The Canadian Art Database

Av Isaacs, James Reaney, John B. Boyle, and Joyce Wieland

Michel Lambeth, Photographer
Art Gallery of Ontario, October 10, 1998 — January 3, 1999

from the catalogue
[ 4,964 words ]

Michel Lambeth


In his confrontation with reality, esoteric as it may sound, the photographer compounds a totality of work that, for me, is an actual graphic representation of what he really is. Feeling, as expressed in emotional freedom, with photography becomes at once a diary of and a monument to the particular, unique existence of one man or woman, much as it does in any other medium, but especially when an artist uses it. I believe that what our Greek-derived, science-bound word photography fails to say is said succinctly in a two-ideogram character by the Japanese: The Reflection of Existence. If I were to choose from my own work the photographs I believe to be viable and worthy of preservation, I would select those photographs which are memorable in that they are, in a way, analogues of terse poetry, images which give up their message very quickly without pretense of gimmick, subterfuge or flippancy. I do not deny that the number of photographs worth preservation from my work is few, but that's the way it is. It is all work from one and the same man, full of contradictions, indecisions, contrariness, and sometimes perversity. Nevertheless, I have found some moments in time and space where I have been able to record and express my experience in the delights and sorrows of a rather special world, a world of which the French poet Paul Valéry has written:

Let us imagine that the sight of the things that surround us is not familiar, that it is only allowed us as an exception, and that we only obtain by miracle, knowledge of the day, of human beings, of the heavens, of the sun and of faces. What should we say of this distinct, complete and solid world, if this world only appeared very occasionally, to cross, to dazzle, and to crush the unstable, incoherent world of the solitary soul?

What would I say? I, as one man using photography, can only hope to say it in the language of photographs — and I like it that way.



Avrom Isaacs


When I think of Michel, I think of many descriptive words, some that are contradictory. He had been a soldier and an art student in Europe. He was a man of great passion, one who had difficulty at times mobilizing his energies, a superb artist-photographer, an individual capable of intense moral zeal, a Canadian nationalist, and a great giggler. His photographs of the essential peoples who we see every day on the streets are superb. They force you to stop and take note of these individuals that you normally would not 'take in'. He had foresight in the subjects he chose. Part of his importance is that he will provide insight into what our lives were all about at this point in our history. A special area of interest for him were his photographs of the artists whom he befriended. They are a revelation.

I shall never forget the photograph of a young Joyce Wieland looking out from her studio, wearing a white smock with her arms resting on the window ledge. It is one of these indelible images that has a richness that once seen is never forgotten. As I stop to think, I realize that there are so many photographs by Michel that I shall never forget. They remain strongly fixed in my visual and emotional memory. His poignant, compassionate visual essay of the people at the very bottom of the social ladder in the Gaspé will rank alongside the great humanitarian social realists.

When Michel became involved in a moral issue he was a force with which to be reckoned. Perhaps his intensity came from one who had been in a war and came out of it with the realization that if past mistakes were to be prevented from repeating themselves, one had to take an active position. He was an early supporter of CAR, the newly formed national artists' union organized to represent their rights. At that time artists who exhibited in public galleries did not receive fees, whereas the curators of the exhibitions were paid. At one time, while working as a clerk for the City of Toronto, he discovered and saved from the garbage a large number of important early photographs describing conditions of the city. At that time photographs were considered to have only temporary merit. Later they were gifted to the City Archives, who were extremely grateful to have them. They subsequently comprised an important exhibition at the City of Toronto Market Gallery.

In spite of the fact that he often was weighed down by the challenge of his emotional problems, he managed in his short creative life to accomplish so much. Besides his photographs, he also published books, portfolios, wrote numerous articles and taught at both Ryerson and York University and worked at The Toronto Free Theatre designing posters and documenting productions. In the end, his passion, his intensity, his sensitivity and his moods got the best of him. He left behind a body of photographs that today is a valuable part of our national heritage.


James Reaney


Michel Lambeth was, I believe, the first professional photographer I not only met, but got to know as a friend. The way it all happened was that in the early sixties, when I was teaching at Western here in London, Ontario, the Toronto Star Weekly suddenly took it into its head to do a photo-essay on Reaney; a childhood friend of my wife's, Diana Goldsborough, was in charge of copy; Michel Lambeth was the photographer to come to London in the depth of winter and see what images he could muster from the quiet life of the university lecturer who was also a playwright and a poet.

