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Jimmy James Evans was already a familiar character on the streets of a west-end Toronto neighbourhood when his giant face appeared on two billboards this month.Toni Hafkenscheid/Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival

Jimmy James Evans was already a familiar character on the streets of a west-end Toronto neighbourhood when his giant face appeared on two billboards this month. Many who knew him were confused.

“Why is Jimmy on this bank advertisement?” people wanted to know, noting the word Scotiabank in the left-hand corner of the billboards. The billboards are a collaboration between Evans and photographer Jeff Bierk, erected this month for the Contact Photography Festival sponsored by the bank.

Bierk first met Jimmy hanging out in an alleyway in the Annex about 10 years ago and the two gradually began a professional relationship. Evans, originally from Prince Edward Island, is a window-washer by trade who lives and panhandles in the neighbourhood around Dufferin and Dupont streets. Bierk is an artist and photographer who is concerned with the ethics of photography. When he first met Evans, he was photographing people sleeping on the streets of Toronto, thinking this would bring attention to their plight; he gradually realized he was asking them to symbolize a problem rather than representing them as individuals.

“I was trying to develop a practice about consent and authorship,” Bierk said. “Most of what I am trying to do … is question photography and disrupt the balance between the photographer and the people they photograph.” Still, he notes that Evans’s image is often immediately read as an idea – about the homeless, which Evans is not – rather than as a human personality.

Still, Bierk’s two massive portraits don’t individualize Evans so much as lionize him. He is side-lit with glowing light illuminating his wild hair and craggy face. In the billboard above Pioneer Gas at Dupont and Emerson, a gold light catches a pensive, sideways look. At Dupont and Perth, he is framed by a dramatic grey sky that contrasts sharply with a halo of hair, this time dyed an other-worldly blue.

Evans’s face evokes a hard life, but you could say Bierk is romanticizing his existence. In the Perth Avenue image, in particular, he looks like a mythic god ready to conquer any villainy. Bierk calls Evans “intensely charismatic” – and the billboards certainly capture that.

Bierk’s approach is particularly topical after the controversy in Vancouver over Steven Shearer’s billboards erected for the Capture Photography Festival in April. Viewers were apparently disgusted by the images of people sleeping in public, including a shirtless man sprawled on the grass and several travellers dozing in vehicles. After a flood of complaints the photos, displayed along the city’s Arbutus Greenway bike and walking path, were taken down within 48 hours.

The point of public projects such as these is to get art out of destination galleries and into the street, where it will be confronted by passersby who may notice it, or not, and who may get it, or not. Bierk’s billboards are one of the most visible and best received projects at Contact this year, but they are being viewed as much as a comment on street people as a pair of portraits. Meanwhile, people in Vancouver, perhaps equating public sleeping with poverty and homelessness – those of us with houses usually sleep in private – seemed to feel threatened by Shearer’s images.

But the crucial point here, at least in contrast to Bierk’s practice, is that the Vancouver artist did not shoot the images himself; he found them online. According to a Capture festival statement: “In featuring images of people sleeping – typically a private and vulnerable act – in a public space, the works also offer a provocative and public commentary on the ways in which banal moments are often shared for public consumption.”

The festival also drew the connection between these disembodied, floating people and traditional religious art – rather in the same way that Evans’ image can be compared to history painting – but some viewers apparently thought the subjects looked dead.

The issue that Bierk’s work raises about Shearer’s, however, is who are these people and how did they participate in the project? Obviously, Shearer is not the photographer who invaded their privacy in the first place, nor the person who then posted their images online. Still, Bierk points out that a sleeping person doesn’t agree to be photographed: “If they were asleep, there can only be consent after the fact.”

Jimmy, Golden Sky, September 2, 2019 at Dupont and Emerson will be taken down around May 25. Jimmy, Blue Sky, July 27, 2020 is on view at Dupont and Perth to June 4. Contact continues through 2021.