Counterpoints: Photography Through the Lens of Toronto Collections

Art Museum at the University of Toronto ⁠ accessible_forward
15 King's College Circle

Presented in both galleries that comprise the new Art Museum, Counterpoints gathers more than 100 images from over 20 private collections, revealing a remarkable breadth and depth of interest in photography in this city. The exhibition has evolved through the generosity of passionately committed collectors who granted the removal of works from their personal domestic and artistic spheres, allowing them to be seen by the public—many for the first time in Toronto. Images are assembled by visual affiliation and recurring subjects, which are conceived differently by photographers in time, cultural and social contexts, and through changing technologies. Counterpoints proposes a view of photography—and some of its signal historical and contemporary transitions—that is, like the daily experience of images, ultimately heterogeneous and non-linear.

In the 19th century, the alchemy of elements activated by light registered images on metal and glass plates or paper, which resulted in photographs with a decidedly physical, singular presence. Nearly two centuries later, photographic images are endlessly reproducible, ubiquitous presences in a vast and ephemeral digital world. While some artists use and manipulate photography freely as one medium among others at their disposal, others continue a trajectory specific to the medium’s history. In Counterpoints, images from the photographic canon established by the mid-20th century and contemporary photo-based works exist together, implicitly acknowledging the contradictions and oppositions in the plethora of photographic methods, materials, and conceptual frameworks that inspire artistic practice and fuel critical dialogue today. Similarly, collectors of photography—whether amateur enthusiasts or those engaged in relentless searches and major acquisitions—possess different motives and interests in the medium, its history, and its position in critical discourse.

Counterpoints inevitably traces more than one story through works collected by individuals and brought together here in an exhibition context. Across a remarkable variety of images, some subjects recur with fascinating regularity—among them portraiture. Outstanding examples include American postwar photographer Lee Friedlander’s self-portraits of the 1990s, portraits of New Orleans prostitutes by E.J. Bellocq, circa 1912, and Nicholas Nixon’s ongoing family-based project, The Brown Sisters, begun in 1975. Latoya Ruby Frazier’s Mom and Me (2009) combines self-portraiture and social documentary.

Whether a steel factory in China by Edward Burtynsky or a hand-coloured arctic landscape by Sarah Anne Johnson, several images in Counterpoints address the threatened natural environment. Spanish artist Daniel Steegmann Mangrané’s images explore the cycle of lush fecundity and decay in the Amazon rainforest. In contrast, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s almost abstract seascapes present an uncannily still and serene meditation on the natural world.

The built environment is seen in the work of mid-20th century photographers such as Andreas Feininger and Harry Callahan, and recurs in the conceptual interrogations of the status of the photograph in works by preeminent Vancouver artists Jeff Wall and Ian Wallace. Urban imagery of the same period in Europe is represented by Düsseldorf School photographers Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth, while more recently, urban dystopias and utopian landscapes are mapped by Scott Conarroe and Alec Soth, among others.

Lewis Hine’s and Dorothea Lange’s images of child labour and Depression era sharecroppers; Richard Billingham’s 1989 dysfunctional domestic scenes; Stephen Waddell’s recent idyllic image of families relaxing in a waterside park; or Jim Goldberg’s incisive 1980s series Rich and Poor: these collections witness the steadfast relationship of photography to the social realities of lives lived in different circumstances and eras.

The constructed photographs of Cindy Sherman and Laurie Simmons unsettle pervasive commercial images of female identity formed by fashion, film, and advertising, and an early staged performance photograph by Suzy Lake also addresses social strictures on women’s behaviour. In works by Indigenous artists Rebecca Belmore and Meryl McMaster, the body enacts metaphors of inescapable constraint and, alternatively, freedom of spirit.

Rodney Graham’s Fantasia for Four Hands (2002) and Barbara Probst’s Exposure # 6: N.Y.C., 5th Avenue and 82nd Street, 06.04.01, 1.21pm (2001) both adopt the frame-by-frame mechanisms of film in the service of distinctly different conceptual ends, while Michael Snow’s pivotal work Door (1979) brings painting and photography together in a condensed and witty visual deconstruction of perception. Robert Burley’s The Disappearance of Darkness, an elegiac project carried out between 2005 and 2010 records the end of analogue photography. But it has not entirely ended, for as they explore the most recent technologies, artists also adopt and revive obsolete technologies with new vision, reminding viewers that photography exists in all its multiple vernacular and artistic forms, to be reinvented and transformed, always presenting in time and place new images of ourselves and new ways of seeing the world.


Organized by and presented in partnership with the Art Museum at the University of Toronto


Featuring works by:
Berenice Abbott, Iain Baxter&, Bernd and Hilla Becher, E.J. Bellocq, Rebecca Belmore, Richard Billingham, Bill Brandt, Brassaï, Robert Burley, Edward Burtynsky, Harry Callahan, Sarah Charlesworth, Lynne Cohen, Anne Collier, Scott Conarroe, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Rineke Dijkstra, A.K. Dolven, Stan Douglas, William Eggleston, Andreas Feininger, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Lee Friedlander, Jim Goldberg, Nan Goldin, Douglas Gordon, Rodney Graham, Angela Grauerholz, Andreas Gursky, Dave Heath, Fred Herzog, Lewis Wickes Hine, Candida Höfer, Kristan Horton, Spring Hurlbut, Geoffrey James, Rashid Johnson, Sarah Anne Johnson, Seydou Keïta, André Kertész, Owen Kydd, Marie-Jo Lafontaine, Suzy Lake, Dorothea Lange, Tim Lee, Zun Lee, Vera Lutter, Peter MacCallum, Arnaud Maggs, Vivian Maier, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, Daniel Steegmann Mangrané, Scott McFarland, Meryl McMaster, Michael Mitchell, Lisette Model, Tracey Moffatt, Jonathan Monk, Nicholas Nixon, Gordon Parks, Barbara Probst, Thomas Ruff, Ed Ruscha, Mark Ruwedel, Steven Shearer, Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, Meera Margaret Singh, Noah Smith, Michael Snow, Alec Soth, Thomas Struth, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Althea Thauberger, James Van Der Zee, Stephen Waddell, Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace, Weegee, James Welling, Christopher Williams, Garry Winogrand, Young & Giroux, Akram Zaatari.

Featured collections:
Carol and David Appel, Art Gallery of Ontario, The Bailey Collection, Fred W. Budnik, Debra and Barry Campbell, Shelli Cassidy-McIntosh and Mike McIntosh, Beverly and Jack Creed, Sarah Dinnick and Colin Webster, David and Yvonne Fleck, Kate and Steve Foley, Hart House Collection, Ydessa Hendeles, Phil Lind, Brenda Hebert and Brent Lisowski, Ann and Harry Malcolmson, Dr. Paul Marks, Liza Mauer and Andrew Sheiner, Nancy McCain and Bill Morneau, Pamela Meredith and Jamie McDonald, Michael Mitchell, Robert Mitchell and York Lethbridge, Dr. Kenneth Montague | The Wedge Collection, National Gallery of Canada, Elisa Nuyten and David Dime, Marwan H. Osseiran, Julia and Gilles Ouellette, Carol and Morton Rapp, Laura Rapp and Jay Smith, Peter Ross, Alison and Alan Schwartz, Gerald Sheff and Shanitha Kachan, Gluskin Sheff + Associates Inc., Sandra Simpson, Carole and Howard Tanenbaum, Timothy Thompson, University of Toronto Collection, The Shlesinger-Walbohm Family, Ann and Marshall Webb, Steven Wilson and Michael Simmonds, and other private collections.

Curated by Jessica Bradley