Now, I had grown up with the Star Weekly, faithfully bought each Saturday afternoon after we were through at the market in Stratford and the idea of appearing in the magazine where I had first read the Tarzan comics, as well as Bringing Up Father (Maggie and Jiggs) and especially The Katzenjammer Kids, seemed heaven sent. Apotheosis! Michel arrived and came with me to lectures, accompanied me to Falcon Printing, when I had to go there with the latest typesetting for Alphabet, my little magazine; he spent days and evenings in our home, where my father, my wife Colleen Thibeaudeau, and two little sons and one little daughter provided photos of putting them, the children, to bed, of my father reading his Bible, of my wife helping set up type for Alphabet, of playing piano for the boys playing recorders before bedtime, story-telling, etc., all I understand, recorded in contact sheets now in the National Archives. Michel was quietly and unobtrusively here in our house, even surviving a tussle with the boys about a photo their mother wanted — parental discipline: and he recorded for all time my daughter, Sunsa, dancing about by the piano in pure infant joy. Then we went up to my parents' farm near Stratford on the Greyhound bus; deep snow — I didn't drive at the time — and we walked in the long lane to the isolated farmhouse, where I was born. There, my mother and stepfather were quietly surviving — our meals were baked beans from a crock; he did interiors — glass Easter Egg, three-cornered cupboard, the loneliness of winter life, although my stepfather's skill in driving his old car through snow and also opening things up with his Ford tractor meant that the isolation was not forever. I can remember pushing the tractor and the car through.

Michel let me suggest ideas for photos — me in the henhouse looking out, me in a favourite apple tree. We bussed back to London, and he departed, much missed, for Toronto. The one hitch was that publication space was only ready in late spring and, since the Star had a policy of not printing snow pictures unless snow was on the ground, my friends had to wait till the next winter for Michel's views of the Reaneys and the snowbound farmhouse. I liked the way he was just quietly there sliding into our lives; his kindness and love of humanity show through in the moments he catches.

Our next association was to do a book on my mother's township, North Easthope in Perth County; Av Isaacs was interested in a show of its farmscapes and houses (a Scottish-German settlement, much loved in our family). This fell through. Then, some years later, when my Donnelly research was resulting in plays about them, I contacted the owner of the William Porte diaries (famous Lucan postmaster, friend of the Donnellys) and I wanted, in the worst way, to get these copied. A friend, Pamela Terry, drove me and Michel out to the village north of Toronto, and we spent a whole afternoon photographing the complete diaries as well as scrapbooks and old pictures. Michel did all this for $65! I felt, as before, a selfless, sensitive eye, willing to help me. His work seems to go along with that. The medium doesn't impose itself falsely on the subjects; they seem to be photographing him.

John B. Boyle


I knew Michel Lambeth over a few short years in the mid 1970s. Some of his photographs were familiar to me...the marvellous shot of my friend Greg Curnoe in his Kaiser Bill helmet, Milton Acorn and Gwendolyn MacEwen, some of the Toronto artists, especially Mike Snow and Joyce Wieland. My career as a painter was on the ascendant. Lambeth, eighteen years my senior, was on the descendant side of the arc.

In 1971 the late Jack Chambers had recruited me as a delegate to the first national conference of Canadian Artists' Representation, in his words, something between a professional association and a union for visual artists. A short time later, pressured by Chambers and Curnoe to let my name stand, I was elected the first spokesperson for CAR Ontario, and was thrust into the distasteful tumult of organization, confrontation and bitter factionalism.

Michel became a CAR Toronto representative, and, along with poet Jim Brown, put the issue of cultural nationalism on the front burner. He came to one provincial conference leading a delegation seeking to oust a group of Toronto representatives he correctly assessed as being reactionary. In a series of epistles to Henry Moore, he eloquently and forcefully tried to persuade the great sculptor to refuse the offer of the Moore Centre at the Art Gallery of Ontario on the grounds that it would perpetuate the stifling Canadian colonial mentality that conceived it, and the climate of cultural servitude that had always prevailed here. He dramatized his opposition to the ongoing recruitment of high profile American art administrators at the Art Gallery of Ontario by dressing as Uncle Sam and chaining himself to the Gallery's office furniture.

