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AGO acquires large collection of historical Caribbean photographs

The Art Gallery of Ontario has acquired a new photography collection that captures life in the Caribbean following the end of slavery in the region. More than $300,000 was raised by members of Toronto's Black and Caribbean communities to bring the collection to the AGO.

Montgomery Collection captures life in the region between 1840 and 1940

Assistant curator of photography Julie Crooks looks at the recently acquired Montgomery Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. (Jackson Weaver/CBC)

For New York-based photography collector Patrick Montgomery, vacationing in the Caribbean always included a stop at the local historical societies and museums, but he was surprised by how very few of them had photography collections. 

"I just wondered whether these photographs were taken and whether they still existed," he said. 

That curiosity led him to search for historical photos taken in the Caribbean. In 2005 he started contacting photo dealers and scanning online auction catalogues to see what he could find.

"It turns out they did exist, just not in the Caribbean."

His decade-long project took him to France and the U.K., where a lot of photos from the former island colonies ended up. 

Montgomery has since built what's thought to be one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of historical Caribbean photographs, found outside of the region — consisting of more than 3,500 prints, postcards, daguerreotypes, lantern slides, albums and stereographs. 

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      Now the collection has found a new home at Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario. 

      The gallery announced its acquisition of The Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs on Wednesday — partly a gift from Montgomery, but also the result of a year-long fundraising effort largely by members of Toronto's black and Caribbean communities. The collection will officially debut in 2021. 

      Patrick Montgomery looking through an album in the collection. When he decided to sell his photographs, Montgomery says he specifically looked for exhibitors and museums that had strong Caribbean communities. (Jackson Weaver/CBC)

      The collection captures life across more than 34 Caribbean countries and territories such as Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados in a post-slavery period between 1840 and 1940 — reflecting the diverse faces, changing landscapes and economies. 

      There's an album from Paris that featured photos used in ads for a French Rum company that had factories in Guadeloupe. Other images depict important historic events, showing the 1902 eruption of Mount Pelée in Martinique which destroyed the entire city of Saint Pierre, for example. 

      Though available to researchers and historians by special request, the collection is not yet available to the public. (Jackson Weaver/CBC)

      The exhibit would have never happened if it weren't for the contributions of 27 donors, mostly from the Caribbean and black communities in the city who raised more than $300,000 in one year.

      Investor Bruce Croxon was one of the first donors to get on board.

      "There's a story to be told and I think this exhibit has a really good shot at telling that story," he said.

      Montgomery says the collection functions as 'a capsule of what happened in the late 19th century,' such as these photos of the eruption of Mount Pelée in Martinique. (Jackson Weaver/CBC)

      Croxon's mother is Jamaican and he regularly travels to the island with his family. He says as someone with a personal connection to the Caribbean, the exhibit evokes a sense of pride.

      "If you're from the Caribbean, to know that the city is getting behind an exhibit that celebrates your homeland or part of the world where you originated … you know that part of your story is being told."

      And for people who don't have a personal connection and are visitors or tourists, he hopes this shows another side of the region. 

      Investor Bruce Croxon was one of the donors to aid the AGO's purchase of the Montgomery Collection. (Jackson Weaver/CBC)

      "Ninety per cent of the people that go, land, hit the resort and they don't really get to interact with the country that much."

      "This is maybe a glimpse that there's a whole lot more to the place than Sandals," he said. 

      Before the acquisition, the AGO had no Caribbean photographs and only learned about Montgomery's photos a year and a half ago during a trip to New York. Julie Crooks, the AGO's assistant curator of photography, remembers seeing his collection for the first time. 

      Crooks says that a collection of Caribbean photographic history this large 'will really be an institutional first' in Canada. (Jackson Weaver/CBC)

      "We were floored," says Crooks, "the kind of breadth of the collection … the kinds of stories that these photographs were telling."

      Crooks calls the collection a "social history through photography" and says it shows the complicated changes that were happening in many colonies in the Caribbean after slavery but before independence. She says many of the images highlight a colonial perspective. 

      "They need a lot of context. They need the kind of history to back them, to kind of tell a more expansive, fulsome story about the Caribbean and racism and hierarchies — related to colour." 

      Crooks says the photos operate like a visual history of the islands, documenting a time period that saw vast changes, such as the end of slavery. (Jackson Weaver/CBC)

      That history is seen in some of the offensive language in the original photo captions, something the AGO says it will address head on.

      "It's not language that we use today and nor should we. I think that we have to kind of contextualize why that is," she said. 

      Another major issue for curators is that most of the photographers are unknown, as are many of their subjects. 

      Most of the photographers are unknown, as are many of their subjects. (Unknown/Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs)

      "The first task is kind of really mining the collection and trying to get some control over who these photographers were," says Crooks. The AGO plans to connect with institutions in the Caribbean and scholars who can help fill in the blanks about the time period, the individuals and histories on display.

      "This will really be an institutional first and perhaps a first in Canada."

      And while the exhibition won't be mounted for the public view for another two years, the gallery says it's planning to host special programming around the collection. Scholars and researchers also will have the opportunity to book appointments with the AGO to see the collection in advance.

      Photos in the collection stretch back nearly to the advent of photography, such as this early picture of Montego Bay, which combines both engraving and photography techniques. (Jackson Weaver/CBC)

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