Photography Collection 1840s to 1880s

Group Exhibition


The photography collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) reflects the medium’s artistic, historical, and social impact. It includes not only canonical photographs by well-known figures in the field, but also a broad range of photographic objects highlighting the medium’s key role in visual culture. The collection has grown significantly in recent decades, alongside the city’s interest in photography. The AGO’s new gallery for photography opens to coincide with CONTACT. It will feature important photographs from the collection, which has grown through the generosity of donors and supporters in the city, testament to their diverse interests in the medium and shared ambitions for their local art gallery and its photography holdings.

Sparked by an ambrotype portrait of Charlotte Brönte from 1858, which was the first photograph to enter the AGO’s collection in 1925, this inaugural presentation focuses on photography’s earliest decades, the 1840s to the 1880s. The pieces in this first rotation attest to the medium’s near immediate global spread and the broad range of uses to which it was put, including exploration, colonialism, tourism, anthropology, and memorial functions. Many works also make evident the overlap between photography and other media in this early period with printmaking, painting, and book forms. This includes a number of photographs and objects created by settlers in Upper and Lower Canada, who sought to give visual form to their experience.

Gallery visitors will be greeted by Gustave Le Gray’s photograph from 1849 – 1850 of Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, a technical feat for the time and an indication of early public interest in images of well-known artworks. A custom cabinet displays sumptuous volumes presented to the chief engineer of London’s Crystal Palace to commemorate the 1851 Great Exhibition of Works of Industry of All Nations, showcasing photography as a medium that is well-suited to description and documentation. Works by British military officer Linnaeus Tripe in Burma (now Myanmar) in the 1850s bring a colonial gaze to bear on the region’s extraordinary architecture, much of it photographed for the first time. French photographer and employee of the Museum of Natural History Jacques-Philippe Potteau attempts a system for documenting ethnographic attributes—all from his studio in Paris in the 1860s.

Platt Babbitt posed three tourists at the edge of Niagara Falls around 1855 and exposed a full-plate ambrotype, evidence of the desire for commemorative photographs at key sites around the world. In a self-published travelogue, Lady Annie Brassey recounts her family’s adventures down the St. Lawrence River by boat in 1872, complete with photographs taken in Quebec City, Montreal, and Niagara Falls. Daguerreotypes, such as a pair of portraits by Toronto daguerreotypist Eli Palmer (c. 1855), ambrotypes, and other small objects give form to more personal affections and associations. The most majestic is the Tramp Art Photo Display (c. 1885) found near Orillia in 2011; the most whimsical are Caroline Walker’s custom, embellished photographic album pages created in 1875 for C.W. Bell’s Toronto family and extended relatives.

The gallery will host new selections from the permanent collection every four months for the next few years, and each presentation will span a number of decades and move up chronologically to ultimately feature recent works. This new space will continue to celebrate more than 150 years of photographic expression, locally and globally.

Curated by Sophie Hackett