The Light Inside: Photographs and Films – Capturing North American Identities in the 20th Century

Decades ago, an experimental photographer won over the North American photography scene. Today, her archives are being brought back to life at the Ryerson Image Centre.

At first with half-frame and 35-mm cameras, and eventually with a 2 1/4-inch camera, Wendy Snyder MacNeil captured timeless identities. The Light Inside: Photographs and Films, curated by MacNeil’s brother, Don Snyder, features hundreds of humanistic portraits.

MacNeil, who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for creative photography is no stranger to the world of pictures and people. “She photographs people, delves into their lives, listens to their stories, puts their lives together either as portraits or composite pictures or group pictures,” said Snyder.

Her attempt to capture more personal and engaging photos of her subjects is what made her work so prominent in the 1970s and 1980s.

The exhibition features walls of photos of MacNeil’s husband, daughter, her students at the Rhode Island School of Design, and more. To MacNeil, every person she has photographed is unique. “I’m looking at these people as a special group of art. I stare at them and think, ‘Oh my god, these people are incredible!’” she said.

While there is no set theme to MacNeil’s work, her main focus is people individually and people in groups. She believes a theme would put people into a box. She enjoyed that her subjects were always surprising her.

Snyder believes the concept to MacNeil’s photos is a never-ending phenomenon and a way of connecting with people through photographs. Today, people are engaged in their cellphones and on Facebook, looking at pictures of family and friends. “These photos are Wendy’s family and friends. They’re tightly framed, the way you’d look at a photograph on a cellphone.”

Although Snyder does realize a difference between MacNeil’s work and pictures taken today, he finds a resonance between a phone screen glowing to the glow of the analog photos.

MacNeil’s photographs create a visual presence of people she has intersected with, portraying family ties and group identities. Snyder believes that connecting with people through photographs doesn’t change from one era to another.

Her main discovery through years of exploration is that photography works almost on its own. In the 1980s, a portrait she had taken of a woman was featured in a magazine. On the opposite page, there was a snapshot of the woman’s passport photo. MacNeil didn’t get the reaction she hoped for when the magazine was released. Viewers didn’t understand why she was putting the photos together, which upset MacNeil. “It’s the same person. It’s a similar look and it didn’t matter who took the photograph. Photography is doing something on its own,” she said.

MacNeil is a big believer in letting the photographs speak for themselves. Most of the photos in the RIC don’t come with an explanation. However, she is tremendously happy with the setup. “It’s the best I’ve seen my work displayed ever. Nothing even comes close. And it’s not easy to display these works to get the richness, but also the fragility of the paper.”

The exhibit can be found in the main gallery of the RIC from Jan. 20 to April 10.

Photos by Amanda Skrabucha