The Medium is (sort of) the Message: some musings on history and photography

Time passes, becomes history as the clock ticks.

Things get lost. Moments and places and the tangible things that connect people to a community, a home, a sense of belonging and place can slip out of reach or be lost through a vast range of circumstances.


And what of the many photographs taken of things and people in the realm of the no-longer? Those visual reminders of a history of things and people, and of the relationship of one to the other? DO the relationships ultimately cease to exist when the things recorded in the photographs are no longer?

IS memory that contingent on physical referents?

“The enduring impact of photographic representation may be that it is not, in fact, a form of representation at all. It is not a copy of reality but a vivid trace of experience better described as a form of evidence, with all the documentary authority that that implies.”

Jennifer Blessing & Nat Trotman, “Introduction” in Haunted: Contemporary Photography, Video, Performance. New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2009. p. 11

This idea has held weight for me from the very start of the YORK project in 2011 – 2012; even more so now that we’re working on York:Moments in the Boyle Street community. We are surrounded by evidence: the physical and visual traces of a community undergoing profound physical and social restructuring are everywhere.


What is in play in the work we continue to create at the Plaza is not ‘reality’ or even a copy of it … but it is evidence.

There were so many stories in the walls of the York. So many people lived there over the years since it opened as the St Petersburg in 1913. Newcomers to the city & the country;  people connected to the railway and other industries that shaped and opened up the city and province; people who needed a place to sleep for a night; people who wound up staying and making the hotel home.

Travellers. Workers. Survivors. People from all walks of life were connected to the neighbourhood and to the hotel in myriad ways. And many of them, like the hotel and its contents, are now in the realm of the no-longer.

And yet they aren’t gone entirely …


“No matter how short an interval exists between the moment of capture and the moment of reception, photography inhabits two temporal registers — the now staged in the moment of its making and the now of the moment it is seen.”

Peggy Phelan, “Haunted Stages: Performance and the Photographic Effect” in Haunted: Contemporary Photography, Video, Performance. New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2009. p. 51


I would add:

These photos of ours, and the collages we have created by layering a range of archival images of the York and maps of the area are yet another ‘now.’

A bridge of sorts perhaps, or a series of gestures that highlight the gaps in our understanding.

To me, all the images we are working with – archival, or from our own cameras – point to the incomplete nature of the stories we have told to each other and ourselves about the York and its inhabitants, and the Boyle Street neighbourhood as a whole over the years.

Each image, each fragment of a story holds a sliver of information … which each of us in turn ‘reads’ through the filters of our own (limited) understanding.

There’s not one story or one view for the York – there are many. Many voices and versions – some of them contradictory.

I feel a sense of urgency in gathering and preserving as many of the stories as possible, before they  – like the hotel itself – are lost.

– Sydney