Life On The Grid: 100 Years of Street Photography in Toronto

Two Women on the Street by Ivaan Kotulsky
 Two Women on the Street by Ivaan Kotulsky

It seems that with the advent of camera phones, everyone has become a kind of glorified street photographer. Granted, some of the photos people post on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram certainly are stunning, but there’s something about real street photography that's missing from these over-processed shots. They’re missing the gritty realism of everyday life. They’re lacking the candid and moody atmosphere of a real street photo. The emotion is gone and the viewer will inevitably scroll down past each snapshot to see what other photos sit in their feed.

That’s why I was so glad that the City of Toronto Archives hosted Life on the Grid: 100 Years of Street Photography in Toronto. This showcase was kick-started when the City of Toronto Archives acquired a large collection of photos belonging to the late avid street photographer Ivaan Kotulsky. His collection of photos was captured from 1990 to 2000 and depicted the startling reality of life on the streets of Toronto.

"This dense collection of material provides a rich documentation of a specific area of downtown Toronto, largely Queen Street West, east and west of Bathurst Street, over a specific period of time,"

explains city archivist Patrick Cummins.

Kotulsky’s interactions with the denizens of the street, be they street people or simply people on the streets, was more intimate than one often sees with work of this nature. He got to know his subjects over the period of a decade, photographing some of the same people time and again, providing a more personal, in-depth portrait of these individuals.

Old Woman with a Cane
Old Woman with a Cane by Ivaan Kotulsky

Although Kotulsky’s work is considered the focal point of the exhibition, there are a substantial number of other artists’ work showcased in Life on the Grid as well. There are submissions from late photographer Arthur Goss, as well as works by amateur photographers Ellis Wiley and E.R. White. Together, these collections offer an intriguing view of one of the world’s major cities throughout 100 years of its storied history. Photograhic works were drawn together from both the city’s existing archives and newer sources and rarely seen collections. Cummins says,

"The photographs that we have chosen for this exhibit focus on the city’s streets themselves… The streets and street life are the subject of the images, rather than the buildings or people that show up in them. The exhibit attempts to show Torontonians at work and at play, living life in and on the streets of a liveable city."

This particular photo exhibit is a real gem for those who are interested in Toronto’s colourful lifestyles, quirks, and history. Never before has an Archives exhibit garnered so much interest and press as Life on the Grid has, and it’s most likely because no other exhibit presents such a unique portrait of the city of Toronto.

arthur gross
Wilton Avenue and Jarvis streets by Arthur Goss

When asked what exhibit patrons should look forward to upon visiting the archives, Cummins responds,

"The exhibit attempts to highlight Kotulsky’s work along with the work of other photographers in our holdings rarely exhibited. It also attempts to show work from some of our more popular collections in a new light, highlighting elements of street photography, intentional or otherwise, that can be found in that work, which is otherwise usually viewed as straight documentary or photo-journalistic in approach."

Viewers come away with a sense of wonder and a new appreciation for both the beauty and wickedness of Toronto’s neighbourhoods and busy thoroughfares. Popular sites and buildings are re-imagined and deeper, more illustrative moods are established from the culmination of so many photographs in one exhibition.

“Hopefully,” reflects Cummins, “viewers will come away from the exhibit with a new appreciation for what a valuable resource photographs in archives can be, over and above and beyond any original context in which they were created and used.”

Life on the Grid: 100 Years of Street Photography in Toronto runs from June 27, 2013, to May 1, 2014, at the City of Toronto Archives (255 Spadina Road). For more event information, please visit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *