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Exhibition: Photography in Canada, 1960–2000 at the National Gallery of Canada

By Lana Crossman on April 11, 2017


For better or worse, photography often carries the weight of nostalgia. It’s the medium most used to mark moments, capture memories.

I saw the exhibition Photography in Canada, 1960-2000 through an extra filter of nostalgia. As a student in the early 1990s, I worked with many of these works when they were housed in a non-descript building in Tunney’s Pasture as part of the collection of the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography. Seeing them again, years later, took me instantly back to that time–like snapshots from a familiar photo album.


Photo by Lana Crossman

But photography as an art form has always been much more than a Kodak moment. It’s a rich and complex medium that offers endless possibilities through the chemistry of effects of light on a photosensitive surface. Its history of documentary and portraiture gives it the power and credibility to comment on society, send up so-called objectivity of representation, and question the real and imagined.

It’s an art form that continues to capture the popular imagination, as was seen in huge turnout of 800 attendees at the public opening of the Photography in Canada, 1960-2000 at the National Gallery of Canada on April 6.

Curator Andrea Kunard, who has organized this major group exhibition with care and rigour, clearly positions photography as an art form that has continually pushed against the material and subject matter boundaries that frame it. Through over 100 works by 71 major artists from across Canada (including Ottawa-based artists Jennifer Dickson, Jeff Thomas and Lynne Cohen, to name a few), the exhibition also shows how the upheavals of the last half of the 20th century provided fertile grounds for photography to flourish in Canada.

For better or worse, photography often carries the weight of nostalgia. It’s the medium most used to mark moments, capture memories.

Organized by theme, the exhibition begins with stunning portraits of Canadian icons, from Sam Tata’s portrait of Norman McLaren to Yousuf Karsh’s portrayal of a young Kenojuak.

Next are documentary works, many selected from in-depth photo series created over years. For example, Robert Del Tredici’s images documenting the people and places affected by bombing of Hiroshima, and Larry Towell’s sensitive portrayal of migrant workers from El Salvador.


Photo by Lana Crossman

Photographers’ fascination with the structures and human drama of cityscapes is reflected in Robert Burley and Geoffrey James poetic depictions of urban spaces. The link between nature and our social and cultural values is explored: Sandra Semchuk’s swirling colour of swinging in a backyard garden, Jin-Me Yoon’s ironic postcard from Lake Louise, and Edward Burtynsky’s shockingly beautiful documents of large-scale environmental destruction.

The conceptual possibilities of the art form are represented by major works by Michael Snow, Bill Vazan and Serge Tousignant among others.

The sections of the exhibition that challenge the neutrality of photography and comment on society are especially strong: Jeff Thomas’s work placing real Indigenous people next to stereotyped depictions, Shelley Niro’s self-portrait as Marilyn Munroe, Ken Lum’s billboard reducing intimate traits to slogans, Diana Thornycroft’s feathery soft, yet troubling scenes of sexual ambiguity, and Evergon’s sumptuous homoerotic polaroid tableaux.

The exhibition closes with a large back-lit, light box work by Jeff Wall. A still-life of an utterly trashed hotel room, it reminds us of photography’s undeniable power to incite our imagination to uncover the story behind the image.

The period covered by the exhibition ends just before the beginning of the internet age. It makes me wonder: What would a Photography in Canada, 2000-2040 exhibition look like? How would we experience such an exhibition? In an era of Instagram and selfies, how will photography depict our times? How far will artists mine the pixel and bend reality in a virtual age? Will photography still carry the weight of nostalgia? What will the filter of our decade look like?

The exhibition, organized by the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada, is on view at the Gallery until September 17, 2017. It is accompanied by an exhibition catalogue, group visits and curator and artist talks. For more information, visit