Images of their time: National Gallery looks at photography from 1960 to 2000

Detail from Jeff Wall's The Destroyed Room, 1978, printed 1987, Cibachrome transparency in fluorescent lightbox, lightbox: 179 × 249 × 20.6 cm; image: 158.8 × 229 cm. National Gallery of Canada. Purchased 1988.

Light is constant but technology changes, so the large Jeff Wall image that ends Photography in Canada: 1960-2000, now at the National Gallery, is literally seen in a new light.

“He has high standards,” associate curator of photography Andrea Kunard says of Wall, the celebrated Vancouver artist, during an early tour as the exhibition is still being hung. We’re standing before Wall’s 1978 photograph Destroyed Room, in which ordinary furniture and fixtures lie in extraordinary disarray, as if a small bomb has exploded. The mess is in stark contrast to the precision of the artist’s process, which spanned across the decades to a freshly reprinted image, and a new light box built of current technology that better enlivens and enriches the colours and tones envisioned by Wall 39 years ago.

Edward Burtynsky, Nickel Tailings #30, Sudbury, Ontario, from the series Nickel Tailings, 1996, printed 1998, chromogenic print, 102 × 154.3 cm. National Gallery of Canada. Gift of the artist, Toronto, 1998. © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Metivier Gallery, Toronto.

The exhibition itself may also appear a jumble at a quick glance, but only because the 40 years of Canadian photographs are not arranged chronologically. Kunard has chosen and arranged the images by a variety of themes, which range from technical to playful. Of the latter, for example, one photograph, Veiled Forest, from 1997, shows a manufactured landscape created by Holly King, and nearby hangs a 1996 photograph by Edward Burtynsky — Nickel Tailings #30, Sudbury, Ontario — whose epic portraits of “manufactured landscapes” scarred by human use and abuse are hailed worldwide.

“I want these ideas to kind of play off one another,” Kunard says. “I’m trying to show as many different photographs as possible, the diversity of photographic practise, all the different ways people have tackled different subject matter, the kinds of methods they’ve used, the mediums they’ve used, how they’ve constructed things literally.”

The first room offers a multifold intersection of themes, between art, documentary and photojournalism, and between culture, politics and sport. Portraits predominate — with the energetic exception of George Hunter’s early dye transfer print of a wild horse race, in which the horses seem to have not gotten the memo about all running in the same direction.

The muscularity of the beasts is echoed in the improbably bulging thighs of Ben Johnson, in Ted Grant’s familiar photograph of the Canadian sprinter crossing the Olympic finish line in sweet triumph before the spectacular, steroid-induced and nation-shaming fall.

There are portraits of filmmaker Norman McLaren, relaxed in sock feet, of Marshall McLuhan with a TV allusion to the global village and of Glenn Gould typically hunched over a piano. There is Nina Raginsky’s simply wonderful portrait of W.A.C. “Wacky” Bennett, the New Brunswicker who remains British Columbia’s longest-serving premier, here shown as comically exuberant in suit and derby hat and looking, frankly, like a contestant in Monty Python’s race for upper-class twits.

There is conceptual work throughout the exhibition, from Jack Dale’s 1970 three-dimensional, cubist portrait of a nude female, printed with breathtaking fragility on many small panes of glass, to Stan Denniston’s pair of photographs of intersections in Montreal and San Fransisco, paired solely because each crossing reminded the photographer of the other. It’s about “the whole idea of photographs and sites and memory,” says Kunard, who adds, “It’s a conceptual project so it’s meant to be a little over the top.”

George Hunter, Wild Horse Race, Calgary Stampede, 1958, dye transfer print, 50.8 x 61 cm; image: 38.4 x 48.9 cm. CMCP Collection, National Gallery of Canada. Purchased 1966. © Canadian Heritage Photography Foundation.

There’s a photograph by David McMillan of a residential scene in Winnipeg, and Kunard confirms that “it looks very Winnipeg to me.” I’ll take her word for it, as I’ve been to Winnipeg only once, briefly, the entire time under the skeptical glare of the father of my soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, a scrutiny that kept me from noting the scenery.

One room is, Kunard explains, “the identity room. It’s mainly about gender, about ideas of who was the subject, and different ways of playing with the photograph.” The portraits within stoke just about every note on the keyboard of emotional response. Shelley Niro makes wry comment on the anniversary of Columbus’s “discovery” of America by posing as Marilyn Monroe with her white dress blown up, here by a small, plastic fan, and titled The 500 Year Itch.

In another self portrait Rafael Goldchain imagines himself as a 19th-century ancestor from Poland, a face from the Jewish diaspora. It is a quiet but dark, brooding image, and a powerful study in black.

From Evergon — one of many artists with Ottawa roots in the show — comes a huge Polaroid print, Le Pantin, 1985, in which an older man above manipulates a puppet as a young, nude male below appears to hold up the raised platform. The setting is theatrical, rich in fabric, texture and light, and it provokes contemplation on the relationship between artist and subject, and how gay sexuality is seen in contemporary culture.

There is whimsy: Barbara Astman surrounds two self-portraits with flowers and bluebirds printed on fabric and stitched into a plastic cover, all titled Barbara coming . . . Barbara Going.

There is the spectre of death: Donigan Cumming Nov. 21, 1991, from Harry’s Diary, is paired with journal excerpts by the subject, who was dying of cancer, that reflect fears of getting old, of losing relationships. The installation demonstrates “the predatory nature of much documentary photography,” says the exhibition catalogue, while also revealing the depth of a long relationship between artist and subject.

There is trickery: Serge Tousignant’s arrangement of sticks on a sandy shore is hardly recognizable as a photograph, until it is seen closely and appreciated for its simplicity and stillness.

The exhibition is a diverse and richly satisfying survey of 40 years when Canada grew to see photography differently.

“Photography really started to be understood and appreciated in Canada as an art form, in itself as a contemporary kind of art form, starting in the ’60s,” Kunard says. “And then once you get up to 2000 you start getting into digital printing, inkjet printing, and I didn’t want to deal with the digital right at the moment. I thought that’s another show.”

Photography in Canada; 1960-2000, continues to Sept. 17.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.