasm for this complicatedly beautiful place that there will hopefully be no future shortage when the current day slips into the historical, and someone searches for images that capture something of Toronto’s magic.
The Toronto Show runs at the Stephen Bulger Gallery (1026 Queen Street West) until February 26.
Photos courtesy of the Stephen Bulger Gallery.