I was intimidated by his volcanic nature, cowed by his informed intelligence, mystified by his anger and bitterness, and inspired by his insight, his essential wisdom, his ardour. While I struggled to rein in his zeal, I was deeply appreciative of his compassion and constant support of my endeavours both as CARO spokesperson and hostile member of the AGO Board.

Artists of the modern era struggle with the antithetical imperatives of opposition to the entrenched value systems and power structures of the Establishment on the one hand, and of dependence on that same Establishment for patronage and support on the other. In CAR, trepidation triumphed over progressive fervour, leading to a course of bureaucratic boring from within the established systems, while suppressing traditional union strategies. At the conclusion of one tempestuous meeting when the anti-union forces nearly won the day, I was so traumatized and disillusioned by the unreasoned acrimony of the debate that I couldn't rise from my chair for what seemed an eternity. I sat, unable to speak, barely able to breathe. It was Michel who saw my distress. He walked with me down the full length of Yonge Street from Bloor to Union Station, all the while giving me comfort, companionship and encouragement. It was perhaps the only time in my life I have experienced the profound comradeship of co-combatants, sublime even in defeat.

When Michel Lambeth died he was impoverished, dispirited, unappreciated, and neglected as an artist. It is not easy for creative genius to flower in the face of crushing indifference. In the quietude of the archives of the gallery against which he railed in the years when I knew him, looking through the portfolios of his work, I see that it is possible to sense the futility of his struggle for justice and respect for artists in Canada. The haunting portraits of the leading young artists of the 1960s, at the height of their powers, feted and celebrated in the great centennial ostentations. Where are they now? With few exceptions, they are impoverished, dispirited, unappreciated and neglected. But the triumph of the artist is in the oeuvre. It is for the towering humanity of his work that Michel Lambeth will be remembered.


Joyce Wieland


Michel Lambeth died April the 9th 1977. One of Canada's great photographers, members of the Canadian Artists' Representation, and political activists has gone. I first knew him in '58 when I lived on Charles Street in Toronto. He used to visit Mike Snow and myself frequently as he lived just around the corner on Church Street in a house. He and his wife Fran and his dog Whiskers had a flat upstairs, completely filled with books, photos and boxes of clippings. Sometimes I could even see their shadow on the ceiling as I passed their house of an evening.

He was doing a lot of photography in those days, especially of artists. He came by with pictures he had made of downtown buildings and I really liked them. He took many pictures of Mike and me — the ones of me were the best portraits I ever had taken. There seemed to be nothing standing between us, and thus I was allowed to be in his pictures. He was trying to quit his job at city hall and be a free man. It took me years to be free of a steady day job and I know how keenly he wanted out. Later he brought by some old pictures he found somewhere of Toronto in the old days — immigrant workers stuffed in rooming houses on ratty beds, old buildings — they were strong pictures and later he published them in a book.

He was always on the big side with a big smile...his eyes when he was excited had a wild gleam in them. He was art crazy, he went everywhere to see art and look at art books...he wanted to know. He had seen a lot of early French films in Paris where he had gone after the war to study on his army rehab money. In Toronto before we had met him he had made some sort of movie, which he showed us portions of. This picture was a bit of a mystery and I can vaguely remember an endless shot of Michel jumping up and down on the lawn, then some railway tracks and some women dancing with virginal white gowns towards some bushes. The film was called The Abduction of Nymphia Crotch. We had a program of all of the recent Nymphia films made at that time at the Here and Now Gallery...

