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Canada as seen through Ryerson’s Black Star photo collection

Assembled over 80 years, the collection has nearly 300,000 photos.

By LÉO CHARBONNEAU | FEB 12 2014

The Black Star Collection at Ryerson University is “one of the four great collections of photojournalism from the 20th century,” in a league with Magnum Photos, United Press International and what’s now Getty Images, says Ryerson professor Don Snyder. “It’s an extraordinary resource.”

Assembled over a period of 80 years at the Black Star photo agency in New York City, the collection’s nearly 300,000 photographs chronicle the personalities, events and conflicts of the 20th century, from the early years of the First World War through to the “end of the analogue era in photography,” says Mr. Snyder, who teaches photographic history and collections management at Ryerson.

The Black Star Collection was given to Ryerson by an anonymous donor in 2005, and in many ways the university is still discovering what it holds. “We have a team of three researchers working essentially full time” on the collection, indexing and scanning images and conducting research on how and where the pictures were used, says Mr. Snyder. The university has mounted five exhibitions from the collection to date, on different themes, and Black Star photos were also used extensively in the university’s “Human Rights Human Wrongs” exhibition last year.

Now a new exhibition curated by Mr. Snyder focuses solely on Canada. Entitled “Black Star Subject: Canada,” it opened Jan. 22 and runs until Apr. 13. Mr. Snyder chose the photos simply by typing “Canada” in the database’s topic heading, returning 1,853 images. New-media artist Pierre Tremblay assembled three animated video narratives for the exhibit, showing the photos in different contexts. Together, they “present Canada as an emerging nation, a nation claiming its place on the international stage, both culturally and politically,” says Mr. Snyder. Included are “unforgettable faces, some incredible moments … and these huge vistas.”

Beyond documentation, the images also make a statement, wrote Mr. Snyder: “This is a safe country … its people industrious and friendly.”

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