Transcript of Treasures Revealed episode 5
Théo Martin (TM): Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Théo Martin. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.
Welcome to Treasures Revealed!
In this podcast series, we’ll be showcasing certain items in the Library and Archives Canada collection. Each episode, we’ll speak to a LAC employee and highlight an item that they consider a real “treasure” in our collection.
They may be rare items, perhaps unusual or valuable, or items with historical significance. Perhaps they will have a compelling or interesting story to go along with them. More importantly, all of them will showcase our vast and rich collection that is the shared documentary heritage of all Canadians.
Now, on to Episode 5, “Documentary Photography: Gabor Szilasi.”
Jill Delaney (JD): Hi, my name is Jill Delaney. I’m an archivist at Library and Archives Canada. I’ve been working in the Photography, Acquisition and Research section at the Private Archives Branch for a little over 22 years now.
TM: That was LAC photo archivist Jill Delaney. Jill has been a guest on a number of our episodes, including episode 8, “Canada’s Photographic Memory,” back in August 2013, episode 23 on photographer Yousuf Karsh from July 2015, and more recently, episode 66 about Mount Logan and repeat photography in January 2021.
Jill, what is the treasure on today’s Treasures Revealed episode?
JD: So, what we’re talking about today is a recent acquisition of the Gabor Szilasi fonds, which includes all of his negatives from his entire career and a selection of photographic prints. This past acquisition, which happened in 2019 and 2020, combined with a series of prints we acquired in the past from Mr. Szilasi, gives us a collection of about 80,000 negatives and roughly 130 prints. And those cover his life and career as a photographer from 1954 to about 2016. The only exception is that for a short period of time, well, for several years, Gabor worked at the Office du film du Québec in the 1960s, and those negatives are held at the national library and archives of Quebec.
TM: Largely self-taught, Gabor Szilasi started his photography career in Hungary in 1952. In 1956, he documented the Hungarian Revolution in Budapest and shortly afterward fled the country, eventually immigrating to Canada in 1957. As Jill mentioned, Szilasi worked as a photographer at the Office du film du Québec from 1959 until 1971, photographing a wide range of subjects including Expo 67. During these years, Szilasi's technical and practical experience grew, through a wide range of assignments.
We asked Jill to tell us more about Szilasi, the type of photographer he was, and what subjects most interested him.
JD: Gabor was born in Budapest in Hungary in the 1930s. And he and his father fled to Canada in 1957 as refugees from the Communist invasion in Hungary. So he came to Canada in 1957. He tells the story that he basically got off the boat, the immigration official took one look at him and said, “You have TB,” and he was sent to a tuberculosis hospital for several months in Halifax.
After he got out of that hospital, he and his father moved to Quebec City, where his father worked in forestry for several years, and Gabor started to take up photography. He had done a little bit of photography while he was still in Hungary, including photographs of the uprising, the 1956 uprising, well actually 1954-to-1956 uprising in Hungary. So we have a few of those photographs, which are quite amazing, all of the negatives he did there, as well as some early photographs that he took, just of his friends and his family, and scenes in and around the places that he lived in, in Hungary.
And then he came, like I said, he came to Quebec. He was already quite interested in photography, and so he landed a job working as a darkroom technician. At one point he moved to Montréal, and he got the job at the Office du film du Québec, and he started working there, and eventually he was taken on there as a photographer and sent out on a variety of assignments around rural Quebec. He did take some lessons in photography while he was in Québec, in Quebec City, but he’s more self-taught, in that sense. He didn’t really have much formal training as a photographer.
Gabor is a documentary photographer. He’s interested in photographing the people and the places and the architecture, mostly in Quebec. He does a lot of portraits of people. He specifically, I think his best-known photographs are really portraits that he did of people and places in rural Quebec in the 1970s, the late 1960s and through the 1970s. But he’s also done a lot of portraits of the artist community and the writers’ community in Montréal. And also he started to concentrate more of his photographs on Montréal and the architecture of Montréal in the 1980s, including, there’s a fairly well-known series of photographs of storefronts that he took along the complete length of Rue Sainte-Catherine in Montréal.
TM: In 1980, Szilasi said, “Traces of man interest me very much, whether it’s architecture or interiors or just a street or sign. There has to be a connection between nature and man in my photographs.” Considered an exponent of “down-to-earth humane realism,” Szilasi rarely photographed “official” buildings, choosing instead to capture the vernacular and non-monumental architecture of Quebec.
We asked Jill if there are Szilasi photographs that she finds particularly interesting.
JD: Wow (laughs), that’s a tough question, because he’s, I mean, like I said, he’s kind of best, probably best known, or his most recognized photographs are these photographs of the people and places in rural Quebec in the 1960s and 1970s. And those are a series of photographs, what he would come to call environmental portraits.
So, they’re photographs of ordinary people that he would meet as he travelled around, and he would ask if he could take their photograph. And those photographs would be taken inside their home. And they’re quite interesting portraits; you know, they’re not portraits of rich and famous people, but because they’re taken inside people’s homes, you get this whole other layer of understanding about who these people might be and what their lives might be.
And also because they were taken, I think, in the 1960s, there was so much change happening, you know, in Canada, in North America, but especially in Quebec. And that change was happening, you know, in Montréal, in Quebec City, but it was also happening in the smaller communities, so those photographs often reflect that change, or that kind of duality that was happening between the more traditional ways of living and the changes that were happening in the 1960s to Quebec culture. So those are a set of really amazing photographs.
Personally, when I think of the photographs that I like the most, I really like a series he did called “LUX.” And it was done in Montréal, and it’s a set of photographs of storefronts, neon storefronts from the 1980s, I think. And he took them just at twilight. And so there’s this very special colour and this very special glow that he gets out of these colour photographs that he takes. He doesn’t take a lot of colour photographs, but he did in this case, and they’re just really beautiful images, but they also speak to the kind of popular culture and the consumer culture in Quebec at the time. So I find those photographs really interesting.