Michel always liked excitement, something new and daring. He was a very good writer and contributed to a Toronto artists' magazine called Evidence. He loved to roam and observe people and events with his camera; I didn't see Michel much after 1963. In 1970 I returned to Toronto for good. I had strong feelings for Canadian independence and my work reflected Canada in various poetic and political ways. My real sense of involvement and change came through, and because of, Michel. One day someone asked me if I had heard what Michel had done at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Apparently he and Ottawa poet Jim Brown had gone over to the gallery to meet or protest the appointment of Wattenmaker, the new American chief curator. The event resolved itself by Michel and Brown chaining themselves to a staircase outside Wattenmaker's office. This didn't shock me so much as it did make me realize how very serious the takeover of our cultural institutions had become. That Michel would do a thing like this made the situation urgent to me. If someone as innocent and vulnerable as he had done such a thing, then I wouldn't hang back and watch. Most of my friends were CAR members then and I had rejoined it. We began planning protests, Av Isaacs let us meet at his gallery. Michel was always with us and getting great ideas on the next demonstration. We planned a big march down Yonge Street towards the Art Gallery. We met at Av's, we had a big rope brought by the Johnny Canuck kids. Michel started to tie himself, and all the rest of us did the same; a human chain on a rope, we started out to the street and there weren't many of us. Some reporters asked us if we were going down. Michel said, 'We're just trying it out today.'

The annual meeting at the Art Gallery of Ontario was our most successful gathering of people; the combined forces of Toronto CAR, and the Committee to Strengthen Canadian Culture, of which Michel had been a founding member...Michel was one of the artists who spoke so eloquently that day. He was one of the artists who helped to achieve the strong ties of solidarity within the Toronto scene, which had been difficult to achieve. We were not perfect, just as the people who marched down Yonge Street with Mackenzie were not perfect. Bit by bit over the years CAR artists across Canada have fought for their rights, to fees, to exhibit, to live like human beings, in the face of increasing American control over our cultural institutions. Michel fought hard, in the crowd at the demonstration, at meetings, wherever we were, I always sought his face which always made me glad and proud to be a part of a group who would not give up. The newspapers called us a rag tag mob — why not — when they are connected to the crumby family compact.

Michel had been depressed in the past two years. He had nowhere to go and spent a year on the bum living off the Scott mission...He described the food they ate saying how good it was...and who donated it. He had good ideas for art and sculpture and was very excited, the edges of his mouth moist. I went thinking of his gentle photos and their gentle subject matter always infused with the direct quality all his pictures had. He was a great character and always saw the funny side...Michel was talking to someone on the phone about Wattenmaker, in a high-pitched voice holding his larynx. We were laughing our heads off, quietly. He had brought Gully Jimson to life again.



'This is surely the land God gave to Cain,' said Jacques Cartier in 1534, after claiming the soil of Gaspé for France in a picturesque cross-raising ceremony. In 1936, four centuries later, at a time when French-Canadians were floundering in the depths of a depression that had engulfed the whole world, Maurice Duplessis came to power in Quebec. In a blaze of bureaucratic glory, Duplessis glanced regally at his down-at-heart, poverty-stricken electors and retained the Gaspé soil as a 'back-to-the-land' relief measure. The people of Quebec, swamped by urban and agricultural distress, grasped by hundreds at the straw that their new Premier, like a Sun King, had promised them as a rod of gold. But the rod, they soon discovered, was a knife-edged hook, and the land they were given to colonize and cultivate was like Cain's earth, which would never yield unto them its strength.

For nearly 30 years, Duplessis's colonization faux pas has been an aggravating thorn in the side of the province and bleeds the taxpayers annually of millions of dollars, an appalling inheritance, which Premier Jean Lesage would rather be without. Today, with the circumference of one small area of the Gaspé, the people of the Parish of St. Nil have the [magazine] columns; [they have] generously given The Star Weekly an opportunity to view in microcosm the problems they face from day to day. These problems, in larger view, face not only the punishment themselves, not only the citizens of the Province of Quebec, but confront the magnitude all the people of all the provinces who suffer the encumbrances of rural-depressed areas.

St. Nil is 30 miles from Matane, about 1600 miles from Quebec City; population 110 families or 840 impoverished people living in shacks with no sanitation, and completely blocked in during winter months. The village is app. 12 x 2 miles wide.

— Michel Lambeth, March, 1964

Lambeth's presence in St. Nil was reported in all the newspapers from Rimouski to the Gaspé Peninsula (April 5, 1964) and seen as new hope by the community. The photo-essay was never published in The Star Weekly. Forty-one of Lambeth's St. Nil negatives were acquired by the National Film Board, Still Photography Division, in 1966. Prints are courtesy of the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography.


