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Geoffrey James named Toronto’s first Photo Laureate

Toronto will have its first “photo laureate” after all. Almost two years after Councillor Joe Mihevc proposed it to city council, the city has officially announced the appointment of Geoffrey James to the post. Mayor John Tory said in a statement that James was ideal for the job because of the quality and range of his work. For his part, James called Toronto a “wonderful subject. It’s a city in a constant state of transformation, an exhilarating social experiment, as well as a place that reveals itself slowly.” He said he would do his best to do it justice.

What is a photo laureate, and what does he or she do? Apart from the rather awkward syntax used to connect it with the more familiar poet laureate designation, this new post, the first of its kind in Canada, is defined only on paper so far. According to the City of Toronto report recommending the creation of the position, it honours a photographer recognized for excellent work, and whose work focuses on subjects that are relevant to the people who live in the city. The photo laureate is supposed to use his or her “unique perspective” to create a dialogue on contemporary issues.

To do this, James will have to commit “approximately” 15 per cent of his working time over the next three years to his new duties, serving as Toronto’s ambassador of visual and photographic culture at events that promote the visual arts. He does not have to take official photos at civic occasions. The honorarium that goes with the post is $10,000, and that is to cover travel and other expenses associated with the work.

But what will he actually do? Poets laureate, at least historically, were expected to compose paeans in praise of their monarch and national institutions—coronations, military victories, peace treaties, royal births. Court painters played a similar role. But that is not what the city has in mind for the photo laureate. Rather, the holder of the office will be expected to champion photography itself, rather than a particular subject, as well as the other visual arts in the city.

So, Geoffrey James, a self-taught photographer who was born in Wales, educated at Oxford, and has received numerous awards and fellowships for his work, said he might try to do a “collective portrait” of the people of Toronto. He told the Toronto Star that he would like to publish a book of his work during his term and put the photos on display. He has already published a book on the city, called Toronto, in 2007. It was nominated for a Toronto Book Award. He also said that he thought it a good thing that someone was paying “real attention” to the city. It’s not the same, he said, as using your iPhone, which is “trivial, self-regarding stuff.”

The appointment must still be approved by city council in March.

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