Capturing 150 Years of Canada through Photography

By Diana Hart

With Canada celebrating its 150th birthday, it’s time to explore the country’s rich artistic history through the eyes of the talented photographers who have called Canada home.

Showcasing photography dating back to the 19th century, the Canadian Photography Institute and Scotiabank are presenting a special video installation in downtown Toronto.

Andrea Kunard, Associate Curator of Photographs at the National Gallery of Canada, selected over 30 images for the installation, which celebrates Canada’s cultural heritage through photography, hoping to inspire the next generation.

“In Canada, so many people don’t know who [our key] photographers are. They might know Jeff Wall or Stan Douglas, who are leaders in this art form, but they don’t know many of our other talented artists and the different ways photography has been used over the years,” said Kunard. “This installation gives you an idea that we have an amazing heritage when it comes to the medium. I think it’s great to get it out there in a public space.”

The installation will be running on the Concourse Level of Scotia Plaza in Toronto from June 19 to September 5. Kunard shared some of her favourite photos from the installation. Click through our gallery to take a closer look.

Suzy Lake
Sixteen Over Twenty eight, 1975
Gelatin silver print, graphite, coloured pencil, 83.7 x 61.9 cm; image: 83.7 x 61.9 cm
CMCP Collection, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

This piece by Scotiabank Photography Award winner Suzy Lake is a composite image, pairing a drawing of her at age 28 and a high school photograph at age 16.

“She’s created this interesting statement on how we present ourselves to the camera and the kinds of photographs that get taken at different points in our life,” said Kunard. “It’s about how we change and age and how that becomes an aspect of how we develop as a person, thinking about our way of looking at the world as older people. She’s constantly thinking about how your inner life, your subjective life, can be expressed as an image.”

Lynne Cohen
Spa, 1999
Chromogenic print, 80.6 x 102.1 cm sight; integral frame: 110.9 x 131.5 x 2.8 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Photo: NGC

Montreal artist Lynne Cohen, the first winner of the Scotiabank Photography Award, created this piece as she was exploring capturing uninviting and cold spaces.

“Lynne would search out these strange places that people go to that, when you detach yourself a bit from them, are really odd and not inviting. We invest a lot emotionally into our environment and we can feel comfortable in it or uncomfortable, given certain factors,” said Kunard. “Lynne was always interested in looking at that kind of edge and how we inhabit places. When you take people out of it and just look at the place itself, it can be very disconcerting. We don’t really think about the kind of environments that we inhabit; she wanted to linger on those kind of environments.”

Jeffrey Thomas
Bear at Constitution Square, Ottawa, Ontario, 1998
Chromogenic print (Ektacolor), 35.5 x 27.9 cm; image: 33.8 x 23.6 cm
CMCP Collection, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Jeff Thomas, who self identifies as Urban-Iroquois, has covered a wide range of subjects in his photography, but in his early work, he returned to one of his favourite inspirations, his son, Tribe Called Red member, Bear Witness.

“One of the things that Jeff has always been interested in is the idea of Indigenous people in the city and how they kind of get lost or are only be represented in older statues,” said Kunard. “He was always a little annoyed by that because there are all types of Indigenous people in the city. He would put his son in different places and take photos of him to show the modern life of Aboriginal people as urban dwellers.”

Arthur Scott Goss
Department of Health, No. 154, 6 September 1912, printed 1979
Gelatin silver print, 16.2 x 22.8 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Photo: NGC

William Arthur Scott Goss, Toronto’s official city photographer from 1911 to 1940, produced over 30,000 photographs, capturing the city as it grew rapidly.

Kunard said he was one of Toronto’s most important photographers, recording the history of the city in its early days and the challenges its citizens faced. One of his areas of focus was difficult housing conditions, like those captured in this photo.

Ho Tam
Lessons: No. 7, 2000
Chromogenic print, 50.8 x 60.8 cm
CMCP Collection, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

In 1997, Vancouver-based artist, Ho Tam went back to Hong Kong to his old elementary school to try to capture images from his past. He took his video camera to film images like the kids playing in the school yard. On returning to Canada, he put the video on a TV screen and took still images of the video.

“When you see this image blown up, you can see the lines of the TV running across it,” said Kunard. “He wanted to give it a sense of looking through different kinds of filters, back into the past. The little boy in this image is representing who he was.”

Charles George Horetzky
Camp at the Elbow of the Saskatchewan, September 1871
Albumen silver print, 43 x 54.8 cm; image: 38.4 x 50.3 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Photo: NGC

Charles George Horetzky was a federal government photographer, hired to go across Canada with the exploration team to help discover the best route for the railroad.

“He took photos as they went along the country to document what the land looked like. At the time, a lot of people in the east didn’t know what the interior part of the country looked like at all,” said Kunard. “These photographs are so important for an understanding of the settlement patterns of the country. They are invaluable as documents of the types of people in Canada at the time and what kind of living conditions they were facing.”

Lorraine Gilbert
Shaping the New Forest (detail), 1990
Dye coupler prints, 76 x 101.4 cm each approx.; image: 68 x 84.6 cm each
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Photo: NGC

Artist Lorraine Gilbert took inspiration from her years of tree planting in British Columbia.

“In this particular photo, she is pretending that she is a kind of eco-warrior type,” said Kunard. “She is always trying to advocate for smarter ways of using the environment, encouraging that kind of thinking. In this she has the pose of a warrior, embracing that sensibility.”

Jin-me Yoon
Souvenirs of the Self (Lake Louise), 1991, printed 1996
Chromogenic print laminated to plexiglas, 192.7 x 232.8 cm
CMCP Collection, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Korean-Canadian artist, Jin-me Yoon’s piece Souvenirs of the Self (Lake Louise) is part of a series she took in Banff exploring identity.

“She’s trying to make people question, ‘Who do you expect to see in this landscape? If I go into this landscape, I can be categorized as a tourist. If someone else goes into the landscape, they can experience something else,’” said Kunard. “She’s looking at this beautiful scene at Lake Louise. This sort of landscape is so associated with our country; it’s a tourist landscape. She’s exploring how we commodify our landscape, how it has a value and how it can be exploited. She is calling those ideas into question and talking about how she feels in that kind of a landscape.”

Lutz Dille
New York City, 1959, printed 1995
Gelatin silver print, 23.7 x 30.3 cm; image: 22.5 x 19.3 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Purchased from the Photography Collectors Group Fund, 1999
Photo: NGC

Lutz Dille, originally from Germany, came to Toronto in 1951, building his career as a renowned photographer with his signature documentary style.

“Lutz Dille was an amazing photographer, who really believed in a snapshot aesthetic,” said Kunard. “He would wander around on the streets, see vignettes like this one and snap the photograph. Everything was spontaneous. He didn’t set anything up; these people didn’t even know that he was photographing them.”