7 January 1974

Maia Poem

Shall I name some of them for you?
All the heroes of my days?
Should I be mildly petulant
And recoup a gesture unanswered;
'Renaissance man?', indeed!
In a world of universal specialists

Romain Rolland, where are you?
Panait Istrati, Blaise Cendrars?
Constantin Brancusi, Villon,
Frigyes Karinthy, Zavattini,
And, yes, Nina Hamnett,
A laughing torso whose hand I held
While tears ran down
The creases of her ageing face
And blended with the tawny dye
Of her long and tangled hair.
'Henri? Henri Gaudier-Brzeska?'
He died in France, Nina,
Long before I ever arrived
In your fog-seamed city, London.
But Nina Hamnett still lived
In her memories of Modigliani
And of Walter Sickert
And she had wild and vague ideas
Of Whistler and of Wilde.
Nina, another mild and bitter?
A shandy, or, perhaps, a sloe gin?
There was Count Hermann Keyserling
And his School of Wisdom at Darmstadt;
Krishnamurti and Ramakrishna and,
That saint of Chicago streetcars,
A Hindu errant, Vivekananda.
In war there was Henri Barbusse
And Ferdinand Celine.
And in peace there was Ghika
Who turned Grecian islands, yes,
Into the purest of painted diamonds.
Octavio Paz found me not too late
And Pablo Neruda not too soon,
Nor did Brassai, the eye of Paris.

And yet there is a sad, unweighed realization)
The masters — and the mistresses —
For the universal specialist
Make a list much longer than my two arms;
But learning from them, and loving them,
Through my nights which were long and lonely,
Has kept me alive, and with some erring licence,



Thomas Henry (Michel) Lambeth, born April 21. Lives on De Grassi Street, Toronto, with father, Thomas William, and mother, Maisie Phyllis, and grandmother, Mary Ann Lambeth. Sisters Thelma Joan, born 1924, and Dorothy Maisie, born 1933.

Attends Queen Alexandra Public School. Enters Eastern High School of Commerce in 1936, studies business administration. Shows interest in drawing and painting; portrait of grandmother, painted at the age of 13 (Collection of Art Gallery of Ontario).

Dissatisfied with clerical employment; teaches swimming (YMCA); enlists in the army as wireless instructor, Canadian Armoured Corps.

Joins the Governor General's Foot Guard, 21st Armoured Division. Combat service as tank gunner. Western Europe.

Takes veteran benefit and moves to London, England; attends the Guildford School of Art. Studies drawing and sculpture; switches to Sir John Cass School of Art and London School of Arts and Crafts to study sculpture and wood engraving. Accepted to Slade School of Art for advanced studies.

Moves to Paris, France, to study sculpture with Ossip Zadkine; enrolls as 'free student' at Ecole du Louvre. Takes the name 'Michel.' Lives in Mouffetard quarters and develops interest in film, politics, and sells left-wing publications for income. Exhibits drawings at Galerie du Dragon. Returns to Canada in August and enrolls at University of Toronto for one semester.

Works at several short-term positions and undertakes writing assignments for the Consolidated Press. Marries Frances (Fran) Forsyth and moves to Montreal. Begins to write fiction, but unable to find a supportive publisher.

Returns to Toronto. Employed by City Hall Treasury department as clerk. Creatively involved with the Production Unit of the Toronto Film Society; awarded first prize (amateur class) for Eight-Fifteen at 6th Annual Canadian Film Awards. Briefly corresponds with filmmaker Maya Deren.

Takes up photography with a Rolleiflex (2 ¼ sq. format) camera. Inspired by subjects of Toronto's Kensington and St. Lawrence market districts.

Begins to work systematically with Leica (35 mm) camera. Committed to an intensive study of Toronto streets, markets, Union Station, Canadian National Exhibitions; continues with writing of personal essays and fiction. Lives with Fran on Church Street and amasses a significant library of books on political and social theory, philosophy, psychology, art, film and photography.

Leaves job at City Hall to become a freelance photo-journalist. Published in Life magazine (July 20), while continuing with personal assignments.

