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Photography is so much of life

2020 marks 20 years of the AGO's Photography Department! Celebrate this milestone with a conversation between curators past and present.

Henry Moore Collage

Arnold Newman. Henry Moore (collage), Much Hadham, England, 1966-1972. Gelatin silver print, sheet: 26 x 33.2 cm. Purchase, 1978. © Arnold Newman Properties/Getty Images [2020] 77/178

With landmark acquisitions and homegrown exhibitions that have travelled the globe, it’s hard to believe that the AGO’s Photography Department is only 20 years old. That’s right, 2020 marks the 20th anniversary of the official founding of the Photography Department at the AGO. 

Looking back, some AGO history buffs may notice exhibitions of photography dating back over 40 years. So what’s the deal? While the AGO became acquainted with photography in the 1970s, many of these first exhibitions travelled to us while on tour from other institutions. For our part, Sophie Hackett, the AGO Curator, Photography, notes that “collecting photographs at the AGO has been a matter of many small starts; a gift here, a purchase there,” and none of it would have come to be without the incredible contributions of Maia Sutnik, the first Curator of Photography at the AGO.

Maia and Sophie

Maia Sutnik, Sophie Hackett (2011). Image courtesy of AGO

Before becoming a curator, Sutnik held many positions at the AGO, including in the Department of Photographic Resources in the '70s. Through this role, she leveraged resources and public support to bring unique exhibitions, like Destination Europe, to the AGO in 1977; it included work by Robert Bourdeau, Lynne Cohen, Charles Gagnon and others. While groundbreaking, these early exhibitions stirred up considerable controversy, with one critic describing the photographs as “under laboured,” lacking the obvious effort put into painting or sculpture. But still Sutnik persevered, making strategic acquisitions like Arnold Newman’s Henry Moore (collage), Much Hadham, England (image above) in 1977 to complement the AGO’s considerable collection of Henry Moore sculptures.  

Sutnik, and many of her supporters, believed photography deserved a permanent place in the AGO. In a clever move to demonstrate this support, Sutnik mounted the exhibition Responding to Photography in 1984, showcasing works from private collectors in Toronto. The exhibition also showed the wealth of discovery waiting within the medium. As she describes it, photography “had its tradition… and a historical momentum” that informed exciting new movements in modern art like Surrealism and Dada. In these early days, Sutnik wanted to show that photography was popular and could connect people by capturing real life in all its forms. Over the years, these efforts successfully elevated the Gallery’s view of photography, paving the way for the creation of an official Photography Department in 2000. 

To celebrate, we recorded a conversation between our current and past Curators of Photography about the gifts, purchases and exhibitions that led to the department as it exists today. Take a listen and don’t forget to look through the images below to see some of these landmark exhibitions and acquisitions that brought us to this exciting anniversary. 

Sophie Hackett in conversation with Maia Sutnik

Diane Arbus, Puerto Rican woman with a beauty mark, N.Y.C., 1965. Gelatin silver print, sheet: 50.8 x 40.6 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift of Phil Lind, 2016. Copyright © Estate of Diane Arbus.

Diane Arbus, Puerto Rican woman with a beauty mark, N.Y.C., 1965. Gelatin silver print, sheet: 50.8 x 40.6 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift of Phil Lind, 2016. Copyright © Estate of Diane Arbus.

Diane Arbus, Puerto Rican woman
Tess Boudreau Taconis. Rita Letendre

Tess Boudreau Taconis. Rita Letendre, early 1960s. Gelatin silver print, Image: 23.7 x 34.8 cm. Gift of the artist, 2007. © Estate of Tess Boudreau Taconis, 2006/463

Tess Boudreau Taconis. Rita Letendre
Garry Winogrand. Untitled

Garry Winogrand. Untitled, c. 1970; printed 1970s. Gelatin silver print, Sheet: 35.6 × 43.2 cm. Purchase, with funds generously donated by Martha LA McCain, 2015.  © Estate of Garry Winogrand, 2014/1388

Garry Winogrand. Untitled
Josef Sudek. The Window of My Studio - Spring in My Garden

Josef Sudek. The Window of My Studio - Spring in My Garden, 1940-1954. Gelatin silver print, 22.9 x 17 cm. Anonymous Gift, 2000. © Estate of Joseph Sudek, 2000/1034

