Despite the pronouncements of their imminent demise, newspapers stubbornly resist printing their own obituary. The urban delight of sitting in a café tussling with the myriad sections of a weekend edition persists. City commuters grab abandoned papers on vacated seats in the long, slow, subway haul, tunnelling beneath the Wi-Fi signal. In a world in which photographs are migrating to the screen, newspapers offer one of the few opportunities to hold an image on paper in our hands. This tactile materiality was a defining feature of the production and consumption of photography in a pre-digital age, yet the production of news photography is a good two decades removed from the analogue. Editors have only the faintest memories of poring over freshly dried contact sheets, cancelling and selecting frames with a red Chinagraph pencil.
In its wake, photojournalism’s analogue age has left large-scale picture libraries with individual newspaper titles housing hundreds of thousands of prints and millions of negatives. Not everything has been kept. Pictures without copyright were routinely culled, prints sent out never to return. The negatives present their own problems, with trays of film emitting the pungent, decaying whiff of vinegar. Older collections of more stable glass-plate negatives survive, although tales of junior employees being consigned to the basement with half a ton of glass, a table, a hammer, and a bin are legion.
Seemingly overnight, towns and cities the world over have been faced with the simultaneous dilemma of what to do with their historic archives of local, regional, national, and international news photographs. It would require the space of several major city airports to house them all; the hangars, baggage halls, and departure lounges would be filled to bursting point, with prints to spare blowing down the runways. Beyond a point, numbers appear abstract. The Globe and Mail is de-accessioning its library of 750,000 press photographs, and editors have combed the shelves to select 100,000 prints to be scanned for the creation of a historic digital archive. From these, a collection of 20,000 prints will be donated to the newly formed Canadian Photography Institute at the National Gallery of Canada, the first part of a wider donation program ensuring the collection will be available to future generations.
The exhibition Cutline, assembled from just 175 vintage prints, represents the final curation, whittled down to one interpretation of the collection’s riches; its first iteration, rather than the last word. Installed in The Globe and Mail’s Press Hall—a soon-to-be-demolished building that still resonates with the echoes of its former activity—the subject of the exhibition is the archive itself; the tropes, patterns, and practices that, until recently, resided in their alphabetized trays on shelves on a motor-driven Lektriever carousel storage system.
The Globe and Mail’s status as “the national paper of record” has always focused its content on the bigger issues of business and politics, suppressing any appetite for sensationalism. Protests, demonstrations, and strikes are well documented, while murders, mayhem, and multiple births surface from time to time. However, a 1948 print of a safe cracker, killed in a shootout during his robbery of the Toronto Florist Co-operative, reveals something of the paper’s sensibilities. In a photograph reminiscent of those by famed photojournalist Weegee, a line has been drawn across the prostrate body with any evidence of its presence above the line airbrushed away with the clear instruction “out” pencilled in below. What remains is an anodyne image of an office.
Certain tropes reoccur in the files. There is, for example, a high concentration of images of developers proudly astride their architectural models, creating an idiosyncratic archive of the urban development of modern Canada. The 1950s fashion for homburg hats and fur coats, to set forth in against hostile winters, emerges as a period protective uniform. In response, 12 groups of these found patterns and practices have been drawn together in the exhibition, each subtitled with a period cutline. These descriptive captions on the back of photographic prints are reductive journalistic texts that retain the authentic voice of the era. Forming a backdrop to these images, a montage of interviews pieced together from Canadian documentary films is set against an animation of still photographs and news images edited by Arthur Lipsett in his seminal film, Very Nice, Very Nice (National Film Board of Canada, 1961). A newly produced animation of prints from The Globe and Mail and a film of the now-obsolete industrial technology of the newspaper factory play alongside.
Presented as an exhibition within an exhibition, the selection of photographs from the 1950s gathered together in The Canadians bears an uncanny resemblance to Robert Frank’s 1958 seminal book The Americans. Here, the tropes of the road, the tombstone, the tree, and the cross are all reexamined in the context of functionary press images set in Canada. Taken as a whole, Cutline reveals how this large-scale and wide-ranging press archive affords infinite possibilities for selection and interpretation.
Organized by the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada, The Globe and Mail and the Archive of Modern Conflict