TM: For the photo series Jill mentioned, entitled "LUX,” Szilasi produced colour photographs of electrical and neon commercial signs in Montréal. Szilasi restricted himself to illuminated signs that had been individually conceived and manufactured and that predated those of the mass-produced and standardized era.
How did LAC start to acquire Szilasi’s photographs?
JD: So, we acquired a small collection of his photographs in about 1975, I think, so a small collection of prints of some images that he took in the Isle-aux-Coudres region in Quebec. And we, not me at that point, but the photography archivist at that point, recognized that he was becoming an important documentary photographer. And so they made two further acquisitions of prints from Gabor in 1982 and 1983. And so, we kind of established a relationship with him, starting in the 1970s, and maintained that relationship over, you know, the next 40, 50 years, really.
So, many archivists before me have worked with Gabor over the years, and we stayed in touch, we followed his career and his work, we had informal discussions with him. I think starting in the early 2010s, we began to have, kind of, more focused discussions with him about the possibility of acquiring his fonds. And then in 2017, those discussions became more serious. Gabor became more interested in the possibility of turning over his negatives. He wasn’t doing as much photography any more, and he was starting to think about his legacy.
So, I visited Montréal several times to meet with him and his family. And we had discussions about what it would mean to give his collection to Library and Archives Canada. I had the opportunity to look through all of his work and understand exactly what was there. And then we also began the negotiations for the acquisition. And so the actual transfer of those negatives and the prints was done in two parts, the first in 2019 and then the second in 2020.
So, it was very exciting for me to see all of his negatives arrive. When they came in at the Gatineau preservation facility, it was very exciting for me. But Gabor told me later, it was really difficult for him to see everything get packed up and leave. And it was difficult for him to go down to his darkroom, which is in the basement of his house, and everything had been emptied out. He said it was a bit like losing all of the “children” that he had created over the last 60 years. So, that’s always the difficulty about making a large acquisition like this. People understand that their work is important and they want to preserve it, but it can be very difficult for them to actually let go of that collection, even though they know it’s going to be well cared for once it comes to the archives.
TM: Jill, why do you consider this collection a treasure?
JD: I would consider this collection a treasure because Gabor is considered one of Canada’s most important photographers from the last century. His work is held in many collections in Canada and abroad, including the National Gallery of Canada. He received the Prix Paul-Émile-Borduas in 2009 in recognition of his work, and the Governor General’s Award for his lifetime of work in 2010. So, he is recognized across the country as a very important photographer.
He’s exhibited widely, including a travelling retrospective of his work, which happened in 1997. And there’s been many publications and interviews covering his career, including David Harris’s really comprehensive biography called The Eloquence of the Everyday.
And I think, more specifically, the types of photographs he’s done, you know, they’re documentary photography, but the art of those photographs is recognized by galleries and museums across the country. And that kind of comes out of this perspective that he has when he’s taking photographs of people. He told me that he has this, he’s really curious about people and people’s lives. But he’s not interested in any kind of what he called, kind of, “gotcha photography,” right? He’s not trying to reveal something underlying in their personality or in the way they spent their lives. He comes at it from a very humanitarian perspective. And he always manages to, kind of, capture the dignity of those people in their own environment. I really think that’s a big part of his success.
He also has always been interested in art and the art world, and so he absorbed a lot of important kind of visual lessons from artists and great photographers into his own images. So, he’s just a really superb photographer in terms of technique and composition and presentation.
He’s part of a larger movement of photographers in Quebec and in Canada and North America, who became interested in documenting everyday life in the 1960s and the 1970s. And he was a member of an influential group of photographers in Quebec called Le Groupe d’action photographique, which included people like Michel Campeau, Roger Charbonneau, Serge Laurin, Pierre Gaudard and Claire Beaugrand-Champagne, for a short period of time. And they were all interested in documenting Québécois society and culture at that time.
His photographs reveal this ordinary aspect of our lives, but I was thinking about this yesterday; somehow he manages to take that ordinariness and give it a sense of purpose. You know, the photographs are intimate, in the sense that they’re taken inside people’s houses, often, or in their place of work, but they’re not invasive in any sense. There’s a sense of directness about those photographs. They’re, kind of, straightforward portraits. But they’re very carefully considered. He spends a lot of time understanding the best place to pose a person in their home and to get the view that he wants.
Having said all that, that all sounds very serious (laughs), but there’s also this kind of, Gabor has a really wonderful sense of humour. And there’s a kind of, there’s often a kind of underlying wit to his photographs. And I think that comes out of his curiosity about all kinds of different types of people. So, in that sense, between those kind of portraits and the portraits that he did of Quebec’s cultural painters, artists, writers, poets, it ends up being this really rich collection of images that speak to the development of Quebec culture from the 1960s up into the 2000s.
TM: To see some of Gabor Szilasi’s photographs, head over to LAC’s website and under “Search the Collection,” choose “Collection Search.” There, you can type in Szilasi’s name and view dozens of his photographs that have been digitized. You can also view some of his images on LAC’s Treasures Revealed album on Flickr. We will update that album with each episode, giving you a chance to view the treasures that we will be highlighting. We will also add a link to the Flickr album in the Related links section on the episode page for this podcast.
Thank you for being with us. I’m Théo Martin, your host. You’ve been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you.” A special thank you to our guest today, Jill Delaney. Special thanks also to Isabel Larocque for her contributions to this episode.
Treasures Revealed theme song provided by Blue Dot Sessions.
This episode was produced and engineered by David Knox.
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