Josef Sudek. The Window of My Studio - Spring in My Garden
Josef Sudek. The Window of My Studio (Uneasy Night)

Josef Sudek. The Window of My Studio (Uneasy Night), 1940-1954. Gelatin silver print, 17.2 x 12.3 cm. Anonymous Gift, 2000.  © Estate of Joseph Sudek, 2000/645

Josef Sudek. The Window of My Studio (Uneasy Night)
Germaine Krull. Le Vampyr des Bateaux

Germaine Krull. Le Vampyr des Bateaux, 1926. Gelatin silver print, Sheet: 22.4 × 15.3 cm. Malcolmson Collection. Gift of Harry and Ann Malcolmson in partnership with a private donor, 2014. © Estate Germaine Krull, Museum Folkwang, Essen 2014/582

Germaine Krull. Le Vampyr des Bateaux
Linnaeus Tripe. Tanjore. Great Pagoda, South Facade of Small Chapel (Subrahmanya Swami's Temple)

Linnaeus Tripe. Tanjore. Great Pagoda, South Facade of Small Chapel (Subrahmanya Swami's Temple), 1858. Albumen print from a waxed paper negative, Overall: 30.4 x 36.7 cm. Gift of Dr. Shashi B. Dewan and Janet E. Dewan, 1995. Image © Art Gallery of Ontario 95/306

Linnaeus Tripe. Tanjore. Great Pagoda, South Facade of Small Chapel (Subrahmanya Swami's Temple)
Lewis Baltz. North Wall, Niguel Hardware, 26087 Getty Drive, Laguna Niguel

Lewis Baltz. North Wall, Niguel Hardware, 26087 Getty Drive, Laguna Niguel, Plate 42 from The New Industrial Parks near Irvine, California, 1974. gelatin silver print, Image: 15.4 x 23 cm. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Morton H. Rapp, 1982. © Lewis Baltz 82/207.3

Lewis Baltz. North Wall, Niguel Hardware, 26087 Getty Drive, Laguna Niguel
Frederick H. Evans. A Souvenir of Aubrey Beardsley

Frederick H. Evans. A Souvenir of Aubrey Beardsley, 1893. Platinum print, Overall: 20.2 x 14 cm. Gift of Mrs. Gordon Conn, 1979. © Art Gallery of Ontario 79/129

Frederick H. Evans. A Souvenir of Aubrey Beardsley
Tina Modotti. Hands of a Washerwoman

Tina Modotti. Hands of a Washerwoman, c. 1928. Platinum print, Overall: 19.6 × 24.7 cm. Malcolmson Collection. Gift of Harry and Ann Malcolmson in partnership with a private donor, 2014. © Art Gallery of Ontario, 2014/620

Tina Modotti. Hands of a Washerwoman
Michel Thomas Henry Lambeth. St. Lawrence Market, Toronto (woman with bag)

Michel Thomas Henry Lambeth. St. Lawrence Market, Toronto (woman with bag), 1957. Gelatin silver print, 33.8 x 26 cm. Gift of Av Isaacs, Toronto, 1994. © Dorothy Lambeth, Estate of Michel Lambeth, 2020. 94/500

Michel Thomas Henry Lambeth. St. Lawrence Market, Toronto (woman with bag)
Jaromir Funke. Abstraction

Jaromir Funke. Abstraction, 1925-1930. Gelatin silver print, Sheet: 23.1 × 29.2 cm. Malcolmson Collection. Gift of Harry and Ann Malcolmson in partnership with a private donor, 2014. © Art Gallery of Ontario, 2014/550

Jaromir Funke. Abstraction

Today, the AGO Photography Department continues this tradition of research and community outreach, while making new strides to increase the diversity of photographers and subjects represented in the Collection. From the recent acquisition of the Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs by a dedicated group of donors to our current exhibition, Diane Arbus: Photographs 1956–1971, drawn entirely from the Collection, this look back on 20 (plus) years gets us excited for what’s still to come. 

Love photography at the AGO? Stay tuned to the AGO Insider as we talk to collectors and curatorial colleagues about how their photography collections came to be, and what collecting photography means to them and to us today, all in honour of this 20th anniversary.

Looking for more art news from the AGO and beyond? Stay tuned to the AGOinsider.

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