Peter Karuna

Story by the artist.

It seems that two things were important to my becoming a visual artist and photo artist. One, my family did not own a camera and, two, I flunked art in secondary school.

At the age of fifteen, I finally managed to scrape together enough money to buy a 35mm single lens reflex. Before I had any idea of how to use it or process film – my first attempt in the bathroom was not quite the result I’d hoped for – I serendipitously ended up as a cub-reporter with a small agency opposite St. Paul’s Cathedral. At which point, I had to sell my 35mm and get a Rolleiflex because the newspapers of that era preferred the larger 120 format film.

In 1965, I was 16 years old and possibly the youngest photographer to have ever been regularly published by a major Fleet Street newspaper. A similar claim is made by Maclean’s Magazine about the renowned celebrity photographer, Terry O’Neill, who started working in Fleet Street in 1959 when he was about 20-21 years old.

Peter Karuna. "Hyde Park Couple". 1968. London, England. Courtesy of the artist.

My photographs frequently appeared in London’s biggest evening newspaper of the time, the Evening News – sometimes, more than once a week. I also remember at least one appeared in the Daily Mirror. Other single images were published in magazines in Italy, Israel, Paris and Germany. In addition, because hundreds of other photos I took were retained in newspaper libraries and may also have been syndicated, I never knew (except by chance) if/when/where an image might show up since there was never a photo credit.

At that age, it was exciting riding around London to assignments on my £12, second-hand, BSA motor bike. But it was also slightly terrifying, trying to conceal from my posh subjects the fact that I could barely operate a camera competently. Nor could I reliably process film or pull a perfect print. Fortunately, the darkrooms in the Evening News made that part almost foolproof (though hazardous to one’s health) and the technicians took care of contact sheets for the photo editors and the prints for that evening’s edition.

All that ended, however, when the agency folded a year later and left me jobless. (Not due to my incompetence, I should say in my defence.) The following two photographs featured here were taken in Marseille at the age of 17 shortly after leaving Fleet Street for good.

Peter Karuna. "Marseille Sailors". 1966. Port of Marseille, France. French submarine with sailors aboard. Fishing boat with two crew members. Courtesy of the artist.
Peter Karuna. "Marseille Fish Market". 1966. Marseille, France. Courtesy of the artist.

I arrived in Canada in 1975 as a landed immigrant with no thought of being an artist or becoming an artist – and that was hardly surprising. To be considered an artist in the UK, the ability to draw was a given; if you couldn’t draw well – especially from life – you weren’t an artist. While I was very fond of our art teacher, in the 1960’s there was little chance you’d be taught to draw in secondary school. We were encouraged to let our creative spirit pursue its own path. Mine picked up a friend’s camera and, rather soon, got distracted by Fleet Street.

Besides, growing up in a Kilburn slum with other lower working-class people made it unlikely anyone would be thinking they’d survive as an artist – assuming one knew what that actually meant. Of three close friends in secondary school who really could draw well, only one actually worked as an artist – designing flyers for the London Zoo for a year or two. None of us went to university despite high grades in many subjects. Who had the means? We didn’t live in an environment where university entered the conversation. I still carry a working-class, bemused skepticism about art to this day. It seemed the pursuit of the middle and upper classes. However, I did manage to get a few photos published in amateur photography magazines while surviving on various low-income jobs.

So, newly landed in Canada, $500 to my name and a wife and child in tow meant getting a real job. I sold cameras for eighteen months, the longest full-time employment I’d ever experienced. I continued making photographs and was encouraged by a positive critique of my portfolio by Canadian photographer Freeman Paterson at a Hamilton seminar in the middle of a bleak winter. Despite being quite unwell he persevered through his talk, and then, very generously, agreed to look at the work I’d brought with me.

Not long afterwards, I showed a similar portfolio to the editor of the Maclean’s photography magazine, Photo Canada. They published. Buoyed by that, I approached a few local galleries and was promised exhibitions. One that actually materialised was a solo photography show at Hamilton Artists’ Inc. in 1980.

A page from the Inc. scrapbooks featuring Peter Karuna, 1980.
A page from the Inc. scrapbooks featuring Peter Karuna, 1980.

