Skip to content

From the archives

Carbon Copy

In equal balance justly weighed

Slouching toward Democracy

Where have all the wise men gone?

By Populist Demand

When urban and rural voters went separate ways

Negative Exposure

How a photographer helped demolish a neighbourhood.

James Roots

Picturing Toronto: Photography and the Making of a Modern City

Sarah Bassnett

McGill-Queen's University Press

208 pages, hardcover

ISBN: 9780773546714

Toronto, contrary to popular denigration, has never lacked for civic vision. A 2016 exhibit at its archives, “No Little Plans: Alternative Building and Transportation Visions for Toronto,” proved this point with its display of ambitious plans, proposals and development over the years.

Most of these visions came to naught because the money simply was not there to implement them. Aside from their delirious faith in the Leafs, Torontonians are a practical breed obsessed with their taxes and related hard-currency realities.

Mark Osbaldeston, curator of the exhibit, wrote in the accompanying notes: “Post-war road schemes focused less on creating beautiful civic spaces, and more on moving automobiles.” But in truth, the exhibit showed that this tendency goes back at least 50 years earlier, when the primary goal was to get people out of their buggies and into streetcars. Toronto civic planners have seldom been interested in any other reason for planning.

It can be argued that there has been only one successful civic development that did not have transportation as its primary focus: the renovation of the downtown area known as the Ward, which took place in the years immediately following the Great War.

Sarah Bassnett, in Picturing Toronto: Photography and the Making of a Modern City, attributes this unique success to the concerted use of photography to build the case for razing the Ward’s slummy neighbourhoods and replacing them with buildings and streets designed to prevent habitation by less desirable elements of humanity (or, a curmudgeon might argue, any elements of humanity).

In her two-pronged rationale, photographs were adroitly used to illustrate the embarrassing eyesores that existed right behind (Old) City Hall, and simultaneously, to adhere these architectural humiliations to the un-Canadian social habits of the immigrants and ethnic enclaves who lived in them. The goals were to replace the slums with modern buildings, and to simultaneously shame the displaced (to the suburbs) immigrants into adapting to Canadian social expectations.

Drawings are dreamy by nature; Torontonians needed to be persuaded by cold, hard, wide-awake, inarguable photographic proof.

It was with this in mind that Toronto hired Arthur Goss as its first official photographer in 1911. Goss took more than 3,000 pictures in his first year on the job, and more than 26,000 by the time he left in 1940. His photos, Bassnett asserts, were “at the heart of debates about what the city should look like, how it should operate, who should live in what areas, and under what kinds of conditions it was considered appropriate for people to live.”

These are big claims to make for photographs, but they were true of the 1900–20 era. Drawings and watercolours, such as those used to twice unsuccessfully muster public support for the spending necessary to build the Bloor Viaduct, simply could not adequately convey either the practical need for the project or the possibilities it offered for beautification and efficiency. Drawings are dreamy by nature; Torontonians needed to be persuaded by cold, hard, wide-awake, inarguable photographic proof.

Goss accordingly photographed the entire proposed route of the Viaduct to help the city calculate how to build it and how much it would cost. With this groundwork in hand, the politicians finally succeeded in selling the idea to the public.

Toronto’s population more than doubled between the turn of the century and the Great War (the construction jobs created by the Viaduct certainly helped attract new residents). The influx came mostly from non-British European countries, who were associated with indifferent hygiene and moral depravity. Charles Hastings, the medical health officer and a tremendous influence on Toronto’s social reform movement, reported in 1911 on downtown (Ward) slum conditions and the attendant health threats, tying them directly to a failure to integrate East European immigrants.

Being familiar with the effectiveness of Goss’s photographs in visibly articulating the case for building the Viaduct, Hastings made prodigious use of photographic evidence to urge removal of “foreign” slovenliness, filth and overcrowding from the Ward, and to prevent their recrudescence by constructing vehicle-moving arteries and forbiddingly blocky office and government buildings. He ensured that the newspapers and magazines of the day reproduced the photos on a regular basis to drive home to the public that the very survival of their city depended upon this course of action.

Goss was a clever photographer in the service of Hastings. He would emphasize the overcrowded conditions of slum housing—twelve men squashed into two tiny rooms, for example—by including the walls and ceiling within the frame, thus cramping the space visually. Compare that to the reverent, airy photo of a rich (English-born) man’s house standing in grand isolation along the Viaduct route and his meaning was bald but effective.

In talking about the recreation of a Ward as an example of “liberal governance,” Bassnett insists on a distinction between photographs as records of social reform (“illustrations of historical conditions”) and as stimulus for the planned modernization of Toronto (“sources of historical meaning”). “This book treats images as a vital part of cultural and political history, rather than as merely illustrations of people, places, and events,” she says. But photographs are illustrations. Being integrated into the historical process is part and parcel of civic photography; the one does not undermine the other, nor can they be separated as per Bassnett’s false distinction.

Why did Bassnett pick Toronto for this exercise? Besides its being her home city, it seems the only reason is that “photography was rarely so central to the constitution of modernity as it was in Toronto.” In Montreal, to take one comparison that Bassnett somewhat undervalues (she prefers to compare Toronto to Chicago), official photography romanticized the historical urban environment, whereas Toronto’s official photography was used to map out a future urban environment. This goes a long way toward explaining why Toronto architecture is rigid, hard, boxy, unwelcoming—consciously planned—whereas Montreal’s cultural-reverence attitude to civic photography allowed its citizens to develop soft, curvy, graceful and occasionally turbulent architecture. No wonder Montrealers disparage Toronto as a “soulless” city.

Interesting and informative as this book is, I am not persuaded by Bassnett’s political agenda, especially her correlation of portraiture with liberal governance. In the last chapter, she tries to establish this latter point by contrasting a trio of Goss’s photos of his own family members with a matching trio of portraits taken of children enrolled at Orde Street School, an open-air sanatorium school for children with tuberculosis. This is not clean, bright liberalism versus filthy, diseased ethnicity; this is the tenderly personal versus the dispassionately objective (or the deliberately denigrating).

By the early 1920s, Toronto’s drive for social reform was petering out, not only because of shifting priorities in the post-war era, but also because Torontonians, in their complacent way, decided the goal had been achieved. With unintentional humour, Bassnett notes that thenceforth “instead of investing in ambitious city-building schemes, [Toronto’s] politicians tended to focus on keeping the tax rate low.” Plus ça change…

James Roots, although currently living in Kanata, Ontario, is a born and bred Torontonian. He learned photography from his father, one of Toronto’s most popular wedding and portrait photographers for half a century.