Sunday, July 30, 2017

Living Spaces: The Family Camera at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum

The Dewan family visiting Niagara Fall, August 1980. (Photo courtesy of Deepali Dewan)

There is a fascinating photography exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) this summer with a partner site at the Art Gallery of Mississauga (AGM). The Family Camera is based on the premise that family snapshots play a key role in defining, celebrating and memorializing the idea of family, even if some of those photographs are missing. Many of them record the migration process to Canada of a wide variety of families, and the photographs have been taken not only in Canada but in countries from which the families have migrated. This is an exhibition that is rich in storytelling and history, large and small.

The Family Camera Network is an entity that explores the meaning and value of family snapshots, and, in 2016, it launched a public archive project in partnership with six other institutions with support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The exhibition was developed by the ROM in partnership with the AGM as a celebration of Canada’s 150 years. The ROM devoted considerable resources to the mounting of the exhibition, with students from the Ontario College of Art and Design as well as the Ryerson University Image Centre in Toronto also contributing.

Over a period of a year, Family Camera Network researchers undertook an extensive collection process, which included interviews and filming of families who were willing to lend or donate some of their photographs and talk about their stories. As a disclaimer, I should mention that mine was one of the families that were part of this process. We experienced the emotional impact of looking back at the hundreds of photographs that recorded our family life over a hundred years or so. This gave me a further insight into the meaning and significance of the exhibition when I visited it a couple of times earlier this summer.

The ROM’s Roloff Beny Gallery on the fourth floor is a challenging space. By their nature, family photographs are often small, and it would be easy for them to become lost in this large space as many of them are spaced side by side along the wide and tall walls. But something different happens. Because they are small, the viewer is forced to move in close to see the detail in a photograph. This creates an intimacy of perspective that lends itself well to the theme. Since the exhibition is focused on family cameras and taken by family members, the snapshot images are sometimes amateurish, but nevertheless eloquent in what they depict.

Felicity (right) with her mother Kitty, surrounded by her friends, in Derry Martin, England, April 1948. (Photo courtesy of Somerset family)

The curation of the exhibition has resulted in a rich resource that expands what family photographs can mean. Although the images do reveal the family stories, they also have a broader historical context which both gives the story meaning and records the history of Canada, becoming vehicles by which migration and family relationships, connections, events and domestic life can be explored. Many of the images are accompanied by labels that tell the story of the photograph, while others describe the event but leave you imagining the story behind the image. In some cases, photographs have been mounted sideways to the wall in clear glass frames so that you can see the photograph on one side and the annotation on the other.

The exhibition celebrates the diversity of Canada from its indigenous people to immigrants, many of whom were refugees, from all over the world. One of the largest images displayed on the wall is a photograph of a young Vietnamese refugee, Hon Lu, at the Narita International Airport en route to Canada. The Lu Thai family photographs, courtesy of Hon’s photographer mother, are one of the treasures of the exhibition and not only tell a story of refugee migration but also emphasize the importance to this family of making a photographic record.

The diversity of Canada is celebrated by a section of photographs of families of African descent. Black identity, we see, is reinforced by these images as they become integral to the family perception of what it means to be Canadian.

The exhibition includes a broad definition of families, so the images represent nuclear, extended, adoptive, and queer unions. A section is devoted to queer families and the photos of marriage unions after the Supreme Court of Canada removed the ban on same-sex marriages in 2003. There are also images that tell the story of the adoption process for families.

Some of the images tell the story of fractured families, where immigrants have left loved ones behind, or where indigenous children have been taken from their families to the residential schools, as a result of government policy. Two sets of images particularly interested me. One set recorded the arrival in Canada of an immigrant, Tommy Ming Lum, from China in 1922 during the period of the Chinese Exclusion Act when only men were allowed to enter Canada and their families had to be left behind. His grandson has lovingly preserved the images, both government-required identity photographs and family images that record the eventual arrival of his wife in Canada and the growth of the family here. The other set of photographs that touched me were images of indigenous children who experienced the residential schools: graphic evidence of this appalling government policy. This section also includes images of an indigenous family by an urban Iroquois, Jeff Thomas, that provide an important perspective because they differ from the usual non-indigenous stereotypical portrayal of “Indian-ness.”