Possibly due to that exposure, in 1982 I was invited to become a member, and later, a board member, of the Photo Union, an artist-run photo group based in Hamilton. There’s an article in Hamilton Arts & Letters by Anne Milne (my common-law spouse from 1984 to 2015) that gives a kind of post-mortem of the Photo Union. While I disagree with the opening premise that, “The Photo Union was a beautiful failure”, I do agree that it was a fast-burning organisation. To many of its members and associates, the Photo Union was a success and a highlight of Hamilton’s arts and photography mix.

It was at the Photo Union that I took my first, faltering steps as an art instructor. Later, the high school workshops we instructed for two consecutive March breaks launched a few artists – some of whom are still practicing today.

Art-making occupied more and more of my thoughts and daily life. It may have been part of the reason why, in 1983, my then spouse decided she wanted us to separate. Despite that upheaval, I took the opportunity to go to university (Guelph) to study art and sociology. It was there that I found the time to finally develop some drawing skills. I have continued sporadically drawing and painting since.

I managed to mount a body of work for my first solo photography exhibition at the Art Gallery of Hamilton in 1984 – also the year that my brother was shot dead.

Around that time, I found that there was more to life than a single image could convey, so I started working with multiple images and adding text to individual photographs. Image sequencing, narrative and text/dialogue led to my first video, Crying Shame, in 1987. It was a very low-tech, single shot production but it began an interest in storytelling that video could do quite well.

Much credit is due to the arts funding available to Canadian artists. Arguably, it’s insufficient but, without it, much of my video production from the 80’s through to the early 21st century would have been next to impossible given the technology during that period. I was reasonably lucky that jurors at the arts councils chose to fund some of my projects. Arts funding also supported artist-run centres, screening venues, film festivals and video arts organizations, such as Ed Video in Guelph; V Tape, Charles Street Video and Trinity Square Video in Toronto; and the Banff Centre in Alberta, all of whom made production, editing and distribution possible for independent producer-directors like me.

I still have the t-shirt from the Independent Artists’ Union of which I was a member in the 80s. I also kept the painted sign I took to an IAU rally at Queen’s Park.

It was a short-lived almost ad hoc organization attempting to improve the lives of cultural workers, aka artists. The IAU petitioned for the recognition of artists as workers entitled to benefits and, possibly, even a living wage. This article gives insight into the status of the artist negotiations and how the IAU intervened.

In 1992, what would have been the Hamilton debut screening of My Father Was an Englishman was blocked by a small cohort of reactionary Hamilton arts administrators. Perhaps they were alarmed by its confrontational, anti-racist stance. The tape called out both polite/covert racism and full-blown overt racism as well as white privilege, and that may have ruffled their feathers.

It is to the credit of less-threatened arts administrators, in other organizations and funding bodies, that the tape gained Canada-wide distribution and landed in several collections. It also landed on the front and back covers of Fuse Magazine. 

Black on White, a video tackling related issues, made it onto the inaugural cover of MIX Magazine (formerly, Parallelogramme).

It has been my practice, especially given the public money that has been granted me, to take on, in my videos, photographs and other art forms, subject matter that is socially relevant. In addition to satirizing white privilege, other work has been concerned with the environment, land use, suburban sprawl, gentrification, pollution, opposition to unnecessary highway construction such as the Red Hill Expressway, home care, Walkerton – water and public health, injury in the workplace, male identity, cultural identity, mass culture, ideology, resistance to oppression and other topics that affect the daily lives of ordinary folk.

In 1987, at the Dundas Valley School of Art, courses that I had been offering finally attracted sufficient enrolment for me to teach them. More than thirty years later, I was still there in my part-time temporary position. I retired from the school in March of 2018.

The Building Cultural Legacies project surveys work up to 2000. Here I am, writing this in 2019 as a (seemingly) healthy 70-year-old man. The 21st century might eventually account for more than half my art production. However, in 2011, the Art Gallery of Hamilton hosted another solo exhibition of my photography that had the feel of a retrospective! But, later that same year, Centre 3 also hosted a solo exhibition of quite different and newer photo work. An illustrated commentary on much of the work in these exhibitions was written by Simon Orpana.

In 2015 and 2017, Hamilton Arts & Letters and the Hamilton Public Library along with their sponsors, were kind enough to award me the Redeemer University College prize for short works of literary non-fiction. I’m still writing. I’m still making art. More to come…

Archive of Artist Works:

Credits and further reading

To view more of Peter Karuna’s work, please visit the Building Cultural Legacies Vimeo page.

Hamilton Arts & Letters: Peter Karuna

Vtape: Peter Karuna