Seeing our city anew: More than 160 exhibitions can be found in the Contact festival, often in fascinating, out-of-the-way places
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 10 May 2003)

To see Bruce MacNeil's contribution to the Contact photography festival you must make your way to a strip mall dominated by auto-parts outlets at 400 Eastern Ave. It looks unpromising, but on the second floor you'll find Suite 208, the D-MAX Gallery.

Your first glance will tell you the trip was worth the trouble. In an otherwise empty white room, MacNeil has put up his first exhibition, "Man/Woman, light, camera," a collection of 20 four-foot-high portraits. The personalities of the subjects (mostly Toronto street people) come through so powerfully that you feel yourself entering some kind of relationship with them. Spend half an hour in that room and you think you know them. Leave, and you discover you miss them.

If you're lucky, and MacNeil himself is on hand, he'll tell you what these pictures mean to him. It's an odd story, but no odder than the stories of most artists.

These photos are his autobiography. He sets up his box camera on a Toronto street corner, hangs up a blank background and asks people to pose. He wants to tunnel into the emotional corners of his own early life in Cape Breton (where he was born 37 years ago) by rediscovering his memories in the faces of strangers. A man he photographed recalls a brutal drunk he knew as a child. A woman evokes a girl he was once sweet on. He's like a novelist reworking the insights of childhood through characters encountered later in life. As he makes his pictures, the emotional power that he brings to the process charges his art with urgency.

That's just one of 160 exhibitions in the seventh annual Contact festival, running all this month. Many elements in Contact are far more public.

There are big installations, like the 28-foot-tall banner by Ken Lum that hangs on the facade of the Art Gallery of Ontario and shows a woman's face with the title "I don't know whether to laugh or cry." There are photos of New York subway riders by Jamel Shabazz, displayed on advertising panels in 325 Toronto subway cars. The festival encompasses most of the commercial art galleries, and the public galleries as well. The Art Gallery of Ontario has Pop Photographica, and Geoffrey James has a two-venue exhibition at the University of Toronto Art Centre and the Faculty of Architecture.

But MacNeil's show sums up for me the essential Contact experience, which typically involves finding photographers you never knew existed in places you never visited before -- or, failing that, places where you never saw photographs before. Through Contact, the idea of photography as an art to be exhibited penetrates many obscure corners of the city and turns a bizarre collection of establishments into temporary galleries -- antique stores and bars, libraries and offices, abandoned storefronts and clothing boutiques.

Making your way from show to show becomes a project that's somewhere between an Easter egg hunt and the quest for the Holy Grail. While discovering photographers, we also discover corners of Toronto we didn't know existed, or corners that have radically changed since last we saw them.

One of the big events of Contact, a show called Toronto Grid Works at the York Quay Gallery in Harbourfront Centre, offers personal and original views of the city by 18 photographers, each given a section of the city to interpret. The highlights include Paul Till's playground in winter, wrapped in a perfect cover of snow; Rick/Simon's amazing colour shot of the ice crust formed over some bushes and a ladder on Toronto Island; and Vincenzo Pietropaolo's evocative pictures of the papal visit last summer.

This year, Contact has invaded the old Gooderham and Worts site at the foot of Parliament Street, where construction crews are frantically converting a collection of former whisky-producing buildings into the Distillery Historic District. Those who arrive in pursuit of photography will discover an arts centre that's rapidly springing to life. You have to pick your way through the construction site to find several galleries that are only a few weeks or a few days old.

At the Realtime Gallery (where construction was just finishing and the front of the building still lacked a sign when the show opened last weekend), Steven Evans, the superb architectural photographer, has gathered some handsome examples of a speciality he's lately developed, photographing neglected, crumbling buildings. His show includes a collection of pictures of Gooderham and Worts from the years before the renovation began; everything seems to be disintegrating, but he leaves an impression of vast spaces, great thick wooden beams and rich brickwork. Evans also shows six large-scale images of pre-revival Eaton Auditorium, which was abandoned for years until its rejuvenation as the Carlu. These lovely images play with a theme that goes back to the Renaissance, the pleasure of ruins.

Down the street at another gallery, Distill, Angela Del Buono also has pre-renewal Gooderham and Worts photos, darkly romantic.

Contact has made an even more spectacular and unexpected appearance in the Junction. With the help of the Junction Gardens Business Improvement Area (what was once called the Junction has somehow become "Junction Gardens"), photographers have installed exhibitions in 11 establishments along Dundas Street, west of Keele, each announced by balloons on the street.

The Treasury, an unlikely store that sells everything from ice cream cones to antiques, has a wondrous collection of anonymous 20th-century photographs, many of them fragments from family albums, each of them implying a story. Patti Gower (at 3091 Dundas St. W., an office commandeered as a gallery) has developed a picture story on foster families into an eloquent exhibition. Natalie Schonfeld, in a framing store, has a lovely collection of photographs of life in India. Laza Kristina Slezic's work, in Latitude 44, eloquently pictures life in her ancestral home town, Dubrovnik.

Last Saturday night, after the sun went down, the organizers of the Junction photography project closed off a little piece of Pacific Avenue, set up a screen, and projected the work of these photographers and others for an hour or so. On a cold evening they drew a large and happy crowd, who seemed to be celebrating and discovering both the Junction and the photographers. More or less what Contact makes possible for the city of Toronto.

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