Ellis Wiley Photographer Toronto

Ellis Wiley's Toronto photographs

Chances are you've seen an Ellis Wiley photograph before. In numerous historical posts about Toronto in the second half of the 20th century on this and other sites, scanned versions of Wiley's Kodachrome and Ektachrome slides make prominent appearances. In fact, it's remarkable how many of the Toronto Archives colour photos from the 1950s-1990s are housed in the Wiley fonds (hint, anything captioned "Fonds 124" is one of his photographs).

An accountant by trade, Wiley was nevertheless an avid photographer, documenting much of the city over the years, including the construction of landmarks like City Hall, the CN Tower, SkyDome (when it was called that), and Scotia Plaza (to name only a few). A thorough perusal of his images also reveals that he had a keen eye for buildings destined for demolition, which makes his archival contribution all the more valuable.

Toronto 1970s

It would not be fair to say, however, that Wiley was a great photographer. A considerable number of his photos feature technical errors of some sort — be it improper exposure, poor focus, or severely tilted-horizons. And yet, this formal untidiness somehow makes them all the more endearing and conducive to nostalgia. These aren't the work of an official City photographer hired to document Toronto, but of a citizen fascinated by the place in which he lives.

Wiley's photographs thus have something visceral about them. Part of this surely has to do with the time period in which he shot, when Toronto was more colourful and decidedly less corporate, but his street scenes in particular have that remarkable ability to make one feel as though he or she is standing just inside the frame of the photo, experiencing everything taking place.

Yonge and Dundas Toronto 1970s

This is the peculiar power of vernacular photography — it never feels staged. And when such photographs are in short supply (there just aren't many photos of Toronto from this period freely available), they tend to "feel" even more authentic somehow. A collection of contemporary photographs like Wiley's wouldn't have much significance. With the ubiquity of digital cameras, cities have never been more thoroughly documented than they are today. And this trend, no doubt, will continue as the cameras in smartphones get better and better.

Shortly after Wiley's death in 2002, his wife donated his photographs to the City of Toronto Archives. Totaling more than 2500, they represent a valuable contribution to our collective understanding of Toronto and how it has developed over the years. And for that, the Wileys deserve thanks.

A brief sample of photos (full listings here).

Toronto Armouries (demolished)

Toronto Armouries


Avenue and Bloor

2011225-avenue-bloor-f0124_fl0008_id0247.jpg


Campbell House

2011225-campbell-house-f0124_fl0002_id0148.jpg

being moved in 1972

Yonge at Temperance

2011225-cars-willey-f0124_fl0003_id0139.jpg


Then new City Hall (1965)

2011225-city-hall-construction-f0124_fl0001_id0135.jpg


CN Tower under construction (1975-6)

2011225-cn-tower-construction-f0124_fl0008_id0049.jpg


Working on the top (1975-6)

2011225-cn-tower-helicopter-f0124_fl0008_id0069.jpg


Yonge south of College

2011225-eaton's-college-f0124_fl0003_id0062.jpg


The Gooderham Building or Flatiron

2011225-flatiron-f0124_fl0002_id0065.jpg


Demolition

2011225-greenspoon2-f0124_fl0003_id0162.jpg


More demolition

2011225-wrecking-f0124_fl0003_id0148.jpg


Current Hockey Hall of Fame

2011225-hockey-hall-fame-f0124_fl0002_id0020.jpg


Yonge Street (I assume)

2011225-imperial-c-f0124_fl0003_id0003.jpg


Yonge Street north of Dundas

2011225-yonge_street-f0124_fl0003_id0198.jpg


Massey Hall

2011225-massey-hall-f0124_fl0001_id0070.jpg


Skyline

2011225-skyline-best-f0124_fl0008_id0113.jpg


The St. Charles Tavern

2011225-st-charles-f0124_fl0001_id0075.jpg


Tide Accident

2011225-tide-accident-f0124_fl0008_id0264.jpg


Yonge and Bloor

2011225-yonge-bloor-toronto-f0124_fl0002_id0110.jpg


Mt. Pleasant and Merton

2011225-yonge-merton-f0124_fl0003_id0025.jpg


All images from the Toronto Archives.


Join the conversation Load comments

Latest in Arts

Win tickets to The Art of Banksy

Toronto's most iconic queer theatre turns 40

Toronto plays about to pop-up in the most unexpected places

Toronto is getting a Museum of Illusions

Toronto Banksy heist caught on video

Cirque du Soleil is coming to a Toronto mall

You can now buy a seat from Massey Hall

Someone stole a Banksy from Toronto's new art exhibit