Toronto couple sharing photography collection 40 years in the making

Howard and Carole Tanenbaum started collecting photographs in the 1970s. They've since amassed one of the largest collections in North America — and now part of that collection is on display in Toronto.

True to the Eyes runs through April 7 at the Ryerson Image Centre

True to the Eyes: The Howard and Carole Tanenbaum Photography Collection displays decades worth of photos. (Talia Ricci / CBC News)

Howard and Carole Tanenbaum can effortlessly recite the stories and history behind their beloved photographs.

These photos normally adorn the walls of their home — but right now, more than 200 of them are on display at the Ryerson Image Centre in the exhibition True to the Eyes.

"I think anybody who's interested in history, interested in people or just really interested in great things to look at, will be intrigued with the collection," Carole said.

Rafael Goldchain, A Tehuantepec Maiden, Juchitán, Oaxaca, México, 1986, chromogenic print © Rafael Goldchain, courtesy of the artist. (The Howard and Carole Tanenbaum Photography Collection)

The couple's private collection is much larger than what's on display. They started collecting photographic art in the 1970s and it's become somewhat of an obsession for them.

"It's sometimes hard to hang all of these photographs at our home, so we rotate them. That gives us an opportunity to enjoy them at some point," Howard said.

Mary Ellen Mark, Three Acrobats, Vazquez Brothers Circus, Mexico City, Mexico, 1997 (printed 2005), gelatin silver print © Mary Ellen Mark. (The Howard and Carole Tanenbaum Photography Collection)

The content of the exhibition ranges from family and poverty to civil rights and nature. The timeline ranges from the first dawn of photography in the 1800s right up to contemporary work.

"Rafael Goldchain, Edward Burtynsky, Vincenzo Pietropaolo, all of these people have contributed to the world of photography in Toronto," Carole said.

She describes one of the first exhibitions that really intrigued the couple — it was by Jim Goldberg and was presented by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. 

Jim Goldberg, Trafficked Girls, Ukraine, from the series Open See, 2006, chromogenic print © Jim Goldberg, courtesy of the artist and Pace/MacGill Gallery. (The Howard and Carole Tanenbaum Photography Collection)

"We were fortunate probably 10 years after that exhibition to acquire the portfolio [of] Jim Goldberg's Rich and Poor."

Howard is quite fond of the daguerreotype images, which was the first photographic process.

Learn about the history of photography

Paul Roth, director at the Ryerson Image Centre — which is located at 33 Gould St. just north of Dundas Street near Yonge Street — says the collection is one of Canada's largest and most eclectic assortment of images. The centre refers to it as "one of the country's great holdings of photography." 

Roth says in addition to enjoying the content of the exhibit, he also sees it as an opportunity to educate people about the art form.

"I think it's a fantastic way to learn about the history of photography, just for starters," Roth said.

Paul Roth, director of the Ryerson Image Centre and one of the curators of this exhibit, says the show consists of a lot of portraits and images of people in their homes and environments. (Talia Ricci / CBC News)
"It's a survey of a sort through the eyes of this couple who have dedicated their lives to trying to represent the history of photography."

Roth describes the Tanenbaums' point of view as humanistic, and believes it's a perspective many others will share.

"We all look at photographs in order to understand the rest of the world. Howard and Carole have been doing that for nearly 50 years and I think we all can learn a lot from that."

After decades of collecting and viewing photos, the couple certainly knows what to look for. Carole said she usually knows pretty quickly if a photo speaks to her.​

"There has to be some substance within the photo, something that teaches you."

Edward Burtynsky, Shipyard #7, Qili Port, Zhejiang Province, China, 2005, digital chromogenic print © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto. (The Howard and Carole Tanenbaum Photography Collection)

It's obvious that each piece holds an important place in the collection, and in the hearts of the couple.

"I think we want them to experience the same passion we feel about the photography," Howard said.

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