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15.50  Jean-Paul Gill's 1957 Red Light Photographs: A Heuristic Archive

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The Archives de la Ville de Montréal house a series of 1002 black and white film negatives that document the old Red Light neighbourhood at the heart of Faubourg Saint-Laurent. The photographs, taken in 1957 by Jean-Paul Gill, a photographer working for the city, were commissioned before this run-down part of town was razed to pave the way for a utopian government-run housing project. The documentation of urban decay figures among the very early subject matter of photography. Charles Marville’s magisterial photographic records of Paris’s oldest streets planned for demolition, produced at the apex of Haussmann’s new configuration of the city during the early second half of the nineteenth century, are an obvious precedent. 

In the 1950s, Montreal was envisioned as a city of the future. A government report produced a strategic plan that would result in the elimination of the slum area along boulevard Saint-Laurent that included the Red Light. In advance of the demolition, Gill photographed the series of pictures showing streetscapes and degraded homes in the working-class neighbourhood targeted in this government report known as the Plan Dozois. However, the random presence of people in Gill’s photographs complicates this visual narrative. As such, his photographs are more than an indexical record of squalid houses and innate narrow streets produced as a rationale for their bulldozing. Beyond the original purpose of hegemonic justification, this series of images provides a complex visual history of an urban community prior to its erasure. The documentary photographs of this neighbourhood provide two striking readings that are paradoxical. While initially commissioned to show and validate the demolition of the area, today their agency is transferred to celebrate the social history of that same area. Under this scope, the question “What does photography preserve?” generated a deeper reading of these photographs. 

I discovered Gill’s archive in the course of research on the history of boulevard Saint-Laurent. Recently, these photographs contributed visual testimony for “Quartiers disparus,” an exhibition produced by the City of Montreal around a triad of old neighbourhoods demolished during the 1950s and 1960s; the accompanying publication also includes several of Gill’s photographs presented along discreet excerpts of oral history by past residents. Gill’s heuristic 1957 Red Light collection of photographs is anthropological data. The Red Light district images ordered for a political inquiry contributed to the disintegration of public and private spaces and the radical transformation of the street areas into idealized transitory spaces and parking zones. The resurrection of Gill’s photographs and their interpretation as a city’s heritage over half a century after they were taken reveals binary mindsets, each one exposing its own zeitgeist and Gill’s photographs as heuristics. As the first critical study of this major visual heritage, my paper will look at the formation of this archive, beginning with its creator’s objectives, then proceeding to show how the use of such photographs can “build a community” around a neighbourhood that no longer exists.

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