Disraeli Revisited – Chronicle of an Event in Quebec Photography

A Look Back on the 50th Anniversary of a Pivotal Chapter in Quebec Photographic History

Until February 19, 2023, the McCord Stewart Museum presents Disraeli Revisited – Chronicle of an Event in Quebec Photography, marking the 50th anniversary of this major event in the history of photography in Quebec. Through 144 photographs, including over 67 that have never been exhibited before, 44 archival documents and a video, the public is invited to discover the Disraeli project, the topic of heated debate in the 1970s that sparked a deep reflection on the ethics of photographic representation and image rights. Through this exhibition, the Museum intends at once to celebrate, expand and revisit the original body of work by bringing together images and objects that tell the story from multiple points of view.

The Disraeli project

Disraeli Revisited

Roger Charbonneau, Matteau Children, Disraeli, 1972.
© Roger Charbonneau

In the summer of 1972, four young photographers spent three months in Disraeli. Claire Beaugrand-Champagne, Michel Campeau, Roger Charbonneau and Cedric Pearson, along with researchers Ginette Laurin and Maryse Pellerin, set out to produce a collective documentary portrait of Disraeli and its residents’ everyday reality. The group, officially known as the “Collectif de l’Imagerie Populaire de Disraeli,” lived in a farmhouse on the outskirts of town. Throughout their stay, they photographed and interviewed locals and developed certain friendships. This closeness made it possible for the photographers to take portraits of their subjects in action or posing nonchalantly in the places where they lived and worked.

In the months and years that followed the group’s stay in Disraeli, the photographs were widely distributed in publications and exhibitions. In 1974, controversy broke out when the popular French-language magazine Perspectives published an article and a selection of 18 images. This magazine – inserted in La Presse, La Tribune, Le Soleil, Le Droit and other French-language newspapers – was distributed in more than 550,000 copies.

Influential people from the Disraeli community soon expressed their disapproval in local papers, stating that the photographs unfairly and negatively represented the town. Some Montreal journalists, including famous writer Pierre Vallières in Le Devoir, came to the group’s defence. This article triggered a strong reaction from prominent residents of Disraeli, creating a real media storm. While this debate brought the Montreal photography community to reflect on the social impact of documentary photography, it also raised such broad questions as the manipulation of information by the media, the idealization of rural life by the younger generation, and the subjectivity of photography as an art form.

Previously unpublished photographs and audio recordings

Disraeli Revisited

Claire Beaugrand-Champagne, Ti-Noir Lajeunesse, The Blind Violinist, Disraeli, 1972.
© Claire Beaugrand-Champagne

In collaboration with the photographers, exhibition curator Zoë Tousignant, Photography Curator at the McCord Stewart Museum, revisited an imposing body of images and chose to present over sixty previously unpublished photographs, with the goal of giving the public a new perspective on the project.

“The aim in selecting images in which we see the members of the collective directly interacting with the people of Disraeli was to show another side of the picture, or to see how the interpretation of this body of work might change if we’re presented with evidence of a real relationship between photographer and photographed. These images also remind us that the photographers and researchers who created the Disraeli project were very young. They were all just starting out on their respective career paths,” said Zoë Tousignant.

A series of audio recordings produced by the group’s researchers, Ginette Laurin and Maryse Pellerin, which were thought to have been lost, were recovered while putting together the exhibition. On top of providing a glimpse into the soundscape that surrounded the photography sessions, these recordings are exceptional documents on the history of a period and a place. A 16-minute video presented in the exhibition, produced by the Museum’s team, combines audio clips and a selection of the photographers’ contact sheets, creating an amplified experience of some of the better-known images.

50 years after Disraeli: a critical reassessment

Still studied in college and university art history and photography courses today, the Disraeli images are canonical in the history of Quebec photography. This project is now discussed not only for its intrinsic value, but also to spark reflection on the ethics of photographic representation. The aim is not to resolve the controversy, but to continue examining the issues that photography can raise and what photographs mean for those who take them as well as those represented in them. For Zoë Tousignant, telling the story of this body of work today is also a chance to reflect on the impact of the circulation of photographic images:

“For me, it was clear from the start that the aftermath of the Disraeli project – including the media storm that erupted in the press – needed to be part of the exhibition. Although it was upsetting for the members of the collective at the time, the way the project was discussed in the press has become an intrinsic part of the stories that these images tell. Photographs accrue meaning every time they are published and seen in a new context, and that meaning needs to be reflected in the history that we write.”

“Fifty years later, reflections on representation and image rights triggered by the debate that followed the mass circulation of the Disraeli images are still topical. As a Montreal social history museum and a photography museum, we are aware of the social impact of photography. We have been careful to consider this dimension in our actions and artistic choices at the Museum. Disraeli Revisited is an excellent opportunity to reiterate our commitment to amplifying the voices and perspectives of people affected by our exhibition projects,” said Suzanne Sauvage, President and CEO of the McCord Stewart Museum.

For opening hours and to purchase your tickets visit: www.musee-mccord-stewart.ca

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