In photos: the untold stories of the 20th Century

In photos: the untold stories of the 20th Century
Started by German refugees in the 1930s, Black Star photographic agency’s fabled archive is opened up in this new exhibition.

As the Nazis rose to power, Kurt Safranski, Ernest Mayer and Kurt Kornfeld fled their hometown of Berlin, bringing their impressive expertise in media and publishing to the United States. In 1935, they formed Black Star photo agency, ushering in a new era of visual storytelling.

The 1937 Hindenburg disaster proved to be a turning point: the disastrous launch of the aircraft set the media aflame as editors across North America and Europe scrambled to publish cinematic photographs that could convey the scale of horror and chaos like nothing else.

Black Star quickly positioned itself at the forefront of the industry, establishing a level of power previously unseen. They helped convince Henry Luce, the publisher of Time, to start Life so that the US had a picture magazine to rival the great glossies coming out of Europe. The success of Life propelled Black Star to new heights as they managed work for both agency and freelance photographers.

John Launois, Untitled [“Cheetah” nightclub, New York City, New York, United States], 1967, gelatin silver print. The Black Star Collection, The Image Centre

“They had a huge influence on the news and the way consumers would get visual information. Instead of just reading about what was happening they would see who was affected by violence. It increased public awareness and shifted how we feel empathy towards people we don’t know or see,” says Paul Roth, Director of the Image Centre (IMC) in Toronto.

Roth and co-curators Gaëlle Morel and Rachel Verbin have masterfully co-curated a wealth of histories drawn from the Black Star Collection for the new exhibition, Stories from the Picture Press: Black Star Publishing Co. & the Canadian Press.

Comprised of early 292,000 photographs anonymously donated to Toronto Metropolitan University in 2005, the Black Star Collection charts the progression of the 20th century through photography as few other archives can, preserving moments that woven into our collective histories.

Hilmar Pabel, Untitled [Youngsters protesting after the invasion of Czechoslovakia by five countries of the Warsaw Pact (the USSR, Hungary, Bulgaria, East Germany, and Poland), Prague, Czechoslovakia], 1968, gelatin silver print. The Black Star Collection, The Image Centre
Griffith J. “Griff” Davis, Untitled [Children parading, Liberia], 1950, gelatin silver print. The Black Star Collection, The Image Centre

Although the collection includes the work of W. Eugene Smith, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt, and Philippe Halsman, the curators sought to explore the impact and legacy of the agency through the lens of photographers and stories that have gone largely overlooked.

Bringing together the work of photographers including Michael L. Abramson, Bill Bernstein, Bill Burke, Madame d’Ora, and Germaine Krull, curated Stories from the Picture Press is a fascinating timeline of world events that begins with suffragettes in London and New York in 1911–12 photographed by Charles Bode.

“We started thinking of ways that we could express a critique of the agency,” says Roth. He points to the decision to spotlight the reportage of the Spanish Civil War through the lens of Gerda Taro, rather than Robert Capa, who was her partner, lover, and collaborator.

“We wanted to tell different stories about her and the way she saw events — and about the fact that Robert Capa often put his name on her pictures because a woman was less likely to sell her images,” says Roth.

“Just by showing Gerda Taro, you bring out other aspects of the story, and we just decided to do that as an aesthetic. There's all kinds of amazing work and a lot of their names are lost to history.”

Jamie Spracher, Untitled [Unidentified person, location unknown], 1980, gelatin silver print. The Black Star Collection, The Image Centre © Jamie Spracher

Stories from the Picture Press: Black Star Publishing Co. & the Canadian Press is on view through April 6, 2024, at the Image Centre in Toronto.

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