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A new book examines photography’s galvanizing power during Montreal’s tumultuous 20th century

Martha Langford and Johanne Sloan’s Photogenic Montreal: Activisms and Archives in a Post-industrial City considers the visuals that tell the story of the city’s evolution
April 26, 2022
Students demonstrating in front of Hall Building, 11 February 1969
Students demonstrating in front of Hall Building, 11 February 1969 (photo: The Gazette).

There is a constant, inherent tension in the growth of cities, as they lurch in fits and starts from one era messily into the next. Buildings rise and fall, populations shift and move, demographics evolve, industries come and go. These processes are rarely smooth: creativity and destruction are inseparable as the city’s makeup undergoes radical change, be it sudden or gradual.

A new book edited by two Concordia faculty documents the convulsions that gripped Montreal over the course of the 20th Century and discusses how photography was used to both record and challenge them. Photogenic Montreal: Activisms and Archives in a Post-industrial City was published in December by McGill-Queen’s University Press. It examines how photographs, from sources as disparate as the official City of Montreal archives to lurid true-crime tabloids, were used to communicate specific messages related to the ever-changing metropolis.

“We are looking at an episode of Montreal history that was truly transformative, and it was not seamless by any means,” says Johanne Sloan, a professor of art history and the book’s co-editor. “There were many episodes of activism where citizens would contest the direction the city was moving in.”

Cover: Photogenic Montreal: Activisms and Archives in a Post-industrial City. Photogenic Montreal: Activisms and Archives in a Post-industrial City. Martha Langford and Johanne Sloan, editors. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2021. Cover photograph: Louise Abbott, The Demolition of the Van Horne Mansion, 8 September 1973. | Cover design: Pata Macedo.

Martha Langford, a Distinguished University Research Professor of art history, is Sloan’s colleague and co-editor of the book.

“In many circumstances, such as the destruction of the Van Horne mansion, photography was used to galvanize as well as record,” she adds. “The book is not just a lament for the lost aspects of Montreal, but also a recovery process of certain empty spaces in the city.”

This duality brings Photogenic Montreal into the present, as Langford sees in the work of Concordia’s Cynthia Hammond: “She not only writes an architectural and labour history of Montreal’s elite Golden Square Mile. Her own activist work and teaching lead us to a Griffintown dog park and Louis Perreault’s urban landscapes in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve.” 

Boy posing on street, 1957
Jean-Paul Gill, Boy Posing for the Camera, Red Light, 1957. Digital reproduction from original black and white negative. Archives de la Ville de Montréal (VM94-40_2-100a).

Different lenses on the big city

Sloan and Langford both contribute chapters to the book: Langford examines Alain Chagnon’s portraiture of a transforming Plateau Mont-Royal and writes an essay on the photogénie of urban wilderness. For her part, Sloan contributes an interview she conducted with Selwyn Jacob, a producer of the National Film Board documentary Ninth Floor about the 1969 anti-racism protests at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia’s SGW Campus), and a treatise on the images of Expo 67 and the future of Montreal.

Each chapter speaks to how photographs of a particular area or subject became a vehicle for a new perspective on life in Montreal. Among them are essays by Université de Montréal’s Suzanne Paquet on urban exploration, Concordia art history PhD student Philippe Guillaume on the city’s red-light district, the visuals of the crime tabloid Allô Police by McGill professor Will Straw and the citizen activism against the demolition of the vibrant downtown Milton-Parc neighbourhood in the early 1970s by photographer Clara Gutsche.

“Almost 50 years later, she recounts how those photographs were shown in a neighbourhood setting, in community newspapers or on neighbourhood hoardings,” Sloan explains. “Only later did our galleries and art curators become interested in these photographs, and only then did they migrate over into the domain of art.”

Learn more about the cited book: “Photogenic Montreal: Activisms and Archives in a Post-industrial City.”

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