Ten fascinating snapshots of Toronto in the 1970s
In 1968, when the four Warsaw Pact nations invaded Czechoslovakia, Viktor Kolář, a librarian and schoolteacher in his mid-20s, took his father’s old Leica camera, left his hometown of Ostrava and immigrated to Canada on his own. He worked a remote mining job in B.C. before landing in Toronto, a city that was just starting to embrace its modernity: Ontario Place and Pearson’s $27.5-million terminal had just opened. But after five years, Kolář returned to Czechoslovakia to pursue his career in photography and, eventually, teach at a film school in Prague.
Canada, 1968–1973, on now until February 18 at the Stephen Bulger Gallery, is only the second time Kolář’s work will be on display in Canada. The black-and-white shots are a catalogue of his stay, including documentary photography from a handful of cities. “As an outsider, he was able to see the significance in situations and objects that a local would take for granted,” says Stephen Bulger, the show curator. “He is also interested in the human condition, so he created bold compositions of people and places.” We asked Bulger to tell us about 10 of Kolář’s photos of Toronto in and around 1970.
“A feeling of transition permeates Viktor’s work. This photo seems reminiscent of his own feelings about being in the city. The couple looks like they have been marooned; they seem almost captive. That is one of the beautiful parts of photography—something ordinary can seem extraordinary in the hands of a talented photographer like Viktor.”
“This was the original terminal one at Pearson—a sparkly, beautiful, utterly modern new building. At the time, airports evoked wonderment and the jet-setting lifestyle; everything was sleek and shiny. The man on the couch was probably a worker at the airport, and there was something overwhelming about his job and all that luggage, each with their own stories to tell.”
“It fascinates me when photographers can squeeze so much into a frame. This photo is a blend of old and new, young and old. Someone is playing baseball beyond the fence on the left. Then there is this monstrous wall, which renders the elderly ladies dwarf-like. The two younger people are walking past, strident and stylish, without any regard for them. The photo looks like it could have been taken near the waterfront.”
“I love the way Viktor has dissected the frame here. On the right, you have a sweet innocent photo of youth, juxtaposed with an image of the bohemian lifestyle—a different type of Toronto, which was still very much a buttoned-down society back then. If you look closely, you’ll even see a dirty foot resting on the rails. This looks like Yorkville or Cabbagetown to me.”
“This photo is a great memorial to Honest Ed’s. Viktor captured the overwhelming feeling of disorientation in the store. My best memory there was my last visit during their sign sale. I had planned to spend about an hour in there, but the three hand-drawn posters I bought for $9 ended up costing me eight hours. I remember standing in the very spot that these people were shot. You would reach a corner, get your hopes up thinking it’s almost your turn to cash out, only to realize that there’s another section of lines. But you are in too deep and you can’t leave. Honest Ed’s holds you captive in that way.”
“When Ontario Place opened in 1971, I was seven years old, about the same age as the girl in this photo. At the time, Ontario Place was a completely modern place, a theme park on the lake at a time when the only good access to the waterfront was east or west of downtown. Viktor captured just enough architecture for Ontario Place to be completely identifiable—I like that it’s not a cliché shot of the Cinesphere. In the background is the old stadium and bandshell, where all the big acts—David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Simon and Garfunkel, Supertramp—performed in the summer. ”
“Back then, it was common to see naked women plastered on store windows—National Geographic would be on the rack next to Playboy. This photo was probably taken at a convenience store near Yonge and Dundas, which was then a very seedy part of town. It looks like there may even be a peep show going on here. It seems like both men came to this part of town to find something.”
“This could be Toronto Island. It captures something timeless: the role that parks play in cities. They are there to give us a taste of nature. It’s also interesting that the young girl is in a formal dress, which is not what you expect in nature.”
“This photo speaks to extreme isolation—the city is large and looming over you. The mongrel dog on the rooftop seems to be acting as a guard. There’s something slightly ominous about what I would call the urban forest. It may have been taken around King and Spadina, and I think Viktor was trying to convey that it’s a dog-eat-dog world.”
“This is not a glorious photo of the city. There’s something foreboding about it: the man looks like he is walking away from a bad situation, there is an air of mystery, the building looks abandoned with most of the windows painted over, and the car seems like something from a film noir. Certainly not a picture of a happy story!”