Arthur S. Goss: Works and Days at the Ryerson Image Centre

Guest-curated by Blake Fitzpatrick and John Bentley Mays, this exhibition at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto is now on and runs until August 25, 2013.

During his long tenure as Toronto’s official photographer (1911-1940), Arthur S. Goss created thousands of images that illustrate in fine detail the Victorian city’s ambitious, but often difficult, reinvention of itself as a modern Canadian metropolis. He has long been best known for his eloquent pictures of slums, destitute immigrants, and other dark elements of this historical passage. This exhibition, presented in collaboration with the City of Toronto Archives, aims to reveal a less widely heralded aspect of Goss’s professional work, but one that occupied his time and creative energy more fully than any other: the routinized production of visual documents for the use of various city departments and agencies.

Early in the fashioning of this display, our curiosity was aroused by these images, which have so far been largely unfamiliar to the public. We became interested in what they can tell us about the practice of a photographer embedded in, and beholden to, an urban bureaucracy early in the 20th century. This practice, the images suggest, was informed by the instrumental and disinterested rationality expected of employees in the public institutions created by political and social modernity.

His self-effacing and matter-of-fact approach suggests to the viewer that what is visible to the naked eye is all that there is to see. However, this literalness actually obscures the invisible but pervasive presence of an institutional authority directing these photographs. By featuring and deliberately highlighting Goss’s quotidian, prosaic output, in contrast to his more humanistic imagery of unfortunate city-dwellers, we hope to encourage a fresh appraisal of civic photography, its urgencies and ideologies, in Toronto early in the last century, and a rethinking of bureaucratic image-making everywhere.

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