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The Toronto photographs of Arthur Goss

Posted by Derek Flack / January 10, 2012

Arthur Goss Toronto PhotographerCredit where credit is due. That's not something that always happens when it comes to archival photographs and their makers. As I argued when I wrote a short piece on Eric Trussler, a former photographer for the TTC, when it comes to many of the city's early visual documentarians, there's a tendency to undervalue their specific style or work in favour of reference to the archive itself, as if it wasn't made up of the work of individuals with their own unique talents.

Today I'm thinking of Arthur Goss. In re-reading Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of Lion over the holidays, I was reminded of the immense contribution that Goss made to this city's visual record when the author writes him into a scene that takes place in the Victoria Park intake tunnel during the second half of the book. The account is fictional, of course, but as the public works photographer, Goss was there and did document the construction of what Ondaatje calls the Palace of Purification (i.e. The R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant).

In fact, Goss was pretty much everywhere during the early 20th century in Toronto, having produced over 35,000 images over his 37-year career as City Photographer. Along with the construction of the filtration plant and various pumping stations, other noteworthy projects he documented included the Bloor Viaduct, the Municipal Abattoir, and TTC trackwork across the city.

What he might be best known for, aside from his shot of the Group of Seven at the Arts and Letters Club, is his photographs of slum housing in the area of the city once referred to as the Ward. These are remarkable images, not just for their historical value as a record of the way that the less privileged lived during this period, but also for the degree to which Goss somehow manages to avoid the trap of portraying his subjects merely as specimens of poorness. His camera is objective without being cold — a trait that typically speaks to the demeanor of its operator rather than just technical skill.

Here is a small sample of Goss's work. For more images and information, check out the City of Toronto's online exhibit, Playing by the Rules.

2012110-bathurst-dav-goss-1913.jpgBathurst and Davenport, 1913

2012110-slum-city-hall-goss4.jpgSlum housing near City Hall, 1913

2012120-goss-slum-1913.jpgSlum housing, 1913

2012110-goss-ward-1914.jpgSlum housing in the Ward, 1914

2012110-goss-harrison-baths-1914.jpgThe Harrsion Public Baths, 1914

2012120-goss-wagan-accident.jpgWagon accident, 1914

2012110-goss-viaduct-1915.jpgThe beginnings of the Bloor Viaduct, 1915

ViaductViaduct arch, 1917

2012110-goss-viaduct-july-1917.jpgAlmost complete, 1917

Group of SevenGroup of Seven (From left to right: Frederick Varley, A. Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris, Fairley, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, and J. E. H. MacDonald) in 1920

2012110-kendal-walmer-1920-goss.jpgKendal and Walmer, 1920

2012110-duplex-eg-north-1922.jpgDuplex Avenue north from Eglinton, 1922

2012110-goss-376-dupont-1923.jpg376 Dupont, 1923

2012110-hanlans-grandstand-1928.jpgHanlan's Island Grandstand, 1928

2012110-sandwasher-filtration-plant-Island-1914-goss.jpgIsland Filtration Plant, 1914

2012120-goss-rosedale-sewer-1931.jpgRosedale Sewer, 1931

2012110-vic-park-intake-filtration-1936.jpgR.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant

2012110-goss-yonge-north-king-night.jpgYonge looking north from King at night

2012110-goss-leslie-beach-1935.jpgLeslie Beach, 1935

2012110-civic-abattoir-goss.jpgThe Civic Abattoir

2012110-arthur-goss-1922-s0372_ss0041_it0597.jpgArthur Goss in 1922

All photos from the City of Toronto Archives



alan / January 10, 2012 at 03:48 pm
awesome collectio, in particular the 376 Dupont, 1923 and Yonge looking north from King at night.
alan / January 10, 2012 at 03:49 pm
should be "collection"...the depth of focus in the Arthur Goss image is amazing...
obnoxious / January 10, 2012 at 04:13 pm
...a world without blogs, iPhones or instagram...

The Other Neil / January 10, 2012 at 04:17 pm
Incredible post.
Jim / January 10, 2012 at 04:45 pm
Those are certainly truly inspirational photos. They're really portray how much this city has changed over the years.. I'm exceptionally fond of the Prince Edward Viaduct during it's construction.. Truly fascinating =)
Cyril Sneer / January 10, 2012 at 05:15 pm
It amazes me how, back then, they got from "The beginnings of the Bloor Viaduct, 1915" to "Almost complete, 1917"
Yeh replying to a comment from obnoxious / January 10, 2012 at 05:17 pm
I was thinking this too. Look at those kids on the beach who seemed entusiastic to be a part of the photo. Today, a photographer shooting kids in swimsuits would be labelled a creeper.
richard replying to a comment from alan / January 10, 2012 at 06:31 pm
last picture looks like it was taken with a camera with bellows tilted a bit.. similar to a tilt shift lens ..

amazing portrait thought i love it!
must copy somehow lol
tinder / January 10, 2012 at 07:04 pm
a super fine collection yet again, what a great resource for nostalgia, cheers.
Fig / January 10, 2012 at 07:47 pm
Love this collection - thanks for bringing photographers like Goss to our attention. These posts really make me appreciate our city's history.
whew / January 10, 2012 at 09:27 pm
This set is particularly impressive, especially the photos of the ward.
Giorgio Mammoliti / January 10, 2012 at 11:04 pm
What's the construction in that photo at the very top? There's no caption. It looks crazy. Anyway, let me know if you guys have smelled any communists lately.
Derek replying to a comment from Giorgio Mammoliti / January 11, 2012 at 12:02 am
Giorgio! Nice to hear from you. That's the R.C. Harris Water Treatment plant at Queen and Vic Park with the intake valve under construction.
EvidenceE / January 11, 2012 at 12:13 am
love looking back at these. thanks derek great post.
I hope to find some shots of my house one day as it use to be the corner store.
Stacey / January 11, 2012 at 12:31 am
I recognize that shot of the Rosedale Sewer from the cover of Michael Ondaatje's In The Skin of a Lion, my favourite book :) And since the book details the lives of the dirt poor immigrant workers who built the Bloor Street Viaduct it's really neat to see these images. Thanks for a great post! Made my night!
cosmosuave / January 11, 2012 at 09:11 am
The Leslie beach pic... Where is that? Is this prior to the building of the Leslie spit?
Megan / January 11, 2012 at 10:26 am
I am a terrible person because that wagon accident made me laugh. A lot.
Drew replying to a comment from Megan / January 11, 2012 at 01:02 pm
just because the hole is bigger than the wagon, how fast must they have been going to not notice it? Like the steam roller in Austin Powers, a slow creeping inevitability.
jumble / January 11, 2012 at 02:35 pm
Fantastic collection... what's truly amazing is that Kendal and Walmer is still almost exactly as it was ninety years ago.
Vince / January 11, 2012 at 11:50 pm
The most telling photo has to be the ramshackle slum housing in full view of City Hall - quite the contrast.
Peter / August 4, 2015 at 11:53 pm
Excellent post.
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