Fifteen mesmerizing photos that reveal the lives of Torontonians in the 1960s and ’70s

Photographic Memory

Joan Latchford was a nun who left the convent to devote herself full time to her true calling: documenting the unseen lives of Torontonians in the 1960s and ’70s. Sixty years later, a treasure trove has been unearthed. Here, a retrospective of her life’s work

By Haley Steinberg| Photography by Joan Latchford
| January 26, 2022
Fifteen mesmerizing photos that reveal the lives of Torontonians in the 1960s and ’70s

Joan Latchford was many things in her life: teacher, nun, TV producer. By the age of 20, she’d crossed the Atlantic nine times in search of a sense of purpose. She found it almost by accident. After leaving her convent in the U.K. in the late 1950s, she returned to Toronto and bought her first camera—a Hasselblad. “Instead of paying bills, of which I had a number, I decided I would get something that I really wanted, which was a good camera,” she once said. She soon switched to a Leica, set up a darkroom in her basement, and started a photography career, knocking on magazine editors’ doors to sell her images. Her clients included the CBC, Chatelaine and the National Film Board’s stills division, which commissioned her to capture images of Toronto’s Caribbean diaspora.

Latchford had worked a number of odd jobs, including at Simpsons department store, where she met and trained new Canadians. For years, she hosted weekly gatherings where newcomers could talk, mingle and drink coffee. Sometimes she had as many as 70 people crammed into her tiny apartment. It was at one such get-together that she met her husband, Frank, the founder of an educational film company. The Latchfords raised eight kids—two biological and six adopted. Their home was always open to anyone who needed a hit of kindness or companionship.

Latchford’s camera quickly became an extension of her arm, and she trained it on Toronto’s bustling streets in the 1960s and ’70s. She was as much a part of the city’s ecosystem as the Yorkville hippies and the touring blues singers. “My mom would walk up to anybody and talk to them,” says her son Ben Latchford. “If she saw someone who interested her, she would follow them around with her camera.”

Subjects that pop up frequently in her work include Hare Krishnas, Caribana revellers, Yonge Street patio diners, and children—always children. She shot life as she saw it: joyous, complicated, funny, full of stories. “Into her later years, my mother was riding her scooter around Toronto, photographing anyone who caught her eye and handing out money to the homeless,” Ben says. After her death in 2017, she left behind around 40,000 negatives, which she’d meticulously filed under categories like, “Men,” “Women,” “Children,” “Celebrities” and “Humour.” She also kept detailed notes: one of her phone books had B.B. King’s number in it.

One day in the fall of 2019, Ben, who owns a butcher shop on St. Clair West, ran into an old high school friend, Chelsea Hulme-Wilyman, and her husband, Cory Wilyman. The couple were in the process of opening the Cardinal Gallery, a boutique space at Davenport and Dovercourt that exhibits fine art photography. Ben suggested they take a look at his mom’s stuff and sent them a montage of her photographs. They were blown away. “We knew immediately that this was something special,” Hulme-Wilyman says.

She and her husband began combing through thousands of never-before-seen negatives to curate a show for the gallery. The result, “Love Isn’t Limited,” showcases 36 of Joan’s images from the 1960s and ’70s, all of them limited-edition, hand-processed silver-gelatin archival prints, which will be on view by appointment at the Cardinal until the end of February.


“Caps” • Caribana, Toronto Island, 1972: Many of Latchford’s photographs from this period focus on the city’s Black communities, especially new Caribbean immigrants. Five of Latchford’s adopted children were Black, and she went on to study Afro-American culture and anthropology at Howard University.

 

Fifteen mesmerizing photos that reveal the lives of Torontonians in the 1960s and ’70s
“Little Italy” • Toronto, 1961: Latchford took several shots of this little girl. The curators selected this one for its exceptional composition as well as the girl’s expressive face. “This photo reminds me of my childhood running through the streets of Chinatown,” Hulme-Wilyman says. “It’s so of its time. It’s not something you would ever see now—a little girl hanging out on the streets alone, in her mother’s high-heeled shoes.” They also loved the old-model streetcar and the gumball machine in the background.

 

“Mighty Sparrow” • Contrast barbecue, 1973: The musician Mighty Sparrow, centre, was known as the King of Calypso in the 1960s and ’70s. This photo was taken at a barbecue for Contrast, a Black-run newspaper. Latchford, a friend of the newspaper’s owner, was attending the barbecue as a guest when she noticed Mighty Sparrow. “We love this image for everything it has going on,” says Hulme-Wilyman. “The old-school Molson Canadian bottles, the marijuana plant in the background. It evokes joy and merriment.”

