The black-and-white image of a freckled Mary Goss starring from behind an oversized picture book overwhelming her small lap offers a window into the life of the 2-year-old Toronto resident at the turn of the century. Mary was the daughter of Arthur Goss, the official City of Toronto photographer from 1911-40, and her image is among numerous others that grace the pages of Sarah Bassnett’s new book, Picturing Toronto: Photography and the Making of a Modern City.
Through its pages, the Visual Arts professor offers readers a look at the way photography was used to shape and reform the burgeoning city during a period of incredible growth, industrialization and immigration.
“Toronto was so central to the Liberal Reform Movement,” she said of her hometown. “The reform movement wanted to create a modern city in an idealized image. What that really means is pushing out marginalized and poor people. At the time, it was thought of as an aesthetic: How do we make the city beautiful and what does beauty allow for in terms of the subjectivity of the people who live there?”
City officials looked to Paris as the quintessential modern city. As they tried to map out a new identity for Toronto, officials used photography to both document and provide evidence for this idealized modernity.
“I started out looking at the Arthur Goss images. They are typically shown in the history of Toronto exhibitions,” she said. “Arthur Goss was, in a way, picturing the range of urban subjectivities through the range of his photographic work.”
Goss photographed various departments within the city, from roadworks and transportation, to the health department and area slums. Toronto was unique in having such a comprehensive documentation of its evolution through photographs, as other modern cities in North America didn’t have an ‘official’ staff photographer.
“He was interested in things like aesthetics and beauty in images and what images could do as metaphors, so there is a way in which the photographs were more than just the purpose they served. Because of his skills and his interests, they were always so much more,” she said. “That was the spark and what engaged me in the project.”
Looking at the photographic context of Goss’ work and how photography was used in Toronto during this time, Bassnett discovered the images served a fundamental purpose of supporting records and official documents, but also reflected the contemporary debates about what the city should look like in a modern age.
“It was at the heart of so many debates about reimaging the city as a modern city – what people wanted the city to look like and how people were supposed to conduct themselves in the city, and where it was considered appropriate for which type of people to live. All of these questions around immigration really became quite central,” she said.
Photography was used to picture the ‘unseen’ places, such as the slums, and this voyeurism inspired some of the fear about immigration in the community and was sensationalized in the local media to provoke responses and mobilize reform.
The city used photography as evidence to prove certain problems existed, such arguments supporting overcrowding in the slums and the need for the Prince Edward Viaduct System (commonly referred to as the Bloor Viaduct), and then often regulations for addressing the issues would follow.
“At that time there was a lot of anxiety about the changes of modern life,” Bassnett explained. “The idea of the slums was very tied to ideas about immigrants from non-English speaking countries and fear of difference that we still see today, but in different contexts. Those changes were really at the heart of the idealization of the reform movement.”
Officials involved in the planning movement called, ‘City Beautiful,’ were concerned with making the city into a clean and beautiful space with orderly, moral subjects, she continued. “Since it was an aesthetic concept, it was worked out through images. The images became the crux of that ideal.”
Goss’ photos of his family show a different side of the photographer, and demonstrates how Toronto residents were able to use photography to project an image of subjectivity within the modern society.
“Through his family photographs and his pictorialist work, he really pictured the idealized liberal subject of the time,” Bassnett added.
By looking through the library of images from this time period, Bassnett gained a unique perspective and appreciation for the building blocks of what she now knows as Toronto and the people who call the metropolis home.
“The photographs worked so effectively at this moment because it kind of paralleled the discourses of modernity,” she said. “I’m less interested in a judgement of the historical past and the kinds of decisions people made and more interested in trying to understand how the decisions were made because that allows us to be more self-reflective about how we make decisions now.”
* * *
INFO BOX: Join Visual Arts professor Sarah Bassnett for the launch of her book, Picturing Toronto: Photography and the Making of a Modern City, from 2-5 p.m. Saturday, May 28 at the Stephen Bulger Gallery, 1026 Queen Street W., Toronto.