Michel Lambeth

By Andrea Kunard

Although a history of photographic practice in Canada is yet to be written, one strong proponent of Canadian art and photography was Michel Lambeth. Lambeth’s career encapsulates many of the trends and contradictions of post-war photography in particular and Canadian art in general. His photography was motivated by the need to connect with his subject matter through his own self-journey of introspection. He was a deeply, socially conscious man who also held a fervent concern for the plight of the Canadian artist, vituperatively admonishing Canadian cultural institutions for their lack of recognition of Canadian artists over those of other nationalities.

Lambeth undertook conventional art training in England, where he studied drawing and anatomy. He continued his education in Paris and indulged in the milieu of his favorite French photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, Robert Doisneau, and André Kertesz. He adopted their style of photography and its romantic basis that encouraged the photographer to search out his subject matter in the everyday. This genre of photography, sometimes termed “documentary humanism,” cast the photographer as a peripatetic, restless figure who, while seeking to express the plight of his fellow human beings, roamed the streets ever alert to the spontaneous event or gesture that spoke to a poetics of existence. When Lambeth returned to Canada in the early fifties, he started to photograph the familiar areas of his childhood, such as the working class districts of Toronto’s east end, filled with the discordant clashes of diverse cultures. His first camera, a 2¼ Rolleiflex, was ill-suited to capture the vivacious life of the street; held at waist level, it was awkward to manipulate, and more appropriate for posed shots or static subject matter. Lambeth soon switched to the quintessential street photography camera, the 35mm Leica, a highly mobile device that allowed for a near instantaneous response to the flux of life. His solitary journey through the streets, however, was not a simple documentary information gathering exercise. Rather, for him, the descriptive capacities of the photograph spoke to an inner journey. Photography, at this point, was moving beyond its culturally assigned functional role to achieve recognition as a medium of self-discovery.

Yet in mid-1950s Canada, there were few institutions to support a photographer seeking to use the camera as an expressive device. For the most part, the idea that photography could communicate the nuances of interior states was foreign to this country and its art circles, although there were precedents for this view elsewhere. The American photographer Alfred Stieglitz had promoted his photographs of clouds and sky, known as the Equivalents series (1925-31), as correspondences to inner states and emotions. Stieglitz was moved by the lyrical and musical qualities of his subject matter, seeking to take the photograph to the edge of abstraction. Other proponents of interior photographic journeys held in tension with the real were Minor White and Nathan Lyons. The former argued that spiritual or metaphysical themes could be conveyed through a considered framing of subject matter and “mastery” of the technical aspects of the photographic medium. Lyons, working at George Eastman House in Rochester, NY, emphasized that the photographer’s choice of subject matter was a type of vocabulary that communicated an essential response to reality. The camera allowed the photographer to interact with the modern world; it was the “biographer” of the photographer’s experience.

Whether these photographers directly influenced Lambeth is unknown, but they provided sympathy for his work, and opened some people’s eyes to the creative possibilities of the photographic medium. By the mid-sixties, Lambeth found company with a number of Canadian artists, such as John Max, Michael Semak, and Pierre Gaudard, who believed that photography should be spontaneous in its creation and reception. The medium did not need explanation. The photographer, like the artist, worked from feeling and intuition. Lambeth believed that the photograph, when realized by the artist, preserved the direct emotional response of a particular moment and provided a means to share an emotional condition with viewers. It was of little consequence that their response might differ from the artist’s. As Lambeth stated, “Feeling as expressed in emotional freedom with photography becomes at once a diary of and a monument to the particular, unique existence of one man or woman, much as it does any other medium—when an artist uses it.”

One other creative influence on Lambeth was the picture magazine industry. This type publication was an especially efficient disseminator of photographs, and, because very few galleries organized photography exhibitions, one way for photographers to get their work displayed and known to a wide audience.[1] In 1960, Lambeth found employment with the Star Weekly, the weekend magazine component of the Toronto Star. Contrary to the industry’s practice, this publication chose not to use stock photographs to accompany stories. Rather, photographers were given assignments on specific topics with the instruction that the photographs convey the story with minimum text. Empathy with the subject matter was a prerequisite, especially in the case of “mood” pieces where the photographer sought to recreate the atmosphere and disposition of a place rather than approach the session with the intention of documenting or recording an event.[2]

Lambeth worked on more than one hundred photo stories, and in the process became acquainted with other respected Canadian photographers such as Kryn Taconis, John De Visser, Horst Ehricht, Michael Burns and George Hunter. Unfortunately his working life was not to last. Until his death in 1977 at the age of 53, Lambeth was employed only sporadically, a consequence of his struggles with depression. Nonetheless he was a proficient photographer, leaving an archive of more than 110,000 negatives of his photographic journeys through the streets of Toronto and, towards the end of his life, Mexico.

In addition to his work as a photographer, Lambeth was a fierce supporter of artist’s rights. He was one of the original organizers of the Canadian Artists Representation or CAR, now known as CARFAC, and served as Toronto’s local representative. Lambeth, like many Canadian artists of the day, such as Joyce Weiland, John Boyle and Greg Curnoe, lobbied art institutions to promote Canadian artists over those of other nationalities, especially American.[3] It was a time of cultural crisis, fueled in part by the fading flush of success of Expo 67, which, as the promotional literature of the event stated, had “placed Canada on the world stage.” There was anxiety over the increased influx of American television shows, movies, literature and art as well. Most importantly, Canadian artists were now organizing as never before. They were well educated and supported, albeit sporadically and minimally, by government funding and artist-run galleries that provided exhibition opportunities outside the more established institutions and commercial galleries.

Within this highly politicized milieu, Lambeth passionately argued for increased support of Canadian artists. His photography realized this goal through a number of sensitively realized portraits of artists such as Weiland, Curnoe, Arthur Handy, Michael Snow, Gordon Rayner and Gershon Iskowitz. Looking at the body of his work, the condition of isolation of his subjects is repeatedly matched by their quality of inner strength. Lambeth’s work has an elegant, spartan quality, proof of his belief that photographs were “analogues of terse poetry, images which give up their message very quickly, without pretense of gimmick, subterfuge or flippancy.”

 

 



[1] Torosian, Michael, Michel Lambeth, Photographer (Ottawa: Public Archives Canada, 1986), 14. See also Maia-Mari Sutnik, Michel Lambeth, Photographer (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1998).

 

[2] Torosian, Michel Lambeth, 16.

 

[3] For more on the anti-Americanism of the period see Paul Litt, The Muses, the Masses and the Massey Commission (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992).

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