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Jebron Felder and his son Jae’shaun at home in Harlem, New York, in Sept., 2011.Handout

A decade ago, Toronto artist Zun Lee was visiting Detroit when he found a handful of Polaroid photos lying on the ground. He asked neighbours who they might belong to, but people shrugged and told him you often saw abandoned belongings in those parts.

That is how Lee began to collect the lost family snapshots of African-Americans, buying Polaroids and Kodamatic instant prints, so favoured from the 1960s to the 80s, at yard sales or online. His Fade Resistance collection, which includes about 4,000 photographs, was acquired by the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto in 2018. Lee and AGO photography curator Sophie Hackett have now mounted an exhibition of the collection, entitled What Matters Most, covering four walls of a ground-floor gallery with a panorama of babies and birthdays, holidays and hangouts.

The 600 images on display range literally from birth to death, including a preemie’s first days in hospital and a man lying in his coffin, and everything in between with multiple pictures of proud parents, posturing buddies and smiling sweethearts. Their scale and scope as they fan out across the gallery is impressive, but if you want to hone in on the details of individual images there is also a slide show playing in an adjacent room.

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Man and woman sitting at table, his arm around her waist, 1963–1970.Handout

Apart from the occasional scribbled caption (”Euan, Christmas, ‘84″) most of these images are anonymous and undated, although both fashions and film batch numbers allow researchers to place the collection’s range from as early as the late 1950s to as recently as the early 2000s. It’s a vast collection of found objects and one devoted exclusively to amateur photography. Bringing it inside a large public art institution underlines its themes and exposes some tensions.

First, the Fade Resistance project is about race. The AGO installation includes a quote Lee favours from Robin D.G. Kelley’s introduction to Deb Willis’s Reflections in Black, a seminal 2000 history of black photography: “Study these photographs and you’ll discover in the gaze and gestures of ordinary African Americans a complex and diverse community too busy loving, marrying, dancing, worshipping, dreaming, laughing, arguing, playing, working, dressing up, looking cool, raising children, organizing, performing magic and making poetry to be worried about what white folks thought about them.”

Lee identifies as Black – although he was raised by Korean immigrants in Germany, his biological father was Black – and there is a strong sense here of both a personal and a communal quest for Black identity. In a gentler yet more persistent way than any protest march, viewing this sweep of photographs inexorably establishes that Black lives matter. So, there’s affirmation here, but also loss, a melancholy sense of lives scattered to the winds: Who did these photos belong to and how did they become separated from their owners?

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Chillin on the beach, Santa Monica, Couple on beach blanket, April 17, 2005.Handout

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Man lying in bed with a smiling baby, 1981–1991.Handout

That raises interesting questions for an art museum displaying these lost, discarded or surrendered belongings that feature subjects who never knew they would be posing for a public audience. In narrow legal terms, the AGO now owns the photographs outright because a photographer only owns an image if they control the ability to reproduce it, and instant photographs are one-offs without negatives. Yet in emotional terms the identities of the subjects are both tantalizing close and seemingly irretrievable. The gallery is happy to hear from anyone who recognizes any of the subjects pictured here, and Hackett says the AGO would even consider deaccessioning a photograph if someone came forward to claim it.

Seen as a whole assembled by Lee, who worked as a medical doctor and a health care executive before he took up a camera and became a visual artist, Fade Resistance is a work of fine art. But each individual picture is merely an ephemeral amateur photo. It’s not a distinction that means much to the AGO: The gallery’s photography department, which was established in 2000, has always taken a loose view of the medium, collecting not only art photography and photojournalism but also amateur work. Its holdings include both commercial studio portraits and family snaps, precursors of the selfie and evidence of the history of the medium.

Over at the University of Toronto Art Centre, as part of the As We Rise exhibition, there’s a photograph by Lee himself on display. Jebron Felder and his son Jae’shaun at home (2011) is a tender portrait of a father and young son, their heads strategically placed to form a triangle in the centre of a horizontal format and the depth of field carefully judged so that the cluttered background of their living room is too blurry to compete with the faces in the foreground.

The technical differences between the hurried snaps of Fade Resistance and the polished poses of As We Rise, an exhibition of Black photography from the collection of Toronto dentist Kenneth Montague, are marked. The arresting subjects, the careful compositions and the treatment of light all signal that As We Rise features the work of professionals.

Including mainly postwar and 21st-century photography from North America, Britain, the Caribbean and Africa, the collection offers the most compelling realism – Vanley Burke’s iconic 1970 picture of a boy flying the Union Jack on his bike – and the finest art, such as the mind-bending images of South African artist Lebohang Kganye who inserts herself as a doppelganger into old photos of her mother.

Montague’s Wedge Curatorial Projects has already published a book of the photos but only in a gallery context can you take in works such as Ayana V. Jackson’s Stella and Sarah, in which the American photographer poses Black women in white Victorian dresses and prints them at life size on polyester silk so that their figures float about in the air currents of the room.

This is an impressive collection of startling images that shares many themes with Fade Resistance, projecting a similar sense of vivacity and community and the same commitment to investigating identity. What’s missing, seeing the two juxtaposed, is any sense of loss in the more polished photos of As We Rise. Not that the collection doesn’t acknowledge racism, it does, but it is a hugely optimistic gathering – hence the title – while the anonymity of Fade Resistance hovers poignantly at the AGO.

Installed less than two kilometres apart in downtown Toronto, the two shows speak to each other intimately and intelligently about the spirit of the African diaspora.

What Matters Most: Photographs of Black Life showed at the Art Gallery of Ontario to Jan. 8, 2023; As We Rise: Photography from the Black Atlantic was at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto until Nov. 19, 2022.

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