 

Fifteen mesmerizing photos that reveal the lives of Torontonians in the 1960s and ’70s
“Lollipop” • Royal Winter Fair, 1968: While combing through Latchford’s negatives, Hulme-Wilyman was drawn to the androgynous look of these two women. “These photos were taken decades ago, but they still speak to the current cultural moment—the #MeToo movement, transgender rights, inclusivity,” she says. “They’re like a love letter to Toronto from the past.”

 

“Hare Krishna” • Yonge Street, 1971: Hare Krishnas were among Latchford’s most frequent subjects. “The man with the cap at the far right is the focus of the image, but in the background you have this delightful scene of the Hare Krishna engaging in conversation with the two older ladies,” says Cory Wilyman.

 

“Simpsons” • Toronto, 1968: Latchford joined the Sacred Heart convent in London, U.K., in the 1950s and lived as a nun for seven years before a desire for a different life brought her back to her hometown of Toronto. She went on to photograph nuns throughout her career—including at Simpsons, the department store where she once worked.

 

“Patio Scene” • Yonge Street, 1971: On summer weekends, Yonge Street would close off for pedestrians. “It was a cool time back then, when everyone would be out and about,” says Wilyman. “It reminded us of all the street patios that opened up during the pandemic.” Latchford had an amazing eye for detail: the empty beer pitcher, the cigarettes on the table, and—something you wouldn’t see today—a father who appears to be pouring beer into his child’s mouth.

 

Fifteen mesmerizing photos that reveal the lives of Torontonians in the 1960s and ’70s
“Bottle Cap” • Yorkville, 1970: Latchford shot many images of hippies and American draft dodgers in Yorkville over the years. “My parents, who were artists, hung out there,” Hulme-Wilyman says. “This image just screams ‘I am woman, hear me roar.’ ”

 

Fifteen mesmerizing photos that reveal the lives of Torontonians in the 1960s and ’70s
“Bob Marley” • Toronto, 1974: This photo was shot at the Harriet Tubman Centre, a Black community hub that operated at St. Clair and Oakwood between 1972 and 1976. Joan thought she was shooting a random man kicking a soccer ball. It was only years later, when Ben saw the photo, that he said it looked like Bob Marley. “My mother had no idea who Bob Marley was,” Ben says.

 

Fifteen mesmerizing photos that reveal the lives of Torontonians in the 1960s and ’70s
“Woman” • Caribana, 1971: This photo, taken at Caribana on the Toronto Islands, is one of Hulme-Wilyman’s favourites. “This woman exudes cool and effortless chic,” she says.

 

Fifteen mesmerizing photos that reveal the lives of Torontonians in the 1960s and ’70s
“Love Isn’t Limited” • Toronto, 1961: This was the first image the curators chose, and they built the show around it. “It gives me chills every time I look at it,” Hulme-Wilyman says. “These two little kids look so innocent. They aren’t carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders—they’re just two friends playing.” Last fall, a woman came into the gallery and recognized the boy with the tricycle. He was her brother. “She was completely blown away,” Hulme-Wilyman says.

 

“Perfect Host” • St. Clair Mall, 1968: Hulme-Wilyman says they joked about naming this photo “Is That You, John Cleese?” because the subject looks like he just stepped out of a Monty Python sketch. The title they settled on comes from the display behind the shopping cart. They loved the man’s impeccable style, and how his shopping cart is full to the point of absurdity. “We just thought, We want to go to this guy’s party,” she says. The image is from one of Latchford’s folders labelled “Humour.”

 

“Gumball Machine” • College Street, 1966: New Canadians, like these kids in Little Italy, feature in many of Latchford’s photographs.

 

Fifteen mesmerizing photos that reveal the lives of Torontonians in the 1960s and ’70s
“B.B. King” • Harriet Tubman Centre, 1973: The man sitting with B.B. King is the famed Jamaican keyboardist Jackie Mittoo. King and Mittoo visited the Harriet Tubman Centre to give music lessons to children and sign autographs. Latchford shot several photos of their performance, but the curators like this image because the men are watching the kids’ performance, just out of frame. Latchford spent a lot of time at the Harriet Tubman Centre. “She had B.B. King’s phone number in her little black book,” Hulme-Wilyman says.

 

Fifteen mesmerizing photos that reveal the lives of Torontonians in the 1960s and ’70s
“Streetdance” • Caribana, 1967: Latchford shot this photo at the first Caribana festival in 1967, likely on Yonge Street. “There’s a man playing the saxophone in the background, and you can just hear the music from the festival,” Hulme-Wilyman says. All the photos in the show, with the exception of “Bottle Cap,” are candid.

 

 


This photo essay appears in the February 2022 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe for just $24.99 a year, click here.

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