Evolving Montreal: Capturing a City’s Transformation Through Photography
Learn how the Museum is supporting the local photographic community by documenting the city’s changing face.
Evolving Montreal is a series of documentary photography commissions aimed at capturing transformations in Montreal’s diverse neighbourhoods. Its two main objectives are to promote the production of contemporary photography and to actively build the Museum’s Photography collection.
THE IDEA BEHIND THE SERIES
The idea for Evolving Montreal was born in 2018, from a shared conviction that the Museum should take on a more active role, both as a supporter of the local photographic community and as a contributor to its own collection of photographs.
The project was also motivated by a concern for preservation. It was clear to us – “us” being Hélène Samson (then Curator, Photography), Suzanne Sauvage (then President and Chief Executive Officer) and myself (then Associate Curator, Photography) – that some areas of the city were changing so rapidly that the evidence of their histories would soon be gone forever.
Montreal photographers have often recognized the critical need to document the city’s social and infrastructural change. In the early 1970s, a number of photographers fought alongside grassroots organizations to oppose some of the city’s most dramatic restructuring. David Miller and Clara Gutsche, for example, used photography to help stop the total erasure of the Milton Park neighbourhood. And when a new ramp of the Ville-Marie Expressway was built through Shaughnessy Village, Brian Merrett was there to photograph its inevitable progress – and the historic buildings it destroyed.
Works from these two projects, now essential records of Montreal’s photographic, architectural and social histories, are held in the Museum’s Photography collection. But what about the changes occurring today? Should contemporary photographers be expected to invest their own time and resources in recording for posterity the city’s ongoing transformation?
We felt strongly that documentary projects centered on capturing aspects of Montreal’s urban memory deserve institutional encouragement.
GRIFFINTOWN THROUGH ROBERT WALKER'S LENS
The Museum assigned the first mission in the series to Montrealer Robert Walker, an artist with a distinctively vibrant and acerbic approach to street photography. Over the course of 2018-2019, Walker took to the streets of Griffintown, camera in hand, to record the transformation of this district, then in the midst of a vast urban redevelopment project.
Dominated by brightly coloured construction equipment and seductive property development posters, the neighbourhood proved to be perfectly suited to Walker’s creative style. Through his incisive lens, Griffintown emerges as a stage where traces of past and present clash in a dynamic play of colour, line and pattern.
From that body of work, we selected fifty small-format prints that now take pride of place in the Museum’s Photography collection. In 2019-2020 the Museum presented Walker’s Griffintown project in an exhibition that officially launched the Evolving Montreal series. It also contextualized the work by offering a historical background of the neighbourhood, with images taken in the 19th and 20th centuries providing a broader picture of how Griffintown has evolved.
The immense value of Walker’s Griffintown images is both aesthetic and historical: they portray a reality that, barely three years later, no longer exists. Taken at a time when the neighbourhood was transitioning into a mecca of luxury condo towers, they represent brief moments in a process of becoming.
JOANNIE LAFRENIERE'S INTIMATE PORTRAIT OF HOCHELAGA-MAISONNEUVE
In 2020 photographer and filmmaker Joannie Lafrenière was chosen as the creator of the second installment in the series.
The decision to focus on Hochelaga-Maisonneuve was easily made: Lafrenière has nurtured a deep love for the neighbourhood and its people since settling there almost two decades ago. Composed of both urban landscapes and portraits, her project is rooted in her daily wanderings through Hochelaga’s streets and back alleys, but also in the close relationships she has built over the years with the people who live there.
Lafrenière documents a district that over the past few decades has been undergoing a gradual process of gentrification. While less radical and frenzied than in Griffintown, the changes have nonetheless had a profound impact on the lives of locals. Lafrenière’s intimate and colourful images of the everyday offer a privileged insider’s look at the neighbourhood’s social fabric and at what is being inexorably lost.
From March 31 to September 10, 2023 the Museum is presenting an exhibition of Lafrenière’s project on Hochelaga. As befits her dual vocation as a photographer and filmmaker, the exhibition includes photography and video works, displayed as an enveloping, multi-sensorial and non-linear walk around the neighbourhood.
THE FUTURE OF EVOLVING MONTREAL
The remarkable creativity and documentary value of the projects that have so far emerged from the Evolving Montreal series offer vivid proof that encouraging contemporary photographers to capture the city’s ongoing transformation is a fruitful endeavour.
Sadly, the city has undergone many changes left undocumented. This series is helping to ensure that photographs of Montreal’s present are produced and preserved for the future.