By Danielle ManningWalking through the doors of the University of Toronto Art Centre (UTAC) for the opening of the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival exhibition Just As You Are: Portraits by Robert Giard, I was immediately enveloped in a dynamic, bustling space, full of energy and animated conversation. The exhibition was curated by three students from the University of Toronto’s Museum Studies program— Julia Cyr, Diana Gore, and Renée van der Avoird—and was presented in conjunction with the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies. The collaborative nature of this project had clearly encouraged a diverse audience, whose vibrant discussions and enthusiasm infused the packed gallery space. Containing this energy, or perhaps just taking it in, were over forty black-and-white portraits positioned on the surrounding walls, depicting gay and lesbian literary figures—a selective sampling from the nearly 600 individuals that photographer Robert Giard had documented in the wake of the AIDS crisis, between 1985 and his death in 2002.
Eight of these portraits, recently donated to the University College collection by Giard’s partner of thirty years, Jonathan Silin, were of Canadian gay and lesbian writers. Arranged on the wall directly across from the entrance, these portraits immediately caught my attention. The soft lighting and the straightforward, unadorned images created an atmosphere of quiet thoughtfulness and repose that contrasted the energy of the people who moved about in front of them. The first picture that I focused on was the portrait identified as Canadian writer Daryl Hine. He was seated in an ornate wicker chair with a high, rounded back that framed his head like the dazzling halo of a Byzantine icon. Yet, in contrast to this elevated, symbolic reading, Hine looked completely at ease, his expression thoughtful and his eyes compassionate. I later read a biography of Hine by the Poetry Foundation that described his work as “abstract, lofty, formal, and glittering,” while also “tender, honest, and rigorous.” By invoking the contrast between a lofty, symbolic interpretation and the warmth of Hine’s expression, Giard’s portrait is highly effective in capturing the opposing qualities at play in Hine’s writing. Yet, even without prior knowledge of these writers or their work, the photos are monumental in their simultaneous depth and simplicity. In keeping with the photographer’s intentions, reflected in the title of the exhibition, the subjects of these portraits are truly presented “just as they are.”
As in Hine’s portrait, it was the eyes of each subject that captivated you, drew you in. Rarely was your gaze was not met by the eyes of one of the sitters, creating a moment of mutual recognition and shared humanity. You immediately felt in these images a profound sense of dignity. As literary theorist Susan Sontag writes in her book, On Photography, “To photograph is to confer importance. […] There is no way to suppress the tendency inherent in all photographs to accord value to their subjects.” At an historical moment when gay and lesbian writers were marginalized, lacking the recognition they deserved, Giard literally and metaphorically placed them inside the frame. Yet, the medium is only part of what conveys these writers’ importance. In the talk that preceded the opening reception, Muriel Diman, the subject of several photographs by Giard, revealed that the photographer “had enormous intelligence, capacity for empathy, and [the ability to see] the perspectives of a range of people. And, in that context […] you felt absolutely special.” This nuanced thinking and emotional intelligence, resulting from Giard’s sincere and profound interest in the people he photographed, are what give his images their complexity and allure.
Looking at these portraits, I was also struck by the diversity of the people presented: male, female, trans, people of different ages and ethnicities, famous writers and those who were lesser-known. In light of Toronto’s upcoming Pride Festival (June 22-July 1), the exhibition is a particularly timely celebration of the variation and scope of gay and lesbian creative lives and culture. While bringing recognition to previously undervalued members of the literary community, Giard’s portraits also invite visitors to consider those who are not represented—those who are still “outside the frame.” In this regard, they promote and advance the ideals of acceptance and respect that we continue to aspire to today. Don’t miss this enticing exhibition, on until June 30th at the University of Toronto Art Centre.
For exhibition information and details, please visit the UTAC website.