Envisioning Photography as Collaborative – Ellen Tolmie

[Fall 2018]

By Ellen Tolmie

A recent show at the Ryerson Image Centre (RIC) challenges conventional notions of the lone photographer, the roles of subjects, and even the exhibition space. The idea of the photograph made by an individual, the photographer, now also lionized as artist and auteur, has long been embedded in the essential idea of what photography is. As photography of all genres gained decisive entry into the art world in the late 1970s, the photographer artist as solitary hero or heroine was further entrenched. As photographers joined the pantheon of artists, their creations came to be perceived as singular achievements, the finished products of an ultimately solitary endeavour. It is the art equivalent of the capitalist self-made man, and we have all bought into it.

Collaboration, A Potential History of Photography 1 modestly and magnificently challenges this notion. When I first heard about the project several months ago, its subtitle, positing an alternative history of photography, seemed more than a little presumptuous. But after I viewed the exhibition, its premise seemed self-evident. By asking us to consider the subjects in photographs as integral to their creation – as participants, even if coerced, rather than primarily as objects of the artist’s commanding gaze – Collaboration proffers a critical re-envisioning of conventional assumptions about photography.

Photographs, like other visual representations, have long favoured the privileged white male view of the world, a perspective that post-modernism and identity politics have steadily chipped away at, with still-incomplete results, for almost a century now. So, it’s not surprising that an exhibition challenging the centrality of a sole-author photographer in favour of collaborative authorship that includes the subject – art’s ultimate “other” – is conceived and curated by women: Ariella Azoulay, Wendy Ewald, Susan Meiselas, Leigh Raiford, and Laura Wexler…

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1 An exhibition presented by the Ryerson Image Centre, in Toronto, from January 24 to April 8, 2018. It was the principal exhibition during that period and led several other ones, including the complementary Jim Goldberg: Rich and Poor, featuring portraits of poor and affluent people in California’s San Francisco Bay area from 1977 to 1985, with the subjects’ comments about their depiction and their lives inscribed within the prints.

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