A Look Back at the Origins of Photography in Toronto
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A Look Back at the Origins of Photography in Toronto

In this book excerpt, a look at how photography has evolved in the city.

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Excerpted from Picturing Toronto: Photography and the Making of a Modern City by Sarah Bassnett, courtesy of McGill-Queen’s University Press.

By the early twentieth century, North America’s photographic industry was well established and photography was widely practised, both as a profession and as a leisure pursuit. In Toronto, commercial photography studios, such as Alexandra Studios on Queen Street West, produced portraits and photographed weddings and social events. They also marketed photographs of landmarks, streetscapes, and other features of urban life to visitors and local residents. Meanwhile, itinerant photographers soliciting customers in public parks were so prevalent that City officials identified them as a public nuisance.

The technically skilled photographers of Toronto’s Camera Club sought out picturesque views in and around the city, and casual amateurs armed with Kodak’s easy-to-use instant cameras took snapshots of their friends and families involved in the activities of modern urban life. Various aspects of the city were also routinely depicted in news photographs, providing a mass readership with an unprecedented set of visual references.

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For instance, press photographer William James depicted Toronto’s burgeoning urban economy in a photograph of bank messengers carrying bags of money down King Street, while in an image of the fair grounds at the Canadian National Exhibition he portrayed the city as a vibrant site of new social relations. A photograph of newsreel and press photographers gathered at Queen’s Park on the steps of the Ontario Legislative Building affirms the centrality of photography to reporting on the daily activities of the city.

The increase in illustrated news stories gave readers a new kind of visual access to the city, inviting them to participate, even if only vicariously, in the events of the city. Photographs came to serve as sources of information that allowed people of diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds and differing education levels to learn about current events and issues. The prevalence and diversity of photographic practices meant that making and looking at photographs became an important way of encountering and relating to the city.

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It was within this photographic milieu that in 1911, amidst dramatic changes in Toronto brought about by industrialization and urbanization, City councillors voted to hire William Arthur Scott Goss as the City’s first official photographer.

Born in London, Ontario, on 4 March 1881, Arthur Goss moved to Toronto with his family in 1883, where his father, John Goss, worked in the newspaper and publishing industries. In 1891, when his father died, the young Goss was taken out of school and went to work as an office boy in the City engineer’s office. He was promoted to clerk of street repairs in 1899, and was employed as a clerk and a draughtsman for nearly twenty years before taking up the newly formed position of head of the photography and blueprinting section in 1911.

Working until his death in 1940, Goss produced thousands of photographs for a range of municipal departments.

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As the City photographer, Goss was regularly called upon to photograph the activities of all municipal departments, including, in the early years, related agencies such as the Toronto Harbour Commission. Photographs for the Works Department included everything from street cleaning and sewer construction to the city’s new hydroelectric system. For the Property Department Goss photographed the condition of public buildings, and for the Assessment Department it was houses and trees. For the Claims Department, he was charged with making records for evidence in accident claims. The Health Department required photographs of unsanitary conditions along with images of laboratory work.

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Under Goss’s oversight, the photography section produced over 3,000 prints in the first year alone. Some of these photographs were used as evidence in government reports, and some were circulated to a wider public through newspapers and other published materials. Others were never published, but were used internally to identify problems that needed to be addressed, to track the progress of particular projects, or to report on new technologies and methods for carrying out a department’s work.

With Goss as the City photographer, photographs quickly became an important resource in government operations.

Goss’s photographic survey for the construction of the Bloor Viaduct offers a revealing case study of the systematic production of photographs for the municipal government. As the bureaucratic apparatus worked to frame this survey as evidence, instrumental photography became an important source for representations of the city. Photography, in turn, became imbued with one City commissioner’s ambitions for Toronto’s future, and the resulting images were used to influence expansion.