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See the New Photography Wing at the National Gallery of Canada

Director Luce Lebart shares some details about the Canadian Photography Institute, opened last fall in Ottawa

The power of the photo – on our phones, on our social networks, in the 24-hour news cycle – has arguably never been stronger, so it’s fitting that the National Gallery of Canada is putting a fresh focus on photography at the brand new Canadian Photography Institute (CPI).

Housed in three large rooms on the second floor at the National Gallery’s main building and launched in fall 2016, the CPI is a world-class affair that combines vastly expanded collections, multidisciplinary research and plenty of community outreach.

The CPI merges collections from the shuttered Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography and the National Gallery’s well-regarded existing collection, as well as significant donations from private collector and media magnate David Thomson. In recent years Thomson has contributed more than $50 million worth of images, ephemera and early photographic equipment, with additional gifts of art, such as Canadian historical, vernacular and Indigenous photographs, as well as modern and contemporary photographs from Africa.

The collection also includes early aviation images, the Origins of Photography collection (one of the highlights: the work of early American daguerreotypists as well as images from the California 1849 gold rush), works by British photographer Frederick H. Evans, and press archives from Buenos Aires, Sydney and Toronto. It’s widely considered one of the world’s most comprehensive collections.

As Canada throws its 150th birthday party this year, the CPI will mount a major exhibition curated by Andrea Kunard called Canadian Photography 1960-2000. Works by 71 prominent artists, including Ed Burtynsky, Lynne Cohen, Jin-me Yoon and Angela Grauerholz, will be on display from March 31 to Sept. 4, and range from small black-and-white photos to huge, colourful mural photographs.

Courtesy National Gallery of Canada

Installation view of The Intimate World of Josef Sudek, running until Feb. 26, 2017

To learn more about what the new space has in store for us, Billy spoke with Luce Lebart, the director of the Canadian Photography Institute and a noted photography historian, curator, expert on photography techniques and author (her most recent book: Mold is Beautiful, featuring images of old French photographic glass plates beautifully damaged by mould while in storage).

Q: What sets these collections apart; what makes them important and interesting?

A: It’s a world-renowned collection, recognized for its superb examples of photography and its diversity. What makes it so unique is that it combines iconic images by famous photographers alongside vernacular images, and the dialogue between them is so rich and overwhelming.

Some anonymous vernacular images have been made without an artistic intention yet they have aesthetic qualities and value. I love that. The photographs by anonymous photographers are given the same respect as the famous ones.

Photo : MBAC. Don anonyme, 2010 © Succession de Josef Sudek

Josef Sudek. Workers in the Saint-Guy Cathedral, Prague. Rays of light illuminate the space 1924–1928. Silver gelatin print: 49.9 x 40.2 cm; image : 25 x 23.1 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa


The CPI has a rotating exhibit called PhotoLab. What’s the approach?

PhotoLab is a new space within the CPI galleries dedicated to informal installations. Throughout the year, PhotoLab will display exhibitions organized by the Institute’s experts, as well as by guest curators from various backgrounds, including musicians, writers, journalists, and students. 

We want to provide emerging photographers and curators the opportunity to organize their own exhibitions and to develop new and innovative ways to mount photographic installations. The first one, Photolab 1, features over 50 works from the collection and explores the theme of windows and the transparency and reflectivity of glass.  

National Gallery of Canada

Pascal Grandmaison. Glass 6, 2004 – 05. Digital chromogenic print on Plexiglas, 180.3 × 180.3 × 7.5 cm. Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, Ottawa.

One of the CPI’s roles is to be a research base for photography scholars and scholars in other disciplines. How will it play out?

We’ve just launched our first fellowship to encourage the study of the CPI collection. The annual fellowships will be open to everyone. We welcome researchers, thinkers, creators. Artists and musicians are encouraged to apply, just as are photographic historians.

CPI feels strongly about opening its collections and resources to people with diverse backgrounds and interests. We look forward to collaborating on innovative exhibitions, photography projects, conferences, and publications, as well as on exhibitions and publications online.

Looking ahead to 2018: Tell us about the upcoming Oscar Gustave Rejlander exhibit?

I’m really looking forward to the Oscar Rejlander exhibition, which is the first major retrospective of his work. Rejlander is a 19th-century photographer who was born in Sweden and moved to England in the late 1830s. Lorie Pauli, the CPI curator involved in the project, is completely obsessed with him and his photographs. She has helped me discover Rejlander’s great sense of humour, which I am sure the public will also enjoy. It is surprising that Rejlander, considered one of the first “art photographers” and an expert in photomontage, is so little known. He was a pioneer.

His best-known work “The Two Ways of Life”, for example, anticipates techniques practised today, such as PhotoShop. We are thrilled it will be touring internationally – to the Getty Museum and Musée d’Orsay in Paris and hopefully in Great Britain.

What’s the most recent picture on your cell phone or camera?

It’s of two Americans in a New Orleans trolley car, similar to the one that appeared on the cover of the great photographer Robert Frank’s book The Americans. I was hanging out with my colleague, senior curator of photography at the National Gallery of Australia, after a fantastic three-day conference for photo curators from all over the world.

Wait, no. Since then I have taken and shared another one on social media: a snowy white view from my office window at the National Gallery of Canada.

Published Friday, February 17th 2017

Header image credit: Nathan Lyons. New York City, New York, 1965, printed before April 1970. Gelatin silver print, 11.2 × 16.6 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC



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