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Black Star Subject: Canada

A Poem in Three Movements

Looped multichannel video, 2013-4

Alice Munro - Gould/Bond  - Three Founding Pillars

This piece is proposed as a poem – its three movements defined by the music of Bach played by Glenn Gould. The first movement : Alice Munro contains all known images of Canada from the Black Star collection (1% of the collection). It is a celebration of the short form – and through the title honors this year ‘s Nobel tribute to Alice Munro. At the time of her Nobel recognition, commentators observed that the short form is closer to poetry than the novel. The valorization of the short form is a sign of our times – its value has been understood for quite a while by advertising – and also reflected in experimental film – and in haiku, for instance. The short form lends itself to fast reading  - it short cuts perception.


Gallery visitors, most of the time, interact with pieces on display for a very short moment. An exhibition at the MOMA in 2006 called “Perception Restrained” by architects Herzog & de Meuron questioned the “lack of perceptive attention on the part of museum visitors” and put pressure on perception by limiting the space and time. The idea of intensifying the experience is not new, we can see it in experimental film but it does highlight a shift in recent years in our ability to read images. Malcom Gladwell talks about our ability to encounter the world by “thin slicing,” finding patterns in very narrow slices of experiences – by using a kind of scanning vision. Questions that guided me as I worked on this piece were: how do we grasp meaning in a flash, how do we compress information? How to catch a transient audience for a brief look at Canada?


The second movement in this work is playfully titled Gould/Bond - a nod to the location of the collection, the Ryerson Image Centre. This second work concerns the texts found on the back of the photographs. This piece reflects a small selection – and deals with different themes: from the Inuvik Federal School system in 1961, French Canada, the war effort, the RCMP, the Conscription crisis of 1942 et cetera. There are some gems to be found including the observation that “they like baseball better than cricket?” and clichés one might expect such  as, “Bear Hunting is good all through Northern Ontario” and the “the roads are rough in many parts of the Dominion.”


The title of the last film Three Founding Pillars is inspired by John Ralston Saul’s characterization of Canada – which moved us away from the traditional framing of our French and English founding fathers to include the centrality of the Aboriginal story to our nation. In his book, A Fair Country, he suggests that “the original pillar has been virtually ignored.” The stunning images in this third film offer a poignant glimpse of some of the members of this group. The third film is from sequences arranged by Don Snyder.


Pierre Tremblay

Text for the Ryerson Lecture Series


March 25, 2014

Working with image collections and archives is sometimes a very clear-cut situation, and you realize right away what your job is: simply put, it’s to find the best pictures, preserve them, and display them in the best possible way. Other times, the photographs you encounter tell a story you never quite expected, or lead you to a conclusion you simply did not anticipate. And in certain cases, the pictures literally take hold of you -- parking themselves everywhere in your mind like cars that arrived late for a hockey game -- in a way that is interesting to experience but difficult to precisely explain. This is what happened with the Black Star images, and I think it happened to both Pierre Tremblay and to me. So we are really appreciative of the opportunity to talk about these photographs and this project, and we thank everyone for being here. 


It might seem odd that in the iPhone era there are still challenges embedded in a set of less than two thousand images, but it actually takes four hours and 23 minutes of single-minded and focused attention simply to click through all these prints, viewing them front and verso on a computer screen, in order to check the information in the database against what the photographs show. 

This first exercise led to a different number than what showed in the system: having traversed the Collection in both directions, we found 106 images that didn’t belong. In some cases this was a source of amusement: someone at Black Star thought St. Pierre and Miquelon were actually part of Canada; there was a photograph of President Kennedy in front of a pub, allegedly in Ottawa but actually in Ireland; and there were many images of the Canadian army in England, Europe and even Africa, as well as images of the Navy in indeterminate international waters. So the actual number of images became eighteen hundred and fifty-three.

Even with some images eliminated, however, it was clear from the outset that a conventional exhibition would be impractical, and we turned our attention to other formats.


Black Star Canada is a fascinating set of files, almost a photographic ecosystem that spreads throughout the entire country. The agency used 136 photographers for its Canadian assignments, usually individuals or studios with local or regional knowledge; it had business agreements with 14 picture agencies, ranging from the logical (the National Film Board) to the unexpected (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization); and the work is divided into 74 classifications in a clear hierarchy: Agriculture, Mining, Industry, Fishing; regions, provinces, cities; personalities and events; politics, tourism… and the list gets more detailed from there. 

There are some surprises: an unusually extended essay on mink farming, a set of pictures labeled Musk Ox, with no musk oxen in sight; and a large file on postwar immigration from England. Nothing at all on multiculturalism, residential schools, health care or even environmental issues -- and under the heading “welfare” there were only two images, exterior views of a charity hospital. It was recognizably Canada, but also recognizably different.

The pictures in the archive were remarkable not just for their visual consistency, but also for their technical excellence; we were constantly amazed at the high level of the work we were seeing.

Finally, to provide a time framework, the earliest image was dated 1910, the latest 1984, so we have 75 years of visual history, and a particularly rich record from the 1940s onwards.


