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Old 08-22-2011, 06:08 PM   #1
Join Date: May 2000
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Default Railway photo show

TORONTO - In his iconic "Canadian Railroad Trilogy," Gordon Lightfoot sings of the navvies' great achievement in building an "iron road" running from sea to sea.

"On the mountaintops we stand, all the world at our command."

The Art Gallery of Ontario's new exhibition "Songs of the Future: Canadian Industrial Photographs, 1858 to Today" draws its title from Lightfoot's folk anthem, casting light on the optimism of those lyrics, and their hubris.

Over 100 photos, most from the AGO's collection, chart the history of Canada's industrial landscape, from grain handling in Vancouver to booze-making in Toronto and bridge building on the Miramichi River in New Brunswick.

A black and white image from 1915 shows a locomotive with clouds of steam billowing high from its stack and one human appearing puny and insignificant as he stands alongside.

Tunnels were dug and trestles built, and even train stations of the most modest kind were to be celebrated. A series of postcards from 1900 to 1940 depicts stations in communities such as Terrace, B.C.; Arden, Man.; Neville, Sask.; Petawawa, Ont.; Angeline, Que.; and North Sydney, N.S.

Aerial views in the show, including one of steel plants in Hamilton, Ont., "carry a sense of wonder about them, and a sense of the vastness and the efficiency of Canadian industry," says curator Sophie Hackett.

Most of the images on display are by relatively unknown (or even amateur) photographers, some of whom were hired to document an engineering marvel, says Hackett.

But what once seemed glorious man's sheer technological genius, such as his ability to turn a forest into a mountain of logs later takes on ominous overtones.

A 1954 image taken at Hamilton's Stelco steel mill depicts a hellish scene: a huge black machine spouting red flames looms over two men in hard hats who are attending to the needs of the beast.

And a large-scale 1985 photo near B.C.'s Thompson River by the much-celebrated Edward Burtynsky shows the massive rocky face of a mountain which seemingly threatens to obliterate a CN rail track that engineers dared to cut across it. Nature, it seems, has a way of showing who's really boss.

"There was a sense (in the 19th century) that the landscape and what we could glean from it was there for us to take," says Hackett. The attitude that comes through in many later photographs is, "we need to think twice about how we do that and the impacts."

The dehumanizing aspect of industry is another theme. "Finishing Mill Department" at St. Marys Cement in Bowmanville, Ont., a 1999 photo by Toronto-born Peter MacCallum, shows a claustrophobic tangle of steel ladders and narrow walkways.

Another of MacCallum's images reveals a dreary lunch room in the maintenance shop at the same factory, complete with microwaves and a fridge against a wall. The place looks eerily abandoned.

Such settings, devoid of people, seem to imply that industry, a hallmark of civilization, has sometimes turned out to be incompatible with humanity.

"I think there will be some people who will find this (exhibit) inspiring and some people who will find it troubling and I think that's what art is for," says Hackett.

"Songs of the Future" runs until April 2012.
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