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Cutline, part of the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival, plumbs The Globe's archives to contemplate not the iconic images of the 20th century, but the tropes of everyday life. James Adams reports on a remarkable collection

In this image from The Globe and Mail’s archives, a woman celebrates the end of beer rationing in 1947. The photo is part of the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival’s Cutline exhibition, which celebrates the complexity of newspaper photography in a ‘non-conventional, non-linear way,’ according to Roger Hargreaves, one of Cutline’s three curators.

In this image from The Globe and Mail’s archives, a woman celebrates the end of beer rationing in 1947. The photo is part of the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival’s Cutline exhibition, which celebrates the complexity of newspaper photography in a ‘non-conventional, non-linear way,’ according to Roger Hargreaves, one of Cutline’s three curators.

A warning from Roger Hargreaves: Don't go to Cutline, an exhibition of 175 mostly black-and-white pictures drawn from The Globe and Mail's rich photographic archives, expecting to see "the iconic images that defined the 20th century."

That shot of John F. Kennedy convertibling through Dealey Plaza? Of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon? The Leafs hoisting the 1967 Stanley Cup? They're not here – here being the funky majesty of the former press room of The Globe and Mail in downtown Toronto where, for 20-plus thunderous years under a 13.5-metre-high ceiling, press units rolled ink onto paper to create the print edition of the modern newspaper. Silenced in 1994, those presses were dismantled the next year, their functions outsourced earlier to a plant in Mississauga.

Cutline's a sort of homage/memorial to those halcyon predigital days when newspapering was a genuine, thing-producing industry. For Hargreaves, the exhibition – one of the 20 "primary" shows in the 2016 Contact photography festival opening in Toronto this weekend – is "an attempt to tell a narrative about the nature of the complexity of newspaper photography in a non-conventional, non-linear way." And it's being told in a space that soon will be reduced to rubble as part of The Globe and Mail's relocation to new headquarters in the fall.

Behind the camera: Scroll through the Cutline highlights

British-born, London-based, Hargreaves is one of Cutline's three curators (the others are Torontonians Jill Offenbeck and Stefanie Petrilli), assuming the job in his capacity as curator of press collections for the Archive of Modern Conflict. Founded in London in 1993 by David Thomson, chair of Thomson Reuters Corp. and The Globe and Mail, the AMC boasts a collection of more than four million photographs and was instrumental in facilitating the gift, announced last November, of about 20,000 Globe and Mail archive photographs to the newly created Canadian Photography Institute (CPI) in the National Gallery of Canada. It's from that donation that virtually all the photos in Cutline have been chosen.

The body of a thief rests on the floor after he was shot dead by police in 1948.

The body of a thief rests on the floor after he was shot dead by police in 1948.

Cutline's emphasis is on the photograph as artifact, as "exemplar of material culture" – something that was put to work, something made to be edited (often brutally so), a piece in a multipart process. As a result, the fronts and backs of Cutline's photos "proudly" bear the scars earned in the combat of daily photojournalism – crop marks, date stamps, captions, white-outs, traces of burning and dodging, masking, creases. The presentation is similarly workaday and unpretentious. With one exception (more on this later), none of the prints is framed or otherwise gussied-up; they're simply pinned, salon-style, to a grey backdrop in a two-sided glass display zone wedged between the I-beams that traverse the north-south axis of the press room.

Hargreaves and crew began work on the project in January last year. The aim wasn't to find "greatest hits" or flesh out predictable themes, such as Fascism on the March and Trudeaumania, but to seek "those patterns, tropes, practices that reappear, that you only see once you've looked at tens of thousands of pictures," Hargreaves said.

The curators eventually discerned about 40 possible groups or "narrative categories," which they subsequently reduced to 12 for Cutline. "We wanted to both show the range of the paper and to capture something of the spirit of Canada," particularly the Canada of the late 1940s, the 1950s and '60s, the dominant time span in Cutline. At the same time, it was important "to reflect back the editorial taste, the flavour of the newspaper," Hargreaves said. "Each press archive is very individual, so we were keen not to misrepresent the paper, to sell it as something it isn't."

Hargreaves characterized The Globe and Mail's photo archive as "sober, serious, very focused on the political-industrial-commercial agenda, not big on visual puns, although there is a certain dry humour enjoyed by the cutline writers. … You see a certain bubbling up of what could be called a crafted sense of irony."

Blessedly, however, Cutline is not all captains of industry and politicians in suits or tableaux of hydroelectric towers and steel factories. In the sports section, for example, there's a wonderful dressing-room shot by Fred Ross of sixties Leaf great Dave Keon, toothless and naked, save for a skimpy, precariously fastened waist towel and a dab of shaving cream on the face, set to hurl two paper-cups of water at the press. Contra Keon's high spirits, we have John Maiola's picture of a heavy-lidded, sweaty Terry Sawchuk slumped against a wall, a king-size, filter-tip cigarette clamped firmly between the lips.

