Archival Dialogues: Reading the Black Star Collection at the Ryerson Image Centre

Reviewed in this essay: “Archival Dialogues: Reading the Black Star Collection,” Ryerson Image Centre inaugural exhibition.

Ryerson University recently became home to the Black Star Collection, a massive archive of photojournalistic prints (over 292,000 objects) that together document the cultural, social, and political history of the 20th century. To mark this significant acquisition (the collection was donated by Vancouver entrepreneur Jim Pattison and is the biggest gift to a Canadian academic institution, ever) the Ryerson Image Centre has organized “Archival Dialogues: Reading the Black Star Collection,” an exhibition of installations by eight prominent Canadian artists who were invited to delve into the archive and create commissioned works.

Black Star photo agency was founded in 1935 in New York City by three German Jews – Ernest Mayer, Kurt Safranski, and Kurt Kornfeld – who had fled Nazi Germany. Having previously worked as press agents in Berlin at a time when German publications were at the vanguard of design and photo-essay narrative, these men brought with them a sophisticated understanding of photojournalism not yet found in North America. Black Star had over 6,000 photographers working for them, and the commissioned images were used by magazines including LifeNewsweek, Time, and The Saturday Evening Post. The resulting archive is a stunning visual record of 20th century history.

The works created for the inaugural exhibition take images in the archive as their starting point and spin out from there. Commissioned artists include Stephen Andrews, Christina Battle, Marie-Hélène Cousineau, Stan Douglas, Vera Frenkel, Vid Ingelevics, David Rokeby, and Michael Snow. Each was invited into the archive to choose images to work with and the pieces resonate with both familiar, iconic images and the more intimate ones.

Of the works on display, two stayed with me for their intimate rendering of images that might otherwise have been overlooked.

Stephen Andrews’s installation “Dramatis Personae” draws from  iconic images of the 1960s that have been in visual circulation for decades. In one of his installations – a sequence of shots of Lee Harvey Oswald  aligned side by side – a startlingly intimate, almost cinematic portrait of JFK’s killer emerges. In another part of the installation, a film shows the image of a Buddhist monk self-immolating in front of the Cambodian embassy in Saigon being burnt – the physical flames engulfing the flames in the image re-animating the moment frozen in time.

Marie-Hélène Cousineau’s work, “Perdre et retrouver le Nord” draws from portraits and snapshots of Inuit children taken in the 1960s in Baker Lake by photographer Peter Thomas (the images do not appear to have been published). As part of a multi-artist installation (which includes a model home and small dolls created by Susan Avingaq representing three important time-periods – pre-contact, post-contact, and the present), Cousineau returned to Baker Lake and found some of the children in the photographs. The portraits of the grown children holding their snapshots are eerily touching.

“Archival Dialogues” can be visited at the  Ryerson Image Centre (33 Gould St) until Dec. 16, 2012. The archive is also open to researchers.

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