The Canadian Art Database

Michel Lambeth

Recent Photographs by Six Photographers at the 567 Gallery
[Isaac Applebaum, John Blahut, Phil Bergerson, John Bloom, Gary Greenwood, and Eedie Steiner]
Gropius Gallery, Toronto May, 2008.

Only Paper Today, Vol. 2 #2, October 1974.
[ 1,182 words ]

At the opening there were many wines: Hungarian red, white and red Yago from Spain, Casal Mendes rosé from Portugal, Lion Rouge from France, Jordan Sickening (from Canada, of course), as well as the odd mickey on the hip — here and there — and many other labels. But there was no vintage from the U.S., not even one token bottle from the Finger Lake region of the Great Western State of New York. It was assumed, I suppose, that there was enough bouquet in the photographs on display to get off, more or less, on that.

It was the work of six photographers, all young: Isaac Applebaum, John Blahut, Phil Bergerson, John Bloom, Gary Greenwood, and Eedie Steiner, all suckled and partly weaned, it seems, at that fount of photographic misdirection and Americanization: the Photographic Arts Department of Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, Toronto. Their work, for me, epitomizes and consolidates what seems to have been miscarried in our nation's capital during 1967, our centennial year. At that time, without bifocals, one could have easily read and presaged that the work of young 'Canadian' novitiates in the field of photographic expression might one day look like this.

By all counts, 1967 ought to have presented the greatest opportunity to use the National Gallery of Canada as a showcase for Canadian photography and photographers. Indeed, there was a show of photography, a large one, at the National, and it was commissioned by the relatively new, American-trained director, Jean Sutherland Boggs; but what an affront to Canadians! Boggs hired an American curator of an American photography museum to mount an exhibition from that museum's 'international' collection, commissioned him to design the catalogue, write the introduction for it, and have it printed in the United States; also, with the same plates, minus reference to the National Gallery, Boggs's preface and James Borcoman's insipid, purblind foreword, have it published as a book by Horizon Press in the U. S. under its original title Photography in the Twentieth Century, a rip-off of Canadian taxpayers' money to subsidize American publishing. This exhibition during Canada's centennial year was undoubtedly the greatest and most blatant demonstration of how cultural imperialism from the U. S. really works — from the inside out, a sophisticated, but insidious, form of treason.

Photography in the Twentieth Century was comprised of 143 photographs, of which only two were by Canadians; an insignificant portrait of Somerset Maugham by Karsh and a 'nothing' snapshot by John Max, a token representation of Canadian items the George Eastman House, Rochester, N. Y., just 'happened to have'. Nathan Lyons, who organized the exhibition and designed and wrote the introduction to the catalogue / book, is probably one of the worst exhibiting photographers on this continent — but he did include one of his own photographs, and then, apparently after some unknown skullduggery at George Eastman House, left the museum to found his own Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester.

The year 1969 was also a great year for the Americanization of photography in Canada. James Borcoman was granted leave of absence from the National Gallery to pursue studies with Nathan Lyons at his incipient workshop in Rochester to come back in 1971 with a mickey-mouse 'master's degree', an honourific which changed his status from Director of Exhibitions and Education to that of the first, the very first, Curator of Photography of the National Gallery of Canada. In the same year another Canadian to 'take advantage' of Lyons's munificent 'master's degree' was Torontonian Tom Gibson, an erstwhile painter who became a photographer. They were both very good students; both learned to appear, in their own land, like American expatriates.

However, before Borcoman took off to Rochester for two years to become educated he had already done one little thing for Canada and Canadians: he had organised a show of photographs for the Art Gallery of Ontario from the collection of the National Gallery which had begun collecting photographs in 1967 (1967?). It was called The Photograph as Object — 1843-1969. Of approximately 50 photographers in that exhibition, 25 were American, and of these at least ten had been closely associated with Rochester, and six were currently or had been curatorial staff at George Eastman House. Of the 84 photographs only four were by Canadians: Robert Bourdeau, Nina Raginsky, John Max and Michael Semak. Since his installation as curator of photography at the National Gallery in 1971, Borcoman, naturally, has consistently shown the work of American photographers. As the apogee of elitism in photographic art in Canada, the National Gallery presents, it seems, the final word to which young Canadian photographers must aspire and, indeed, they actually do — the work of at least two of the photographers at the 567 Gallery is already among Borcoman's small, token Canadian acquisitions. Tom Gibson is also well-represented. These photographers are acquired, perhaps, because their work looks like that of Americans. After all, their indoctrination along those lines has been very carefully inculcated at Ryerson, as well as nurtured a little at the photographic galleries and centres which have sprung up in Toronto. The private gallery thing, by the way, is rather interesting.

The Baldwin Street Gallery of Photography — which will certainly let you know that it was the 'first' — was founded by an upstartist American somewhere around 1968-69. It went through various vicissitudes living on governmental handouts until it finally became a sullen harem with only one eunuch and no pasha. The Toronto Gallery of Photography, now defunct, had a director called Jerry Shiner who always had dripping galoshes — his mother made him wear them — from paddling back and forth across Lake Ontario, to and from Rochester; he didn't know you could almost get there by GO Train. Mind and Sight photographic centre was a parasitic rip-off of LIP money as surrogate unemployment insurance but somehow managed to secure, when it folded, a lot of valuable equipment which is now 'stored' in the cellar of one of the former members. Mind and Sight, though, did continue in spirit and, in collaboration with A Space, organized two series of photographic lectures and demonstrations; the photographers presenting their work, with one exception, were all American, many with Rochester connections, especially Nathan Lyons. This whole, but not wholesome, activity led some of the more patriotic and education-minded photographers in town to give that particular gallery a soubriquet; they called it 'CIA Space'.

Ryerson's Photographic Arts Department, from which the photographers at 567 Gallery emanate, is heavily-staffed with a Rochester-trained, American-trained, faculty. If there are token 'Canadians' they are often that, generally, in name only. Attitudes, morals, values, points of reference, rarely refer to the student's place in the Canadian community, or attempt, in any way, to inculcate an authentic, personal and artistic release and liberation. For the most part, students who arrive wide-eyed and bushy-tailed leave at the end of their studies as photographic paraplegics, unable to produce even good masturbatorial images of any committed value. That's what one sees now in the work at the 567 Gallery — ainsi soit-il.

Only Paper Today, Vol. 2 #2, October 1974.

Text: © Michel Lambeth. All rights reserved.

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