Arthur S. Goss Works and Days
During his long tenure as Toronto’s official photographer, Arthur S. Goss created thousands of images that capture in minute detail the Victorian city’s ambitious re-invention of itself as a 20th-century Canadian metropolis. Goss is hardly unknown to Toronto gallery-goers: his telling pictures of slum dwellings, the destitute immigrants who populated them, and other dark elements of Toronto’s historical passage to modernity have been featured in local shows since 1980. Crafted in collaboration with the City of Toronto Archives, this exhibition is focused on the aspect of Goss’ work that occupied most of his time and creative energy—the routine production of visual documents for city departments and agencies. These images depict the curiosity of ordinary things: personal weighing machines, news boxes, the façades of new developer-built houses, cracks in pave- ment, and other elements that constitute the visual back- ground of life in the city.
Seen together, the pictures tell viewers about the practice of a photographer embedded in, and beholden to, an early 20th-century urban bureaucracy. Goss’ work for the city (1911 – 40) was informed by the instrumental and disinterested rationality expected of employees in modern public institutions. In this period, civic photography functioned as an apparatus for making meaning within a larger institutional network, a role that documentary photography continues to play in the present day.
Goss did not make the images on display here because he had become fascinated by this or that topic; rather, he was assigned to do so, orally or in writing, by officials in some corner of city government. These disciplining institutions were no place for the idiosyncrasy, indignation, or interiority often encountered in the high-modernist art of Goss’ era. His self-effacing, matter-of-fact approach to his topics suggests that the plainness of what is visible in a photograph is all that there is to see; however, this literalness belies the invisible but pervasive presence of the institutional author- ity directing these photographs. Works and Days makes apparent this presence in Goss’ work, reflecting on civic photography as an institutional, systematic way of seeing the city.
Goss’ photographs constitute an archive of the modern city’s visual substrata. This exhibition emphasizes the serial, rational-procedural character of this archive by showing Goss’ pictures in their original order. Displayed in the gal- lery are compact groups of near-simultaneous pictures of the same mundane objects and incidental moments in the building of Toronto. The image sets are united iconographically inasmuch as they represent a single topic—the hydro poles in a laneway, a new streetscape, concrete pylons on the waterfront—and chronologically by their production on a single day.
The exhibition’s form mirrors Goss’ non-judgmental, systematic approach, as well as the mundane quality of his subjects. The rectilinear grid is an established photographic typology for the display of modern civilization’s artifacts and cultural traces, notable especially in the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. The list-like inventorying at work in the Goss archive also evokes the deadpan, deflationary aesthetic of many contemporary artists, a similarity that partly inspired this exhibition’s appreciation for the routine aspects of his imagery, overlooked by previous investigators.
By deliberately highlighting Goss’ quotidian, prosaic output instead of his more popular, humanistic imagery, Works and Days seeks to illuminate civic photography’s urgencies, strategies, and ideologies in early 20th-century Toronto. But by turning the spotlight on pictures of ordinary things, and discovering in them compelling documentary evidence of a peculiar modernist sensibility, the exhibition also aims to encourage an expansive rethinking of bureaucratic image-making: of the specific ways city-building is portrayed visually in the modern era, and of photography’s insistent, mysterious place-making power everywhere.
John Bentley Mays
Organized by the Ryerson Image Centre in collaboration with the City of Toronto Archives.