The first task was to identify key photographers whose work animated the entire collection, and we found four:

Richard Harrington’s images of Arctic peoples, made between 1948 and 1953 under very difficult conditions, are now known world-wide.

Ronny Jacques, who emigrated from England, setting up a studio in Toronto before establishing a career in New York, worked with a fixed-lens medium format camera, presumably a Rolleiflex; he assembled a visual record that has two primary components: a record of midcentury industrial Canada, and a compelling set of images of everyday life.

The American photographer John Launois was experienced as a global traveler for Black Star, but had a particular affinity for Canada. He made one striking photo-essay after another, and his work represents the transition to a new form of 35mm photojournalism. He shows a more modern country; he was obviously interested in people, and had an exceptional eye for both the moment and the scene.

John de Visser is still active as a photojournalist, but was already well-established in the 70’s and 80’s when he worked for Black Star. While he travelled widely, he is best known for his images of Atlantic Canada and Newfoundland, which have an almost filmic quality, and seem to represent an alignment between the work encouraged by the National Film Board and the work that Black Star also wanted to publish.

It was the work of these four photographers that gave a sense of what was at the heart of the collection, and helped give shape to what would end up being the third of the three films that this project inspired.



Interestingly, Black Star’s more high-profile photographers actually did less-than-outstanding work in Canada: Charles Moore’s photos of Expo 67, Eugene Smith’s photos of Queen Juliana’s visit, Fred Ward’s images of President Johnson visiting Lester Pearson, and Dennis Brack’s photos of Premier Kosygin’s trip to Canada during the Trudeau years were unremarkable relative to their reputations with other subjects; the one exception was Daniel Weiner’s very dramatic photo-essay on the rise of Levesque and the separatist movement, which was used toward the end of the first film.


There were also photographers who contributed specific thematic content:

Peter Thomas, whose images you may have seen earlier as part of the inaugural Archival Dialogues exhibition,


Pierre Boisclair, whose images of the Hasidic community in Montreal remain vivid, and whose eye for character was superb,


Edo Koenig, known for his images of the Canadian military – the looming presence of the Cold War is always recognizable in images such as these --


and Koenig’s images are complemented by the work of Malak Karsh, Yousuf’s brother, who did an extended series on the RCMP as well as many personalities of the time.

It turned out to be Gilbert A. Milne who photographed Operation Musk Ox, which was actually a joint US/Canadian military exercise in the high arctic (at first I thought these images had something to do with industrial-grade snowmobiles, as the labelling was very circumspect).

Milne’s images contrast sharply with those of Dominique Berretty, whose photographs of the RCAF are edgy, taut and forward-looking. This tautness extended to his images of industrial Canada as well.

Herb Nott was a jack-of-all trades who covered the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Stratford Festival, and a new topic, tentatively labeled “American Influence”.

Dr. George Gerster, the Swiss photojournalist, was interested in education in the Arctic, and was someone who articulated the collision of old and new in his photographs; he even recorded construction techniques then in use to build on permafrost, as well as the amusement of the children who so eagerly watched the process.

Marvin Breckenridge had a sense of the iconic image, and some of these were extraordinarily useful as the films were put together;

and finally Herbert Lanks, who was also concerned with the contrast between industrial growth and traditional ways.


By this point, it was clear that one film should be in the form of a slide show, running without captions; this would represent the most general overview of the collection as well as the confluence of British, French and aboriginal traditions – this was labelled “Three Founding Pillars”, a title borrowed from John Ralston Saul and his book “A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada”.

The next stage was assembling the two composite films, which were built incrementally as Pierre explored how to use the wide-screen format – here are a few examples:

For Agriculture/Farming, variations on 1-3 frames were tried;

and the possibility of 8 separate subscreens can be seen in these short sequences from Newfoundland.


You can see the work moving from photographic to filmic, and also you can begin to see the issue arising of how to utilize captions and text. Pierre decided to make two separate films in addition to the final one: one would have great visual density – this is the first film, titled “Alice Munro” in honour of the writer’s recent Nobel Prize for short-form literature – and one would be more leisurely and reflective, emphasing captions and narrative – this is the second, “Gould/Bond”, which is a double pun: the collection has found its Canadian home at the corner of Gould and Bond streets, and it is of course Glenn Gould who plays on the soundtrack.

Pierre will introduce and show all three of the films in his presentation, but I would also like to conclude with some comments about how we understand the Black Star/Canada file today:

Many may think that this way of photographing is irrevocably connected to a bygone era, that this vision of Canada only relates to a certain time, a certain set of places, a largely homogeneous culture. But I would make a counter-observation:

That these images are utterly without irony;

That they depict and affirm, but do not judge or criticize;

That while we live in a different era, with different politics, different technologies and different opportunities -- one in which childhood itself looks different and we are now more self-aware as both children and adults – at the same time, some values remain:

A belief in effort, in challenge, in loyalty;

A kind of unassailable pride;

An awareness of change and growth;

The maintenance of freedom of assembly and protest;

A sense of land and spirit; a sense that a child can count on reaching adulthood in safety;

And a sense that in the end, we are really in a fortunate situation, and in an exceptionally pleasant place.

Don Snyder

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