Precisely why the Art Gallery of Ontario tossed out their photography exhibitions in favor of additional rooms of printed material is not exactly clear. I tried to discern a reason. I asked four different staff people, and while each was exceedingly apologetic and one informed me that the “concourse” (read: basement) had three photos in a niche near the bathrooms that was worth a look—none could answer the question: why did the rooms dedicated to photography no longer contain any photography? It’s a mystery that will have to await some other intrepid explorer to unravel.
Fortunately, the Art Gallery of Ontario had photography in other places, including an exhibition of Mark Dion’s work documenting taxidermy polar bears in natural history museums across North America, and an exhibition of Xerography: images formed with the use of the Xerox machine. The images came from an exhibition Art Gallery of Ontario staged in 1976, and features the work of six Canadian artists, most notably Barbara Astman. The exhibition is a fascinating rumination on how technology not only shifts our notions of artistic production, but how the processes of image making are appropriated and then utterly lost when the technology becomes either obsolete or hopelessly quaint. In this case, the pervasiveness of image-making machines in our very hands makes the process of using color copying machines ridiculously time-intensive and unnecessary, but the hippy feel of the images is hard to resist, and the capacity of the artists to coax artistic expression from the lowly Xerox makes the retrospective a fascinating feather in the museum’s cap.
Fortunately, Art Gallery of Ontario’s fleeting acknowledgment of photography is balanced by Bau-Xi Photo Gallery’s complete dedication to the art form just across the street. Bau-Xi Photo is a must stop for any visitor to the city. On exhibit now is a range of artists, with three notable standouts. Virginia Mak's soft, but evasive portraits are downright seductive. While her subjects are blurred, as though recalled from memory or some past story, the depth of color suggests these images are illuminations of new stories—hopes, not hauntings. Chris Shepherd has similar control of color, but unlike Mak’s imagery, his lines and forms are sharp and clean. His photos rely on carefully controlled light in otherwise dark, subterranean settings. The result is a kind of hyper clarity that makes otherwise mundane places seem at once luminescent and lonely. That loneliness of place animates our daily lives, and if Shepherd wants us to see the beauty in those places, I suspect he also wants us to attend to the solace he offers with the promise of that clear light.
The brilliant desolation of Shepherd’s images is a stark contrast to Katrin Korfmann’s remarkable shots of public spaces. Apparently constructed of many different images and then knitted together in a seamless large-scale photo, Korfmann’s photographs look down on public places from above. They embrace community and the life of a place, and they demonstrate the way that human life transforms space. These are the types of images—large in both scope and concept and constructed with such care and purpose—that it should remind others why photography is so important and why the form is worthy of, perhaps, just one full room at a nearby impressive museum. Maybe one day, a curator will wander by from across the boulevard and invite an image or two in.
Roger Thompson is the Senior Editor for Don’t Take Pictures. His critical writings have appeared in exhibition catalogues and he has written extensively on self-taught artists with features in Raw Vision and The Outsider. He currently resides in Long Island, New York and is a Professor at Stony Brook University.