Three men peer through newspapers after being indicted on conspiracy charges in 1962.

Still, whatever tabloid tendencies may have seethed beneath The Globe's respectable "national-newspaper-of-record" veneer rarely if ever broke through. Yes, Cutline includes two photographs of Evelyn Dick, the famous femme fatale from late 1940s Hamilton. But they're found in the exhibition's celebration of Canuck haberdashery, not the crime display, as part of a suite of images devoted to women in fur coats, men in homburgs. A 1948 print of a dead safe-cracker, killed mid-heist by Toronto police, likely would have made the front page had the photographer been Weegee the Famous and the front page that of the New York Daily News. But since it was destined for The Globe and Mail, visitors to Cutline will note the severe mix of cropping and airbrushing wielded by Globe editors that has all but eliminated the corpse to produce a safe-as-milk photo for the paper's next-day edition. Indeed, as Hargreaves notes, all that subscribers would have seen was the safe, an overturned milk bottle and some barrels.

As both a break from and complement to the raw prints that make up most of Cutline, Hargreaves and company have set up a sort of sidecar exhibition called The Canadians – 28 prints, each destined for the Canadian Photography Institute, all black-and-white, all from the 1950s. But here the prints have been treated "more reverentially and placed within individually hung frames" against a red ground. If the title seems to echo that of The Americans, Robert Frank's epochal photographic road trip across the USA in 1955-56, well, that is entirely on point. Explains Hargreaves: "As we sorted the prints, we began to see some that were more individual than others, but more precisely we began to … well, one day I was looking at one and I thought: 'Wow, that looks an exact doppelganger for one of Robert Frank's images from The Americans. And then I began to see another and another and another, and then I took it Stef and Jill and said, 'Look, this is something interesting.' So we then began to hunt for pictures and I kept getting everybody to look back through The Americans over and over again."

Hargreaves sees this overlap – and it's an overlap that only goes so far: Where The Americans is rich in pictures of poor African-Americans and the Stars and Stripes, The Canadians is poor in First Nations' and Red Ensign representations – less as serendipity or an exercise in cultural copycatism than as just one realization of "the infinite possibilities inherent in an archive of 750,000 pictures [the total number in The Globe's collection] … There are these endless story lines you can begin to extract from it and place in other contexts." The Canadians, in other words, should be construed as a kind of harbinger of the many resurrections – artistic, curatorial, public, sociological – a seemingly obsolete phenomenon could have after the Golgotha of digital. (A book called The Canadians is scheduled to be published later this spring under AMC auspices.)

Police arrest protesters in Yorkville following a demonstration against the Vietnam War in 1968.

Police arrest protesters in Yorkville following a demonstration against the Vietnam War in 1968.

No exhibition today, it seems, is complete without an audio-video component. Cutline has three, all interesting, each lasting around seven minutes and each projected, big and high, on a brick wall in the press room. One is a bonafide classic, Arthur Lipsett's Very Nice, Very Nice, produced for the NFB in 1961 and an Oscar nominee for best live-action short. It's a montage of sound, music and found imagery from commercials, documentaries and photographic archives, hectically edited to convey the unease and "out-of-controlness" of the Atomic Age. Nice serves as the template for the other two projections, one a visit by filmmaker Sean Liliani to The Globe newsroom for a look at the remnants of its old technology (Lektriever filing machines, microfiche reels, page negatives), the other a rapid-fire two-screen animation of stills from The Globe, assembled by curator Offenbeck and Toronto new-media artist Parker Kay.

In the meantime, what's going to happen to all those real photographs? Besides the 20,000 that will make their way to the CPI in Ottawa, 100,000 are currently being scanned by The Globe and Mail to create a historic national digital archive. As for the rest, Hargreaves acknowledged negotiations are under way with Library and Archives Canada, a chronically underfunded and understaffed federal agency, "but we're at that point … where we can't say anything publicly." Even if those talks aren't fruitful, he offered assurances that "nothing will be binned."

During our tour of the press room, we laughed about Bill Gates's decision in 2002 to house the 20 million photographs and negatives in the famous Bettmann Archive 70 metres underground in a former limestone quarry in Pennsylvania. Could such a scenario be entertained here? "Well," said Hargreaves with a hearty laugh, "Canada does have good storage facilities below the permafrost."

Cutline: The Photography Archives of The Globe and Mail opens at 425 Wellington St. W., Toronto, on April 30 for a run ending June 26. Hours: Wednesday-Thursday and Saturday-Sunday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. (free admission). Details at