Black Star and Kodak Canada Collections celebrate 10 years at Ryerson

Ryerson has never been anything short of a cultural and intellectual hub. As a link for scholarly communities surrounding the downtown core and beyond, Ryerson doesn’t only draw members of the university, but also academics and researchers from across the world.

In 2005, Ryerson’s reputation attracted two individuals to bring expansive and historical photo collections for preservation and exhibition on the university’s grounds. The Black Star Collection, bestowed by an anonymous donor, and the Kodak Canada Corporate Archives, a contribution overseen by photographer and Ryerson professor Robert Burley, have seen huge progress in the last 10 years.

To commemorate the 10th anniversary of their arrival at Ryerson, Ryerson Folio visited both collections to see how the school has helped preserve and showcase them.

Now exhibited at the Ryerson Image Centre, the Black Star Collection consists of about 292,000 photographs that capture events of the 20th century in black and white. Made for the Black Star photo agency in New York City, the photographs were taken over a period of 80 years by thousands of different photographers.

Some controversial, and all breathtaking, the Black Star Collection presents the early beginnings of photojournalism. In its time, Black Star was one of the biggest picture agencies in North America, distributing its photos to Life magazine for almost 40 years, as well as other American publications. Paul Roth, director of the Ryerson Image Centre, compares the agency to that of CNN or CBC today.

Roth takes pride in the collection and what Ryerson has done with it in the last 10 years. Before the Ryerson Image Centre opened in 2012, the university did not exhibit the collection, but worked on designating it as Canadian cultural property — a large undertaking requiring government approval. It’s the amount of work that Ryerson was willing to put into the collection that encouraged the donor to choose it as the inheritor.

“For Ryerson, the value that we brought to the donor was that we were really excited about the donation,” said Roth.

He is most proud of the progress that Ryerson has made with the collection. Today, it boasts a complete database, has held classes for Ryerson’s film and photo preservation and collections management Master’s program, has brought an exhibition to England, has made book-length publications, and has enabled the fruition of numerous research projects.

“We really want people to use our collection and we’re very proud that we’ve been able to do that,” Roth said.

Located on the opposite side of Gould Street, in the Ryerson library’s Special Collections, are the Kodak Canada Corporate Archives and Heritage Collection. It was donated to Ryerson while Burley was working on a project documenting the closing of analog photography factories called “The Disappearance of Darkness.” After discovering that the Kodak Canada plant was shutting down in 2005, he sought a new home for its records. Ryerson was able to make room for it.

“It shows the history of a very important company involved in photography, but with a Canadian perspective on it,” said Alison Skyrme, special collections curatorial specialist. The collection consists of photographs, cameras, advertising records, magazines, pamphlets, negatives, record books, and other Kodak equipment.

Kodak Canada Inc., which was founded in 1899, was very community-based, employing a lot of people and even generations of families. Growth in the digital photography age during the 1990s threatened the industry, ultimately causing the closing of the much-expanded factory in 2005.

The collection was first housed in a small storage room at Ryerson, marking the beginning of Ryerson University Library & Archives’ Special Collections. Eventually, it moved to the fourth floor of the library where it remains today. In the last 10 years, RULA has worked to organize the expansive records.

“We’ve catalogued everything. It’s accessible online through our database system. We recently launched a new one that’s very user-friendly. And so that’s enabling researchers to really be able to use the collection,” Skyrme said.

Like the Black Star Collection, the new home for the Kodak archives provides an accessible research platform for people stemming from all fields. Roth says that Ryerson is the perfect place to house all of this history.

“We have found Toronto, and Ryerson University specifically, to make this place a magnet for the kind of serious research that photo historians, regular historians, sociologists, and all kinds of scholars, are now doing with photographic imagery,” he said.

Both collections are actively working towards becoming more accessible from home. The Kodak Canada archives will continue to digitize files of their expansive collection as needed. Meanwhile, Roth says that a lot of the Black Star records and digital images will be available online in a few months.

Photos by André Varty