I saw Portraits in COVID Times: Documenting a Nation in Change at the Harbourfront Centre on an eerily quiet afternoon in downtown Toronto. Yet, the empty streets—more barren than usual—only heightened my awareness of the impact of COVID-19. Portraits in COVID Times features fifty-nine large-scale photographs spread between two sites on Queens Quay West, a fraction of the over 5,000 submissions from “citizen photographers and professionals alike.” This exhibition was organized by the team behind Canada COVID Portrait.
Street view of Portraits in COVID Times: Documenting a Nation in Change at the Harbourfront Centre by Brian Medina. Photo: Olivia Mariko Hsuen-Ferris
The photographs date from March to October 2020, documenting the physical and emotional changes in the lives of people from across Canada. The black and white images on the Harbourfront Centre façade are presented on windows outlined in white rims, creating a frame-like effect. On the grey afternoon I visited the Harbourfront Centre, these black and white images against a charcoal-coloured building gave the illusion of being inside a world of black and white. The choice to exhibit these thirty images in black and white was an effective one, capturing a sense of historic monumentality despite the intensely contemporary nature of the content. These COVID portraits masquerade as archival documents by capturing the sensibility of famous photographs of the past.
Gage Fletcher for Trillium Health Partners (Mississauga, ON)
The bizarre yet familiar photographs feel comfortable in their recognizability: a masked girl in a bodysuit jetés outdoors, a couple bangs pots on their doorstep, a health-care worker stands heroically in PPE. From the dynamic gravity of a Black Lives Matter vigil to the chaotic delight of using a kiddie pool in the living room, these images capture the large and small changes to our lives in 2020. One of my favourites is the humorous oddity of Allan Yong sitting alone on an empty plane, the only passenger on a flight from Toronto to Ottawa. A once-in-a-lifetime trip, Yong flies in a 58-seat jet normally reserved for the likes of the Toronto Raptors or the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Allan Yong (Ottawa, ON)
One of the most emotionally cutting images is by Sharon Robertson in Vancouver BC. This photograph captures the small joy of a visit between an elderly couple and their family. The family looks with mixed happiness through a window from the outside, while inside, an elderly woman grins on the phone and an elderly man gazes wistfully out of frame. This scene is bittersweet in itself but the caption is heart wrenching: “The couple passed away five hours apart on April 6 after being diagnosed with COVID-19.”
Sharon Robertson (Vancouver, BC)
The rest of the exhibition is located a few blocks west, lining the sidewalk at Queens Quay W and Rees St. Here the rest of the photos are in colour against a black backdrop, lined one by one along a temporary wall. Each image has a caption below it and the action of stopping to read each one recalls the ritualistic viewing of art works in a gallery many of us haven’t practiced for a year. Pieces of the exhibition are tearing off and flap gently in the wind—an accidental consequence of a Toronto winter no doubt—serving as an unintended reminder that this isn’t mounted inside a gallery because it can’t be.
The second site of Portraits in Covid Times at 318 Queens Quay W. Photo: Olivia Mariko Hsuen-Ferris
Reverend John Pentland in Calgary, Alberta stands in front of pews with photos of community members on March 22, 2020 by Leah Hennel (Calgary, AB).
The colour photography of the second site heightened my contemporaneous awareness, but the range of joy and gravity in the subject matter remains. Tara Barnes’ image of “Sarain Fox in resistance on unceded Algonquin territory, Golden Lake on May 5” truly belongs at the second site in its effective use of colour to convey the message. This image next to Darren Calabrese’s image of protestors at a June 3 march against anti-Black racism and police brutality in Halifax, Nova Scotia serve as potent reminders of what was done and all that is to come in racial justice work.
Sarain Fox portrayed by Tara Barnes (Toronto, ON)
Protestors at a June 3 march against anti-Black racism by Darren Calabrese (Halifax, NS)
Daniel Neuhaus’ May 3 portrait of a fox near CityPlace in downtown Toronto stands out due to both the brilliant red fur and the message captioned below it: “…I am already feeling nostalgia for that brief moment in the history of our city when the animals ruled the streets.” With the fear and uncertainty of the early pandemic, the small joys were brighter by contrast. Portraits in COVID Times itself evokes a sort of nostalgia for 2020, in spite of the collective pain the world suffered. The euphoria of seeing animals run about or of hearing the loving cheers of an unknown neighbour is one of those feelings singular to lockdown and accessible now only by memory.
Daniel Neuhaus (Toronto, ON)
Portraits in COVID Times is a perfect time capsule, ready to be buried and discovered by the later generations who will marvel at our unfathomable world. This exhibition, and the photos on the Canada COVID Portrait website and Instagram, capture exactly what it felt like to be a Canadian during this time. The unbelievable grief, hope, frustration, humour, triumph, and loneliness; it’s all there along Queens Quay. These photos capture our national truths, and for that reason we will look at them years from now, with tears in our eyes and goosebumps all over, and we will remember all we lost and gained.
Olivia Mariko Hsuen-Ferris
*Exhibition information: November 9, 2020 – May 1, 2021, Harbourfront Centre, 235 Queens Quay West, Toronto. Rees Street Parking Lot, 318 Queens Quay West, Toronto.
Featured image: Patrons at the Bow Valley Ranche Restaurant in Calgary, Alberta enjoy a Covid-safe dining experience in pop-up garden globes on August 5, 2020, captured by Leah Hennel
Images are courtesy of Canada COVID Portraits