The $71-million Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto opens its doors on Saturday, providing a public gallery that will showcase images from the famed Black Star Collection of 20th century photographs.
For its first exhibition, Archival Dialogues: Reading the Black Star Collection, Ryerson asked eight Canadian artists to choose a selection from the photography archive, which has photos from 6,000 photographers.
The Black Star collection was a bequest to the university of 292,000 images shot over an 80-year period by photographers of New York’s Black Star photo agency. The anonymous gift was revealed in 2005 and in 2006, Ryerson University announced it had plans to build a centre to show the photos.
Ryerson Image Centre director Doina Popescu calls the collection "a photojournalistic history of the Western world."
The images chosen range from Audrey Hepburn, circa 1950, to nuns protecting black protesters in Selma, Alabama in 1965, to pictures of the Holocaust and the march of Allied troops into Europe in 1944.
"It’s incredibly daunting — because it’s 200,000 plus images," said David Rokeby, one of the Canadian artists asked to put together an exhibition from the collection. He said he created his own software in attempt to sort through the images.
For the artists combing through the archives, an image of an assassination would be right next to a movie star.
Artist Marie-Hélène Cousineau selected a series of images from the Canadian North, taken in Baker Lake during the 1960s, and took them with her to those Northern communities. Her work contrasts the communities of 50 years ago with the North of today.
The other artists, all prominent Canadians, who helped create the first exhibition:
Stephen Andrews. Christina Battle. Stan Douglas. Vera Frenkel. Vid Ingelevics. Michael Snow. Opening day will be an "emotional moment," Popescu told CBC News.
At a time when digital images are being created constantly, it’s important to think about how we preserve and interpret images, she said.
"I think we can only understand our contemporary era by taking our history with us. That means our social, our cultural our political history and also our aesthetic history. You can’t really understand the digital era without bringing the analogue era with us," she said.
Ryerson University has a commitment to preserving image and film – the centre has climate controlled storage for the collection — but also to research and exhibit to the public, she said.
"We will be researching how the history of 20th century is presented in publications like Life, Time, Newsweek, that’s what these images were used for," she said.
The new building, designed by Diamond + Schmitt architects, fronts on a downtown street with a light airy entrance to make it welcoming to passers-by. A large LED light display across all four sides of the building will change continually, with artists commissioned to program it.
Blakely welcomed the addition of the Ryerson Image Gallery to the Toronto landscape.
"This is the kind of institution that makes a city better. It's specialized, it’s more eclectic, it’s a centre that’s substantive but it’s focused on a narrow range," he said. "It’s kind of a sign of Toronto growing up."