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09.20  Is the Artist an Unreliable Heritage Archivist?

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This presentation will include images from the Milton Park series (1970-1973) by David Miller and myself, and excerpts from my recent work (2008-2015). Their comparison will underscore artistic priorities and the subject of time as central to notions of photographic recording. 

To preserve my neighbourhood was the sole objective that generated my first photography project. In 1970 the nineteenth-century Victorian row houses at the core of Milton Park, along Park Avenue and Prince Arthur Street, were boarded up and threatened with demolition to make way for a speculative high-rise development. The row houses were solid buildings, attractive, and human-scaled. They provided the kind of physical web that creates a vibrant community. David Miller and I thought our photos could contribute to the Milton Park Citizens Committee goal to renovate these two- and three- storey residential and commercial buildings. David made “portraits” of exterior facades and photographed street scenes. I photographed interiors and made environmental portraits of children, families, and older residents. Our motivation was political activism and not artistic expression. We exhibited our photographs in community centres and outside on make-shift panels during street festivals. We wanted to show the residents of Milton Park what they had before they lost it, and hence stimulate active involvement. We also participated in demonstrations. 

We lost the buildings of Phase I in 1973. (The high-rise developer had planned a subsequent Phase II stage.) The demolition transformed the status of our photographs from political tool to art. The Milton Park series was released into the public domain with two exhibitions in 1973 at the McCord Museum and the Centaur Gallery (now Optica). The question of whether our photographs should be considered historical documents does not have a straightforward answer. The question is complicated by the whimsical nature of the artists’ choice of subject matter and emotional content. Although categorized as “documentary photography,” all the photographs I produce are shaped by my subjective preferences. At the same time, our decision to make “archivally” processed silver black and white prints was made with an eye on the future. Archival processing could be seen as a secular bid for an afterlife. From the heritage perspective, the intended preservation of the prints does produce permanent physical memories of time and place. 

My current project mirrors my Milton Park photographs, including some interesting overlaps. Since 2008 I have been making colour view camera portraits of pre-adolescents; in 2014 I started to photograph couples who are 65 and older, my contemporaries; and in 2015, I added posed portraits of young families in order to highlight the sense of successive generations in the flow of time. I go to the homes of my subjects to make portraits outdoors, with hints of Montreal residential spaces in the backgrounds. The 45-year interval between then and now is a theme in itself and opens a discussion of changing interpretations of documentary photographs at different moments in recent history. The latent drive that produced the images must be seen as personal curiosity linked to delight in the formal force of photographs. Herein lies an irony: the images have survived the test of time because of their artistic impact on viewers.

Clara Gutsche


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