A lot of people phone Stephen Bulger’s gallery looking for photographs of Toronto. But, as he explains, when it comes to great contemporary pictures of the city, the pickings are slim. “A lot of people don’t know how to take a recognizable photograph of Toronto without delving into cliché,” says Bulger, explaining his motivation to curate “The Toronto Show.” The exhibition, which opens this week, features contemporary and historical photographs of the city by both renowned and unknown photographers. Together, their work offers a fascinating visual history lesson. EYE WEEKLY met with Bulger, who shared the stories behind some of the compelling photographs on display.
What’s striking about this photograph (seen above) is that it’s a photochrom print—one of the first successful forms of colour printing— and it reveals how much Toronto has changed in the last century. “It was taken in 1901, three years before the Great Fire of Toronto wiped out most of what you see here,” says Bulger. “The only identifiable feature of Toronto as we now know it is the Old City Hall tower.”
Lutz Dille is one of Canada’s most celebrated photographers and filmmakers; his work is found in many private and public collections, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris. He became recognized for images like this one of crowds at the Woodbine track, in which he perfectly captured people’s habits and styles at a precise moment in time. Bulger notes that Dille achieved this “without any particular social message in mind or preconceived ideas.”
Is the elegantly dressed man hurrying past the cinema’s bright lights or having a peak out of the corner of his eye to see what movie’s playing? This photograph shows one of Toronto’s most infamous grindhouses, the Coronet Theatre, located at the northeast corner of Yonge and Gerrard on what was once known as the Yonge Street strip. In the days before B movies became available on videotape, the Coronet played second-run sleaze, slashers and horror flicks five times a day.
This picture is of Treffan Court, which was “considered a slum and was slated for demolition, to be replaced by public high-rises,” says Bulger. That area was located north of Queen and east of Parliament. After a young law student named John Sewell led the Treffan Court residents to challenge City Hall, Toronto’s history was changed forever. The demolition plans were abandoned in 1969. In one of the city’s most famous examples of urban renewal, Trefann Court was rebuilt as a series of structures designed to fit into the neighbourhood. In 1978, Sewell became mayor.
This photo is “the best picture of City Hall that I’ve ever seen,” says Bulger. Conarroe created this haunting, quiet image of one of Toronto’s busiest landmarks eerily devoid of people by setting up his camera just before daybreak, when he began a long exposure that lasted through dawn. Explains Bulger of the image’s seductive, jewel-like tones: “They aren’t anything that your eye would naturally see, but it’s what the film records over a long exposure.”
When Charlie Woodley died a few years ago, his son brought a box of photographs to Stephen Bulger’s gallery. Only then did Bulger discover one of the city’s most notable amateur photographers of the mid-20th century. “Although Woodley had been a past president of the University of Toronto’s Hart House Camera Club he had been too shy to show me his pictures,” says Bulger. Woodley turned his lens on over more than 50 countries, but many of his most notable images, including this one of a young family contemplating the purchase of a suburban home, are of everyday life in Toronto.
This photograph is one of a series of images that Volker Seding took of Queen Street over a period of about five years. “His subject was buildings with character,” says Bulger. “Especially ones that showed age from numerous different eras.”
After he immigrated to Toronto from Italy, Dario Zini started taking pictures of the city as a way to familiarize himself with his new surroundings. Zini has “an unusual take on the city,” explains Bulger. “Whereas most people don’t talk about Toronto’s architecture in glowing terms, he really loves it.” Fascinated by the clash of architectural styles in a tightly compressed area, each work by Zini is as much a study of form and volume as an elegant description of the city.