Gold and Silver, Images and Illusions of the Gold Rush – Johanna Mizgala

[Spring-Summer 2018]

Unknown photographer, Outdoor view of a group of unidentified miners in the mountains in California, c. 1850, daguerreotype, toned with gold, 11 × 14 cm, photo: CIP/NGC

Unknown photographer, Outdoor view of a group of unidentified miners in the mountains in California, c. 1850, daguerreotype, toned with gold, 11 × 14 cm,
photo: CIP/NGC

National Gallery of Canada, Canadian Photography Institute Galleries, Ottawa
Curated by Luce Lebart
November 3, 2017 – April 2, 2018

By Johanna Mizgala

[Excerpt]
During a ten-year period that began in 1848, the rush to California in the mad hope of striking it rich was intertwined with the burgeoning ability to make a living through the new technology of photography. The mythology of the moment in the West, with its complicated and complex strata of mass migration, forced relocation or outright decimation of Indigenous communities, market economics, and exploitation, is situated historically deep within the rare, storied tales of success and incredible wealth that spurred the creation of the daguerreotypes of these now anonymous individuals, their names long forgotten although their faces persist by virtue of these visual traces of the past. In spite of these traces, their individual histories are as rare and fleeting as the gold veins that drove them to these locations in the first place. It is difficult to know what to make of these small, almost magical portraits of unnamed individuals. The exhibition is composed primarily of images of young, white men who would appear, based on their clothing and the rudimentary settings that form their backdrops, to be carving out a meagre existence in mining camps and makeshift settlement communities. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of romanticizing their lives, as the portraits are exquisitely beautiful and some are even toned with gold, the very metal that drew them all to the West…
 
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