Lambeth referred to his genre of photography as “documentary humanism”. He was very conscious about his purpose which was to see Toronto at street level. He was no voyeur, though. He identified with the city he saw. And he saw it with the eyes of an engaged citizen. He was the very essence of the “free-lance conscience with a camera”.
While his subjects were eclectic, there are themes in his Toronto portrait. The children, for example; he was a sucker for kids, especially kids he caught playing in unsupervised places. (Do such things exist today? ) And political action — people meeting, protesting, campaigning, marching, celebrating. He also revelled in close-ups and details — sewer grills, the ornate masonry of bank entrances, grave markers — appreciated for the abstract pattern as much as the thumbnail history.
In 1959 Michel quit his day job and went freelance. Assignments from magazines like the Star Weekly for photographic essays took him inside hospitals, (“Hospital with a Heart” a day in the life of St. Joseph’s), a bowling alley, the Little Theatre, the Stock Exchange. He often wrote the accompanying text. He also wrote book and art reviews for small magazines like Canadian Forum. He became associated with the Isaacs Gallery and the movement of artists who showed there.
His portrait of Toronto was always a personal diary, so inevitably he started photographing his friends, and the events in which they were all participating — events that changed Toronto and transformed the downtown core. His portrait of Yorkville in 1963 and 1966 caught the neighbourhood as the coffee house scene was taking root, and the hippies started arriving. Long before it became chic the area was haven for artists seeking cheap digs, and with them came late night hang-outs like The Purple Onion and the Riverboat. Michel was there with his Leica, photographing artists, openings, and performances: Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland, Robert Hedrick, Gordon Lightfoot, Milton Acorn, Gwendolyn MacEwen….
As the sixties picked up steam, Lambeth became increasingly active in the political movement that inspired an entire generation of Canadian artists. These were the people who decided to reverse convention and not leave Canada to pursue a career. The corollary was building the galleries, theatres, publishing companies and collectives to make that possible. For many years Michel was a stalwart organizer and leader in the Toronto chapter of Canadian Artists Representation. (Now known as CARFAC). His camera followed him there, too. Unlike the critics, he always felt the work of documenting dissent was important. The hard work of organizing unions, of protesting injustice, had value as subject matter. The first time he used his Leica was at a “a socialist group marching” in 1956. By the early seventies, Lambeth was working as the photographer in residence for Toronto Free Theatre.
For those of my own patriotic persuasion, who are practitioners in the arts, there is a consciousness arising which proclaims autonomy for the Canadian cultural worker as well as that of all workers. In declaring his own human destiny, the Canadian artist looks at his own small, but worthy, Canadian tradition, built with local energies and the eyes of an enlightened human being who has come to realize that he has been and is being colonized out of existence.
— Letter to the Globe and Mail, 1974
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