Hon Lu in Japan's Narita International Airport en route to Canada, March, 1979. (Gift of the Lu-Thai family to the ROM)

One intriguing section that focuses on photographs of children includes directions from the Kodak camera company telling parents how best to photograph their children, the origin of the term “Kodak moment.” There are images of children sitting on chairs (to keep them still enough to photograph), birthday parties and Christmas celebrations.

The collection includes photographs that were exchanged to and from Canada as refugees and other immigrants settled here. Photographs became an important way of maintaining connections and sharing the story between those who left and those who stayed. One whole wall of the exhibition is devoted to images of families at Niagara Falls, clearly perceived as an essential marker of Canadian culture. I was engaged by the formality of the clothes worn by people to visit the Falls from the earliest photographs dating from the 1860s to contemporary images displaying casual sportswear.

In addition to the photographs on the walls, there are other fascinating aspects to this exhibition. The history of the family-size camera is recorded in a couple of glass cases with a timeline of early examples of these cameras through the ever-present cellphone camera of today. Families printed the results of the photographs taken by earlier cameras, but with the advent of the digital camera and phone camera, one wonders if many of these contemporary images will be lost. That is one of the reasons why the exhibition is so valuable and serves as a reminder to us all that we should print out precious family photographs.

The interviews and video recordings that were part of the development of this exhibition have been used by students at the Ryerson Image Centre to create an edited video that records moments from the family interview process. The video camera is focused on the photographs spread out on a table where an unseen person being interviewed moves them around and talks about the meaning and memories associated with the image. This simple convention, projected on a wall without sound, is dramatic in its impact.

Richard and Iris Bell in St. Catharines, around 1963-1967.
(Photo: Brock University Archives, Rick Bell Family Fonds.)
Students from the Ontario College of Art and Design created a living room set to emphasize the intimate nature of family photograph viewing. There are a television set in front of a sofa where four people talk about the role of family photographs in their lives, a coffee table with a video book and projected images on the wall behind the television. Visitors to the exhibition can enjoy a close-up view of these family photographs and understand why they matter to the participants.

The Royal Ontario Museum also partnered with the Art Gallery of Mississauga (AGM) to co-present some of the photographs. The collection at the AGM is called Missing Chapters. It includes photos that have been lost or abandoned, or are missing. It also includes photos that show a gap between the dates of the images because the photos were never taken, for one reason or another. The most striking exhibit at the AGM is an installation work by a Vietnamese artist, Dinh Q. Le. It consists of square-sided string constructions with photographs or their reverse sides attached to the strings, while others are piled in a random way inside the construction, as they might have been discovered in an abandoned setting. The photographs are lost and abandoned images that Le found on returning to Vietnam. They are a poignant testimony to the difficulties encountered in the migration process that many Vietnamese families endured in their flight from Vietnam to Canada.

Many of these photographic images will become part of the archival collections at the Royal Ontario Museum and the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives. They will be available for researchers to mine the valuable information they provide about families in Canada and their stories, and, in a broader sense, the story of Canada. In family collections, photographs are not archivally preserved and often become lost, creased, stained or otherwise damaged. This exhibition demonstrates just how important preserving these photographs for the future can be.

The Family Camera exhibition continues at the ROM until October 29, 2017 and at the AGM until August 27, 2017. It is rich in its conception and execution and well worth a visit.

– Felicity Somerset is a fine art photographer, based in Toronto. Her practice focuses on the intimate and often abstracted image that captures the essence and intricacies of rural and urban landscapes. Her photography is exhibited frequently in both group and solo shows in galleries and public spaces throughout Ontario, and her work is in private collections in Canada, the U.S., England, France, Israel, Costa Rica and the Cayman Islands.

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