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Arnaud Maggs’s After Nadar: Pierrot Turning (Estate of Arnaud Maggs, Courtesy of Susan Hobbs Gallery/Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival)
Arnaud Maggs’s After Nadar: Pierrot Turning (Estate of Arnaud Maggs, Courtesy of Susan Hobbs Gallery/Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival)

‘We never looked back’: How Contact became the world’s biggest photography festival Add to ...

The Contact Photography Festival has been around for so long, relatively speaking – 17 years this month – that residents of Canada’s largest city have come to see its annual arrival as a sort of inevitability, like the blossoming of the cherry trees in High Park or the return of the daffodils.

But there was a time – and this would have been around 2004, 2005 – when Contact was anything but a sure thing. These days Contact bills itself as “the world’s largest photography event” and has the sort of prestige sponsors (BMW, Nikon, Hewlett Packard, Scotiabank) and venues (including the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario) to make it so.

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A decade ago, however, “there was no money,” recalled Toronto art dealer Nicholas Metivier the other day, and the only participating institution with a modicum of heft was the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. As a result, on at least a couple of occasions, Metivier and perhaps the most famous Canadian artist in his stable, Edward Burtynsky, found themselves printing up an edition of 25 colour prints of a Burtynsky photograph, selling out the run in three or four days, then ploughing the $85,000 or so into the Contact lifeline. Others, like Toronto photography dealer Stephen Bulger, may have been “the instigators of the festival – but in terms of people saving the festival,” says Bulger, “it was really Ed and Nicholas. They were really generous with their time, expertise and contacts.”

Fortunately, that make-or-break improvisation became pretty much moot in 2006 when Scotiabank and its veteran archivist Jane Nokes came in as sponsors and hosts for an exhibition of large-scale photographs of Doctors without Borders working in Congo, shot by a Chicago collective. “It was Ed [Burtynsky] who wanted to bring it in for Contact,” Nokes said. “He knew the guys … and so we ended up doing it and we never looked back.” From that point on Scotiabank was a major Contact sponsor, bankrolling sundry programs, upping its involvement in 2010 by becoming title sponsor and then the next year, again with Nokes and Burtynsky working in tandem, by organizing the $50,000 Scotiabank Photography Award.

Thing is, if Contact in its earliest years was often short of cash, it never lacked for community support. Bulger, one of its four founders, recalls how when he and his colleagues floated the notion of “a festival of camera art” in fall 1996 they thought they’d host at most 20 or so exhibitions and events. But come May, 1997 “we had close to 50 … I think, more than double what I thought.” Today even 50 sounds puny when one notes that the 2013 edition, which officially begins Wednesday, will involve at least 175 venues and more than 1,500 participating artists.

Bulger, who started his photography dealership in 1994, said he got the idea for Contact, in part because “Toronto seemed to have a festival for everything but photography. It seemed like a slap in the face.” Further, people coming to his visit his dealership often seemed “a little suspicious about photography.” Was it an art form? Was an original print really worth four or five figures? “After about six or seven months, I thought, boy, we really need to do one big mass educational program but in a fun, non-exclusive way.” Another desire was to bring together “all these pockets of photography in the city together” – the camera clubs, the commercial galleries, the artist-run centres, photography connoisseurs, artist-run centres.

Bulger, in fact, was bullish on Contact’s prospects pretty much from day one, telling a Toronto newspaper that the festival would be “an international event in five years.” He chuckles at his chutzpah then. “I wish everything I said came true like that.” I have to say I’ve been amazed and very proud of contact. It continues to improve and engage people and it’s helped put Toronto on the map . . . I don’t think there’s anyone in the world interested in photography who not only hasn’t heard about Contact but would really like to come and visit it.”

WHAT TO SEE

To help navigate the month-long largesse that is Toronto’s Contact 2013, The Globe and Mail asked a panel of experts to share their favourites.

Stephen Bulger, Contact co-founder, photography dealerArthur S. Goss, Works and Days (Ryerson Image Centre)

It offers new insight into the underappreciated work of the former City of Toronto photographer. His works capture Toronto in the early days of the 20th century and I love their clarity and nostalgia.

Light My Fire: Some Propositions about Portraits and Photography (Art Gallery of Ontario)

This exhibition, in two parts, includes work from the early days of photography, together with contemporary pictures. Culled from the 50,000 or so images that now make up the gallery’s permanent photography collection.

The Tintype Studio, Occupational Portraits (Campbell House Museum): In addition to offering the chance to see contemporary portraits made with antique methods, there is also an opportunity – not to be missed – at having your portrait made in the tintype process by a group of talented studio mates.

Robert Burley, photographer, author (The Disappearance of Darkness), photography professor, Ryerson University

Arnaud Maggs: Scotiabank Photography Award (Ryerson Image Centre)

The RIC’s first Contact festival as well as the first posthumous exhibition by a major Canadian artist. I’ve had a sneak peek and it promises to be a festival highlight.

Collected Shadows: Archive of Modern Conflict (Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art).

The AMC has established itself as an international player with its collection of more than four million, including the recently acquired Isenburg Collection. Collecting photography as both an expressive medium as well as an application used to record our rich visual history, the AMC can mount exhibitions beyond the scope of most major museums.

Lessons in Photography – Appropriations by Jackson Klie & Michelle O’Byrne (Beaver Hall Gallery)

Photography as an art form is undergoing a major overhaul and this is clearly evident in the work of so many younger artists who appropriate and cut-and-paste, reworking old forms into new ones. This show promises to offer some food for thought by two promising artists who see the photographic and “real” worlds as separate entities.

Maia-Mari Sutnik, curator of photography, Art Gallery of Ontario

Collected Shadows: Archive of Modern Conflict (Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art)

I saw it first at Paris Photo, and it’s a fantastic mix of classical high-end prints mingling among what we now call ‘vernacular’ images.

Sara Angelucci; Provenance Unknown (Art Gallery of York University)

Wonderful narratives generated from anonymous photographs that have lost their original meaning and provenance. Brings together two new bodies of work, Aviary and The Anonymous Chorus.

Doina Popescu, director, Ryerson Image Centre

Collected Shadows: Archive of Modern Conflict (Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art)

The AMC’s collection and exhibition practices never cease to amaze and inspire the viewer, allowing for in-depth dialogues with contemporary notions of archive, memory and image making.

Sebastiao Salgado: Genesis (Royal Ontario Museum)

Through Salgado’s stunningly elemental photographs we cannot but engage with his commitment to global environmental issues, while reflecting on the coming together of an artistic practice steeped in documentary traditions.

Chris Marker: Memory of a Certain Time (TIFF Bell Lightbox)

The opportunity to experience Marker’s still photography and to reflect on the essential role it played throughout his career as one of the past century’s most influential experimental filmmakers, writers and multimedia artists is a rare and exciting treat.

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