The Photo Union

Story by David Saric.

“What [Lynne] Sharman advocated for in 1984 was not merely inclusivity, which all of the Photo Union members supported, but a real recognition of privilege and a commitment to community service rather than self-service.” (HA&L, Anne Milne)

Hamilton has undergone a transformation from an austere industrial hub to an effervescent cultural metropolis. The annual SuperCrawl street festival routinely draws considerable crowds of curious locals and visitors seeking an immersive yet edifying experience. Encompassing the likes of music, site-specific installation, commerce, gastronomy, and traditional artistic practices, SuperCrawl has solidified the city’s metamorphosis in a unifying fashion. Beyond this yearly extravaganza, an influx of diverse programming efforts allow residents to satisfy a plethora of creative impulses. Whether participating in a screen printing workshop at Centre3, or attending a grassroots exhibition at HAVN, Hamiltonians from all walks of life are afforded a breadth of happenings to engage in.

With all these recent developments bolstering a cultural rebirth, it is important to commemorate Hamilton’s erstwhile endeavours in establishing an alternative identity. One such organization is the Photo Union, which was founded in 1982 by Lynne Sharman and closed a mere four years later in 1986. Shortly afterwards, Sharman left the city to relocate in Thunder Bay, where she opened the Definitely Superior artist-run centre in 1988 before boldly dedicating herself to activist work until her death in 2014. However slight its lifespan, the Photo Union was integral in promoting the efforts of a diverse roster of creative individuals.

Photo of Lynne Sharman by Cees van Gemerden, c.1984.

Local artists sang the Union’s praises throughout its limited run, as it became recognized for promoting more exploratory forms of artistic production. Hamiltonian photographers Cees and Annerie van Gemerden were heavily involved with the development of the foundation, frequently showcasing their own work within group presentations. Reflecting on the experience, Cees states:

“[The Photo Union] were actually dealing with the issue of accepting photography as an art form…The Photo Union to me was the greatest time of my life really because we dealt with social issues you know, and we were able to attract photographers from all over Canada and the States, and out of the Photo Union, NIIPA was born. It was a very powerful thing, that community… Lynne Sharman was a brilliant person and I always say you know, if she had balls instead of the other part you know, she would be successful. She was quite an entrepreneur in a good sense of the word. She was a mover and shaker.” Annerie added, “She drew all the artists together, photographers. She really believed in photography, to get it out in the open… without borders”

Lynne Sharman and Cees van Gemerden licking envelopes at the Photo Union. Photo by Annerie van Gemerden, c.1983.
Invitation for 'I Wouldn’t Change Anything About Hamilton', the 2nd Annual Members’ Exhibition of the Photo Union, November 1983. Photo by Matthew Baxter.

The official headquarters was located in a rented room at the Kirkendall Strathcoma Neighbourhood House at Ray and Napier Streets. However, the consortium routinely inhabited unexpected satellite exhibition spaces across the city, including the Local 1005’s Steelworkers’ Hall, which ingeniously probed the relationship between art and labour. The Union also played host to a bevy of presentations from like-minded galleries from across the nation, including Toronto’s Gallery 44 and Partison Gallery, as well as the accredited Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

Throughout its brief but significant history, the Photo Union allowed local artists to mingle amongst other Canadian and international creatives with a shared passion for photography. The various public showcases —which usually fixated on a particular thematic trope— encouraged Hamiltonians to print and exhibit their own creations amongst working professionals and ambitious amateurs. Additionally, this allowed beginners to become acquainted with the artist-run centre and the federal, provincial and municipal grant systems including CARFAC.

Ancillary to the the lively showcases was the print publication, The Photo Pipeline, a newsletter that benefitted from printing advancements in the 1980s. Delivering provocative headlines at a breakneck speed, the Pipeline focused on notions of the simulacra, post-structuralism and hyperreality, and their relation to photography.

The advent of small format and disposable cameras, darkroom experimentation, and mixed-media efforts allowed the Photo Union to display cutting-edge material. Street photography and photojournalism worked in tandem with traditional fine art practices to present a more radical form of socially-conscious works.

Throughout its tenure, the Photo Union promoted equality and diversity amongst its members, denouncing the white male patriarchy that still informs many institutions. Anti-racist and feminist rhetorics were fiercely supported, whilst a sense of community service permeated amongst its programming.

However, during 1986, the Photo Union began to experience some crushing blows, eventually foreshadowing its demise. Battles with landlords and lawyers, accusations of non-payment towards photographers, damaged artworks, and loss of documentation helped terminate operations for good.

While the Photo Union may have been marred by logistical concerns, its relevance to Hamilton’s artistic history remains intact. The organization’s allegiance to alternative perspectives, provocation, and nonconformity is in tandem with contemporary artistic concerns, as pressing societal tensions are pushed to the fore with similar defiance.

Self-portrait of the Photo Union/Gallery 44 Exchange show. From left: Leo (Linards) Davis, Lynne Sharman, Simon Glass, Joseph Bryson, Peter Sramek, John Farr, Bob Barkwell, Peter Karuna, Brian Lloyd, Matthew Baxter, Klaus Davis, Unknown. Front row: Cees van Gemerden, April Hickox, Joseph's Dog, Alene Alexanian. Taken on Cees van Gemerden’s camera, 1984.

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