Photography 20/20 Compendium

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Central to the several points that he made in presentations to the Board of Trustees was the need to respect photography's distinctive nature, namely, that its reproducibility and the relative rapidity of image capture resulted in a more voluminous output by artists working in the medium. He persuasively argued for an appreciation of this to be reflected in the institution's collecting of photographic images. Photographers might make thousands of prints in a career, he pointed out, and if the museum was to properly represent their contribution, it had to adopt a new collecting norm that applied to photography, its history, and the current practices around it. This would involve collecting a significant volume of images in a y ear. He also recommended that the work of major contributors to the medium is collected in-depth and that the collection be comprehensive, starting with the pre-history of the medium and including the work of today. I was particularly struck by the wisdom of having implemented collecting strategies of comprehensiveness and in-depth representation when I set about selecting works for an exhibition The Extended Moment to celebrate fifty years of collecting photographs at the National Gallery of Canada in 2017. The depth and breadth of the collection made it possible to show how the medium had evolved technically and conceptually. Starting with pairings of images by photographers working centuries apart, it was possible to trace the rich and complex story of image-making through photography. Etienne Leopold Trouvelot (1827-1895) and Hiroshi Sugimoto (b. 1948) for example, experimenting with electrical charges, or Gary Schneider (b. 1954) and Adrien Majewski (active France 1890s) exploring the direct thermographic exposure of the human hand on a light­ sensitive plate. The juxtaposition and counterplay of images from the past and of the present set up a visual conversation that underscored the mutual attraction to certain ideas and subjects even when the photographers were separated by tens of decades and working with different technologies, and processes. These works were displayed in proximity to one another. The epic nature of photography from the new millennium became increasingly apparent during the selection of works for the final section of the exhibition, New Narratives. Photographers' use of multiple images to create single works often in massive grids is another part of the medium's complex syntax. This compositional structure had its origins on a more modest scale in an earlier

decade. Sophie Ristelhueber's parsing of 71 photographs, each measuring 100.6 x 124.8cm, in Fait 1992, took this narrative structure to new heights - and lengths! Likewise, Sammy Baloji's masterful critique of colonial occupation in Essay in Urban Planning, -a more recent example uses the grid as an effective pictorial schema. Then there were the extraordinary large-scale single works-another development of the last several decades. I realized, much to my regret, that while works by Stan Douglas, Lynne Cohen, Zhang Huan, Isabelle Hayeur, Andrew Moore, Nicolas Baier and several others were included, there were many other major large-scale works that had to be dropped due to space restrictions. The kind of foresight shown when establishing the collecting premises for photography, unfortunately, fell short when we planned intimately scaled Photographs, Prints and Drawings galleries for our new building in the early 1980s. Nothing had prepared us for the ambitious and compelling scale of works from the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Iconic works have been added to the bedrock of the collection: a Vortograph enriches the Gallery's small but substantial collection of Coburn gum prints, a platinum print of Frederick Evans' "Sea of Steps" fleshes out the holdings of his work acquired from Evans' son in 1967 and the fine print of Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" is a showstopper. Building a collection of photographs that not only reflects diverse Canadian ethnicities but also a global identity has been a priority and a shared and consultative effort between three departments: Photographs, Contemporary Art, and Indigenous Art. Photographs are as much cultural artifacts as works of art or documents, and as we progress further into our new century it is important that our collections be enriched in breadth and depth, and that our exhibitions address and celebrate the medium's diversity and complexity. Museum decision-makers who are often scholars from more traditional areas of art history may require gentle prompts regarding the need to collect widely and deeply in photography, as well as to plan generously for the storage and display of contemporary photographs. Given the right opportunity, curators-and collectors-are builders and pioneers. They are also lifelong learners. As I leave the museum world I am profoundly grateful for having been generously supported in all three roles. This essay is the first of an ongoing series of critical analysis on the evolution of lens-based media. Subsequent essays by a practitioner, an editor, and scholar will be available in the future online at

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