Photographs from The Globe and Mail archives
curated by Roger Hargreaves, Jill Offenbeck, and Stefanie Petrilli
with an essay by Douglas Coupland
Reviewed by Leo Hsu
In The Americans, Robert Frank presented a vision of post-war America caught in the throes of social change. Frank’s photographs, produced on a Guggenheim Fellowship, portrayed the country through the intersection of its mythologies and its lived details. Jukeboxes, cars and highways, flags, workers, town fathers, glamorous movie stars, and bikers all stood for themselves and for ideas about America - what it was supposed to be, and what it could be. His photography offered a deeply humanistic and complex critique that differed from most of the imagery circulating in mass media.
Earlier this year, the exhibition Cutline: The Photography Archives of the Globe and Mail, held at The Globe and Mail’s Old Press Hall in Toronto and part of the 2016 Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival, displayed 175 prints from the newspaper’s de-accessioned archive of 750,000 photographs. Among these was a discrete subgroup of images, titled “The Canadians.” Where the other photographs in the exhibition were grouped by tropes and subjects that defined press photography, the handful of photographs comprising “The Canadians” were inspired by The Americans, drawing on Frank’s choice of and approach to subject matter. “The Canadians,“ the wall text read, “reimagines the sequence of photographs published by Robert Frank in his seminal book from 1958, The Americans. These press photographs, commissioned by The Globe and Mail in the late 1950s and early 1960s, originally functioned to illustrate news stories. Plucked from the archives and placed in a new context, they comment now on the coincidence of aesthetic similarity and the cultural differences between the Canadian and American experience.”
Among the pictures: people wearing hats and coats in a coin-operated laundromat, wooden baskets at the feet of the dryers; a glamorous ballerina arriving in furs at the theater, with escort; “Shooting victim, Burlington, Ontario, 1966”, in which men stand around a body covered by a sheet, the sheet held in place by a woman’s shoe, a direct reference to Frank’s photograph of a car accident victim on the highway. Crop marks on the prints provide evidence that the photographers were seeing more than ended up on the printed page. And yet, while these were the kinds of subjects that Frank might have photographed, most of the pictures don’t look or feel like Frank’s photographs. Nonetheless, this was one of my favorite exhibitions at Contact; despite its self-enforced, somewhat awkward limitations (what are the criteria by which any given picture may be chosen as a reference to, and possibly also comment on its difference from, a photograph or photographs in The Americans?), “The Canadians” raised interesting questions about how the organization of photographs and picture editing practices shape the ways that we imagine history.
I was therefore excited and intrigued to learn that Bone Idle, a new publisher associated with the Archive of Modern Conflict, had published the project as a book. The Canadians, curated by Roger Hargreaves, Jill Offenbeck, and Stefanie Petrilli, collects the small group of images shown as part of Cutline along with others from The Globe and Mail archives, extending into the 1970s, in a very direct, loving response to Frank’s The Americans. It is both homage and a statement that celebrates the differences between the trajectories of the two countries. The book design – the cover, the font treatment, and layout – emulates but does not exactly copy Steidl’s 2008 reissue of The Americans. Kerouac’s essay is matched with one by Douglas Coupland. For students of the history of photography, and of Frank, it will be a thrill to go through the books side by side as each image in The Canadians comments on its counterpart in The Americans. A subtle but important distinction will be quickly evident: the images in The Canadians are color photographs of black and white prints, many of the images marked with black or red wax pencil to indicate cropping. The crop marks act as a continuous reminder of the tension between the photographer’s vision and that of the newspaper. This is reinforced by the hardcover book’s red cover and red endpapers, where Steidl’s The Americans is black and white throughout.
The correspondences between images in The Canadians and The Americans are well-conceived. Frank sets his tone in the first sequence of The Americans, and introduces the America from which the rest of the book departs: “Parade – Hoboken, NJ” with its flag and shadowy figures, “City fathers – Hoboken, New Jersey,” a comment on the political valence of tradition, and the angry “Political Rally – Chicago”. Their counterparts in The Canadians might feel less tense but they are not facile. The first picture manages to reference the project as a whole: the smiling family gathered in an Ottawa window in the first image of The Canadians is waiting for President Kennedy’s entourage in 1961, and one of the women is photographing the photographer. In the next image the City fathers’ unified wall of men is challenged: “Former Ottawa Mayor Charlotte Whitton, who refuses to recognize ‘O Canada’ as the national anthem, stays seated while others stand to sing.” An evangelist speaks to a listening crowd in the third image, calmly and in inclement weather as his listeners’ heads gather snow.
And so the book goes, falling in and out of sync with The Americans, showing both similarities and contrasts. There’s a sense of humor: the bikers in “Newburgh, New York” have been countered with “Little minibikers, Markham, Ontario.” “US 285, New Mexico,” Frank’s photograph of the highway rolling out before him, empty but catching the light is met with “Pity the motorist lost in a fog along Commissioner’s Street in Toronto if he tries to follow any of the white stripes, 1953.” The American fixation with car culture that Frank underscored is cleverly finessed into Canadian camping culture. The pictures echo Frank’s photography in many respects: in their street level subject matter, in their use of available light, in their attention to contextual detail. They speak to the period both in what they described and how they described it. They are cool, somewhat detached, not heroic. But there are clear differences too: “Fourth of July – Jay, New York” with its enormous American flag has no counterpart. There are fewer people of color in The Canadians and where The Americans sprawls, The Canadians feels heavily weighted towards Ontario. The one image for which there is no counterpart in The Americans is a picture of a group of dogs.
Despite the conceit that so heavily shapes The Canadians, it’s not a Canadian “cover version” of The Americans. The book tells its own story about mid-century Canada, about the rise of consumerism, the standards and expectations of the city, the transformation of rural environments. It all feels precarious and tentative. The framework of The Americans allows it to tell a story that a more deliberately nostalgic edit would not. At the end, the book is affecting, not because it triggers memory but because it creates an unexpected narrative and because, like The Americans, it is attentive to the tension between momentum and instability, and the artifacts of social order. And so it’s strange to me that there is no mention of The Americans at all in The Canadians, despite the relationship between the two books. Sure, those who know The Americans will recognize the flow and effect, but a statement of intention, like that at Cutline, would, I think, help readers who don’t. Perhaps it was left out as another act of correspondence, as Frank himself did not provide an explanatory statement in The Americans, instead offering it up as a body of work to be interpreted by his audience.