A New City
June Clark crash-landed in Toronto in 1968 and found her bearings by photographing her surroundings. Alongside a small group of women artists, she taught herself to shoot, turning one of her closets into a darkroom. Now, her early photos provide a rare glimpse of city life in the 1970s and 80s
June Clark arrived in Toronto in a hurry. In 1968, at 26, she moved to the city from Harlem with her then-husband, who was dodging the draft. “It was wrenching. I came from a very close-knit family,” she says. But a gift from her husband helped her settle into her new home: “The camera was my way of walking around, looking for the familiar.” She learned the city by photographing people sitting on their stoops and verandas, chatting on Bathurst, and working in barbershops, delis and restaurants. She knew Toronto was no New York, but she appreciated the sense of community and wanted to capture it through her lens.
Clark had no formal photography training, but she found her way to the Baldwin Street Gallery, where she met other Toronto photographers like Laura Jones, Lisa Steele and Pamela Harris. They eventually founded the Women’s Photography Cooperative, where they learned how to shoot and develop photos. “There was no way we were going to get any training from men in the early ’70s,” says Clark. “In retrospect, it was fantastic. We just made sure we did everything perfectly ourselves.” At the time, the University of Toronto forbid women from using its darkroom, so the cooperative used two darkrooms in the basement of Baldwin Street—and Clark turned a closet in her house into a third.
Clark has lived in Toronto ever since, and her photography became the foundation of a broader art practice that includes photo-etchings, collages and photo-based installations. She’s earned national and international recognition for her work, some of which is housed in collections in Toronto, Ottawa, New York and Paris. Her early photographs—on display at the Daniel Faria Gallery until June 3 for the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival—offer an intimate look at Toronto in the 1970s and ’80s. “It was certainly a much more innocent time,” says Clark. “I’m not sure someone walking around with a camera today would get the type of friendly reception that I got. People are much more wary now, and distrustful.”
Here, she shares the stories behind 12 striking photos from her collection.
Castries Barbershop, Bathurst, 1976: “There used to be barbershops all up Bathurst Street. The barbers were very intrigued by my interest in them, but they just relaxed and said, ‘Come in and do what you have to do.’ There was very little conversation—they just trusted me. I found that happened a lot.”
Festival on Markham Street, 1970: “Ed Mirvish used to host festivals in Mirvish Village every year. What intrigued me most about this scene was all the little kids standing in front of the dancer. Usually, you’d see that kind of thing in a bar—some people would consider it adult entertainment. But they were just fascinated. And then there’s that one wonderful kid who looked right at me.”
Henry’s on Church Street, 1974: “Henry’s camera store was amazingly receptive to women photographers. Other places were quite hostile. That day, I went there to ask a question or make a purchase, and they were doing a shoot for an ad. As you can see, there were women in it, and they all had cameras. The photographer kept asking them to get more and more excited.”
Kids in Alley off Spadina Avenue, 1975: “I’m sure these kids were just truants or something. I happened on them, walked into the alley and simply asked if I could photograph them.”
On the Streetcar, 1979: “This woman’s whole outfit, with the IGA bag, was just of a certain time. I loved it, and I loved her. So I snapped a photo.”
Resident of Barton Long Term Care Facility, 1977: “I was walking by, and this guy looked right at me, saw my camera and beckoned for me to come over. He sat up straight and gestured for me to take a photo—we didn’t exchange a word. At the time, I thought I was just amusing him, you know, being nice. But I have used his images in so many pieces of art. It’s almost as if he was trying to say, You’re really going to love this photograph.”
Untitled, 1972: “I believe this was on the Toronto Islands. It could very well have been Caribana. They looked so fabulous, and that’s all it was. I couldn’t help but want to take their picture.”
Untitled, 1976: “As a kid growing up in New York, I saw nuns in habits all the time. But they got rarer and rarer. I saw this woman coming out of the market, and I thought that I should document it.”
Untitled, 1977: “Look at them—How could you not photograph that?”
Untitled, 1977: “There was an ambulance and a fire engine that had come roaring up the street—this was on Manning, or maybe Euclid. All of these guys came out of the shop to look, and I knew that was the better photo.”
Untitled, circa 1980: “The person using the gum machine is my daughter. She was always with me. Usually, there was no way I would let her use a candy machine, but that was her reward for being dragged around by her mother all the time. She turned 51 last week.”
Women in McDonald’s (Yonge Street, Toronto), 1975: “When I was with the Women’s Photography Collective, we were asked to do an exhibition at U of T featuring photographs of women by women. A week or two into the show, I received a call, and someone informed me that this photograph had been stolen. I was just ecstatic—someone loved it so much that they took a chance and walked off with it. It’s a very special image for me.”