Photo-essay 'Canadian Horsemen Prepare for Tough Olympic Hurdle' published by Star Weekly magazine (Sept. 10). Continues to contribute many photo-essays to Star Weekly until 1968. Reviews for Canadian Forum Robert Frank's The Americans (a seminal book of Frank's photography). Regularly contributes reviews and criticism to various publications, including artscanada, Toronto Star, Canadian Architect, Proof Only, and others. Begins to photograph artists affiliated with The Isaacs Gallery, Toronto.

Award from Toronto Art Directors' Club. Exhibits photographs at Town Cinema, Toronto; receives excellent review by Robert Fulford, Toronto Star, who cites Lambeth among the country's most elegant photographers.

Separates from wife. Takes assignment to photograph the dispersed community of the Parish of St. Nil, Gaspé, Quebec, his most powerful document to date. 'A Candle for St. Nil,' is not published by Star Weekly. The majority of the St. Nil negatives are acquired by the National Film Board's Still Photography Division. Joins ASMP (American Society of Magazine Photographers).

One-man exhibition of 57 photographs at The Isaacs Gallery. Subsequently 65 are toured by the Art Institute of Ontario. Lives on Dupont Street.

Begins affiliation with the National Film Board. Exhibits with Lutz Dille, John Max, and others in Dreams, National Film Board Gallery, Ottawa. Writes 'Statement on Photography,' his most illuminating thoughts on his photographic work.

Establishes his own imprint. Edition Grafikos, and publishes a group of historical photographs (consigned to a garbage dump) in a book entitled Made in Canada; the photographs, taken around 1910 to [1915], are mostly by City of Toronto photographer Arthur Goss. Awarded Canadian Centennial Medal by the Secretary of State, 'in recognition of valuable service to the nation,' and a Canada Council grant. Issues Nuescapes (Edition Grafikos), a limited edition portfolio often original photographs. Son Jean-Paul born with partner Année Sussle.

Last photo-essay and cover for Star Weekly (May 4) as publication ceases. Group show at Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and 10th Biennale at Bordeaux, France.

One-man exhibition Encounter (June) at National Film Board Photo Gallery (touring exhibition). Travels in Mexico, attracted by its revolutionary political and artistic history; spends four months there, returning before Christmas due to shortage of funds.

Co-founds Mind and Sight at St. Joseph Street, Toronto, with twelve photographers; agenda to serve as gallery, workshop and resource centre. Teaches part-time at York University and holds exhibition at Bethune College at York.

Mind and Sight opens in April and exhibits Goss's Toronto photographs; Lambeth resigns from board after disagreements with others. Becomes highly active in organizations Canadian Artists' Representation (CAR) and Committee to Strengthen Canadian Culture (groups dedicated to autonomy and rights for Canadian cultural workers). Protests with three others against the hiring of American chief curator by Art Gallery of Ontario by chaining himself to office cabinet to draw media attention. Teaches at Ryerson Polytechnic Institute and exhibits one-man show Necessary Choices at Ryerson's Photo Art Gallery. Work accepted by Musée Calvet, Avignon, France, for Photographies 1972. Re-establishes lapsed correspondence with Henry Miller begun 1951.

Joins Toronto Free Theatre as an associate artist. Documents eight productions, including Red Emma, Clear Light, Billy the Hood. Financial compensation is meagre and Lambeth is unable to obtain commercial work. Photographs reproduced in Michael Hollingsworth's controversial play Clear Light, (Coach House Press, Toronto). Ongoing involvement in cultural politics; explores making a documentary film on Norman Bethune (unable to raise funds). Father dies.

Takes issue with Art Gallery of Ontario's Henry Moore Sculpture Centre. Writes to Moore that centre should be dedicated to Canadian artist. Objects to the administrative process of Exposure, organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario's Extension department, advocating improvements to artist fees and the jury process. Under duress photographs for National Film Board's book Between Friends / Entre Amis, as the Bicentennial project does not meet his political stance.

Unable to find work, goes on social assistance. Battles serious bouts of depression. In December assembles one-man exhibition at Toronto Free Theatre.

Dies April 9.

from the catalogue

Text: © Avrom Isaacs
, James Reaney, John B. Boyle, and Joyce Wieland. All rights reserved.

The Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art
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