Light My Fire: Some Propositions about Portraits and Photography

In 1977, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) purchased its first photograph: Arnold Newman’s collage portrait of Henry Moore, a fitting complement to the recent gift of Moore’s plasters to the gallery. This purchase marked the initial focus for collecting photography at the gallery: portraits of artists. The photography holdings have since grown to number more than 50,000 works and, though the collection now spans the wide reach and long history of the medium, portraits remain one of its strongest threads.

Light My Fire: Some Propositions about Portraits and Photography celebrates the collection, how it came into being, and how it has evolved since 1977. Presented as five propositions in two parts over the course of a year, the exhibition will feature more than 200 photographs from the collection, many shown for the first time. Each proposition slices into the collection in a way that is eclectic, at times playful, but nonetheless historically grounded.

For Part I, the introductory gallery brings together works under the proposition Light My Fire. The works here convey a certain lyrical and pictorial intensity, as the artists enhanced the impact of their images with colour, soft focus, materials, or other techniques. Robert Flaherty renders Frances Loring and Florence Wyle in cyanotype. An unknown artist embellishes a simple tintype of a young woman with velvet flowers and a red frame. Just over one hundred years later, Paul Graham delivers an existential cast to his portrait of another young woman; she is pictured in soft-focus orange as she takes a drag on her cigarette in a nightclub.

We are Monuments explores the idea of portraits as monuments in all senses: literally, formally, and metaphorically. The statuesque full-length views of the patrons of William Notman’s Montreal studio join Brassaï’s intimate look over the shoulder of sculptor Aristide Maillol. Edward Steichen animates Rodin’s sculpture of Balzac, while Gilbert & George mimic architecture on the steps of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.

Heralded by Men’s Club (1989), Lynne Cohen’s deadpan photograph, We are Multiplied looks at various manifestations of the group portrait, a signal of social belonging. James Inglis created a composite of hundreds of faces for his 1875 portrait of a gathering of Presbyterians in Montreal, while an unknown Ottawa photographer documents a corps of sea cadets in panorama.

Linking these ideas is a gallery contrasting two contemporaries: Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 – 79) and Jacques-Philippe Potteau (1807 – 76). Cameron’s single Pictorialist portrait of niece Julia Jackson, La Santa Julia (1867), and Potteau’s 90 photographs created for the Museum of Natural History in Paris could be said to stand at opposite ends of the portrait spectrum in the 19th century: one strives to make a singular expressive statement and the other aims to describe a full physiognomic range of humanity.

The exhibition also includes works by Richard Avedon, Philippe Halsman, Patrick Faigenbaum, Yousuf Karsh, André Kertész, Liz Magor, Arnaud Maggs, Michael Mitchell, Irving Penn, and Christopher Wahl, among others.

Together, these works celebrate the creative possibilities of portraiture in photography. The rich variety of approaches evident in the show highlights the interplay between photographers and their subjects, and how these ways of seeing have changed throughout the medium’s history.

Sophie Hackett Exhibition Curator

Part II of Light My Fire will be on view at the AGO from October 26 until May 2014. 

Organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario. Aimia is the Signature Partner of the AGO’s Photography Collection Program.