A Focus on Family: Creating an Exhibit about 19th-Century Archival Photographs

Jay Young with Alison Little

Group at Table Rock, Niagara Falls, [ca. 1857]. Archives of Ontario, I0011269. Part of the Family Focus exhibit.

Family Focus: Early Portrait Photography at the Archives of Ontario is a free photography exhibit on display at the John B. Aird Gallery in Toronto, from June 27 to July 21.

The exhibit, part of the Archives of Ontario’s Ontario150 programming, features 15 original and 45 reproduction photos from the late 19th century that depict a diverse array of portraits of Ontario families in various social settings.

I sat down with the exhibit’s curator, Alison Little, to discuss the process of creating the concept, selecting the photos, and why cute photos of pets have been with us for decades.

Jay Young (JY): First off, can you discuss the thinking behind the exhibit’s concept?

Alison Little (AL): I wanted to develop an exhibit that would connect a few different threads: family memory, historical photography, and the lives of Ontarians at the time of Confederation in Canada. This connects to a larger conversation about diverse experiences of the past, which the Archives of Ontario featured in our current major exhibition, Family Ties: Ontario Turns 150. The Family Focus exhibit examines the early days of photographic technology in Ontario as seen through contemporary family portraits. It’s an opportunity for audiences to see real people during a period of incredible change – families who would have experienced the late 19th century in very different ways.

JY: Can you tell me a bit about your educational training and how it helped with your work on the exhibit?

AL: My education has definitely informed my work at the Archives of Ontario. I hold a Bachelor of Arts, Honours in Art History and Studio Art degree from the University of Guelph, and a Master of Museum Studies degree from the University of Toronto. I basically spent six years of my life and a lot of money analyzing different ways of seeing. Practicing photography at Guelph gave me experience with modern development processes. Having spent hours in the darkroom, I have a slight window into the work of early photographers. The University of Toronto’s Museum Studies programme then gave me the tools to become a storyteller: exhibit planning, audience testing, working with artifacts, developing panels, creating labels, and project management. Each of these experiences helped me take on the roles of curator and project manager for Family Focus.

JY: How did you go about selecting which photographs to include in Family Focus?

AL: There were a few requirements which helped narrow the field. I knew that I wanted to work with photographs from the Confederation Era , so the 1860s. However, given the rarity of photographic records from different photographers across Ontario during that decade in our collections, I broadened my search to between 1850 and 1905. Another parameter was that the exhibit feature family portraits, meaning I could only choose photos where some type of family relationship was represented. And finally, I looked for photographs which represented intersecting histories, and the diversity of experiences in Ontario during the late 19th century. So these factors led me to a few specific photographers represented in our collections, and from there, I tried to select pictures that would show the evolution of portraiture during that 55-year period.

JY: Do any photos really stand out to you as particularly memorable?

AL: I’m pretty partial to the portrait of the kids with their pet pug dog, taken by the Bartle Brothers – his face is adorable!

Three seated girls, three standing boys, and a dog, [1895-1910]. Archives of Ontario, I0053545. Part of the Family Focus exhibit.

I also love the ambrotype family portrait at Niagara Falls from 1857 – it’s one of the largest examples of this rare photographic format our preservation team had ever seen, and it’s absolutely beautiful. The image itself has so many connective threads: Victorian society, fashion, tourism, and environmental histories, as well as ongoing conversations about land use and national landmarks in Canada.

JY: The exhibit takes the visitor through the evolution of photography in Ontario in the second half of the 19th century with a number of different sections, from Early Studio Portraits to Outdoor Portraits. What influenced the exhibit layout?

AL: During the research phase of developing this exhibition, it became clear that I needed to adopt a framing device which would clearly illustrate to visitors how portraiture changed as a result of photography. The exhibit begins with studio portraits – this was how many Ontarians first encountered photography. In these spaces, our ancestors learned to pose for the camera, so we see a certain formality in these earlier portraits. The next section – Portraits at Home – demonstrate how changes in technology made cameras more accessible to non-professional photographers, and growing familiarity with photography resulted in more informal, intimate portraits taken in and around the family home. The exhibit’s last section – Outdoor Portraits – shows that the camera became much more common amongst Ontario families by the end of the 19th century. By this time, lightweight camera equipment, simpler development processes, and people’s common expectation that photographs might be taken at family gatherings yield fantastic portraits of Ontarians outdoors, posing confidently for the camera.

Alexander family, [ca. 1890]. Archives of Ontario, I0053551. Part of the Family Focus exhibit

JY: As you conducted your research on family portraits at the Archives of Ontario, did anything surprise you?

AL: I was definitely surprised by the sheer number of photographs produced by some early photographers in our collections; in particular, those of the Bartle Brothers from Eastern Ontario. Simon Peter Bartle (1875-1956) and Herman Arthur Bartle (1877-1958) were professional travelling photographers in Glengarry and Stormont Counties, and their fonds contains 1,880 photographs. These are primarily glass-plate negatives, and most are portraits – of individuals, groups, families, colleagues, friends, and communities. It was amazing to look through thousands of faces from the past and see so many similarities to portraits and selfies taken today. For example, the desire to include your pets in a family photo has been with us since the beginning of photography!

JY: What was the biggest challenge of curating the exhibit?

AL: It was difficult to limit the amount of information provided on exhibit panels and labels. As someone with a background in museum education, I wanted to provide the audience with as much context as possible. Sticking to a word count limit is a perennial challenge in exhibit development, but this show sits at the intersection of incredibly complex thematic material: technology, media, representation, family, memory, immigration, settlement, race, gender, and class. In addition, due to a lack of provenance information, we don’t know many of the names or histories of families and individuals featured in the exhibit. So I had too much information at some points, and too little at others!

JY: As someone working with archival collections, what do you hope this exhibit achieves?

AL: My hope is that the exhibit text provokes audiences to learn more about different experiences within Ontario’s past, and also to seek out the original records and their fonds at the Archives of Ontario to try and learn more about the people featured in Family Focus.

JY: Are there any special events related to the exhibit’s run? Why?

AL: We are thrilled to welcome Mark Osterman, an artist and instructor from the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, who will give a special presentation on early photographic processes on Thursday July 6, 2017 from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. in the St. Lawrence Lounge, adjacent to the John B. Aird Gallery in the Macdonald Block at 900 Bay St., Toronto. Mark is an expert photographic historian and artist who is an internationally-recognized authority on early photographic technologies. Mark’s audience will learn a lot about the technical processes behind the photos in Family Focus and hear from a real expert on the subject!

There will also be an opportunity to tour the exhibit with me as curator – I’ll be leading a guided visit of Family Focus on Thursday July 13 from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. in the John B. Aird Gallery in the Macdonald Block at 900 Bay St., Toronto. Visitors will have a chance to hear more about the larger historical themes tying all the images together, and ask questions about the Archives of Ontario’s photographic collections.

JY: What’s your biggest takeaway from curating this exhibit?

AL: Apart from practical lessons (always write down the container number of any image which catches your eye during research), curating this exhibit has made clear the importance of seeking out multiple narratives from the past. It’s not enough to create an exhibit which features the history of a single individual or family. By featuring many different experiences, which speak to a plurality of identities and communities, a curator can create an inclusive space where audiences can choose how they want to engage with the past.

Family Focus: Early Portrait Photography at the Archives of Ontario is on display at the John B. Aird Gallery from June 27 to July 21. To find out more about the exhibit, please visit the Archives’ website.

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