Contact Photo Fest turns lens on the world, little-seen places

Distinctive images of our world from unique points of view go on display in Toronto Wednesday as the 2013 Contact Photography Festival gets underway.

Massive month-long festival includes evocative work by Arnaud Maggs, Sebastiao Salgado

Bryce Canyon National Park during a snowstorm. Utah. USA by Sebastiao Salgado. The Brazilian photographer is one of the artists featured in a primary exhibition at the 2013 Contact Photography Festival. (Amazonas Images)

Distinctive images of our world from unique points of view go on display in Toronto today as the 2013 Contact Photography Festival gets underway.

This year's theme for the month-long festival is "field of vision," with photography used as an expansion of sight, organizers said.

The concept encompasses "artistic vision, but it is also vision in terms of how photography informs the way we see. I wanted a theme that was evocative that would enable us to explore a variety of ideas," Contact artistic director Bonnie Rubenstein told CBC News after a morning event launching the 2013 festival.

The goal is "trying to highlight the significance of photography and its great potential for really creating meaningful experiences and teaching us things that we don’t know and revealing things that we haven’t seen and challenging us to think about events going on in the world and making us laugh. It’s about illuminating our lives."

The theme is explored in Contact's 10 primary exhibitions by top artists — including renowned Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado and the late Toronto photographer and 2012 Scotiabank Photography Award-winner Arnaud Maggs.

Displays in venues both intimate and public

Now in its 17th year, the festival spans dozens of displays, exhibitions, workshops and events at locations throughout the city — from traditional art venues such as the Royal Ontario Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art to more unlikely spots such as Toronto's Pearson International Airport, subway platform screens and downtown billboards. The images themselves also span a range: from archival photos traditionally displayed to boundary-crossing photo sculptures to stop-motion animations.

Toronto photographer and video artist Andrew Emond's series Under the Ground explores city sewer and storm systems, including this 2010 work, Ruisseau Denis storm drain, Montreal. (Contact Photography Festival)

"It is all about community engagement — the community of people that make the photographs and the community of people that occupy the city. We do have the many different aspects where you can just wander upon photography throughout your daily lives," Rubenstein said. 

For instance, during the month of May, TTC commuters will encounter — via track-level video screens at subway stations —Toronto photographer and video artist Andrew Emond's photo series Contacting Toronto: Under this Ground, which documents city sewer and storm systems. It's a topic he's been pursuing with collaborator Michael Cook for more than six years.

"Too often infrastructure is thought of as being this cold, hard system that’s alien to us. We’re kind of here to bring people into [the sewers] and show that there’s more to it — it’s more than just pipes and valves," he said.

"If I can get people just to stop and look at something that they’re not used to seeing, that’s a good breakthrough for me...It’s important to understand just what lays beneath us so when we talk about spending millions of dollars on a system, we know what it entails."

Ottawa-based photographer Jonathan Hobin, known for his controversial photo series of children re-enacting scenes inspired by current events, is another of the more than 1,000 national and international artists featured during Contact.

"I don't want everyone to walk away thinking that life sucks and it's a difficult thing," he said about his provocative images in an interview on CBC's Q cultural affairs show.

"It's also a reflection of us. [We should] take a look at our own behaviour and the things that we're doing."

The 2013 Contact Photography Festival continues through May 31.

Seal Heart is a 2010 image from Jonathan Hobin's controversial series In the Playroom, which features children re-enacting scenes inspired by current events. (Contact Photography Festival)