Julia Winckler's photographic research uncovers inner-city childhood history
In Toronto and Paris, archival and photographic research by Dr Julia Winckler has revealed a complex picture of the representation of children in public space, making visible connections between working class migrant neighbourhoods caught up in processes of rapid change.
The Wished-for City (SSHRC-funded, 2013 – 2017) combined research methods from social work, photography and archival scholarship. Led by Professor Adrienne Chambon at the University of Toronto, it resulted in a major exhibition From Streets to Playgrounds: Representing Children in Early 20th Century Toronto, at the City of Toronto Archives Gallery, centred on archival photographs of a poor neighbourhood in Toronto once populated by immigrant families.
Together with colleagues at Ryerson University and University of Toronto, Winckler studied largely forgotten archive collections, and revealed visual histories of children photographed at work and play. Her research drew on extensive experience of examining the role of photography as a medium through which collective memories can be reconstructed and given a renewed cultural presence to enrich the public. The resulting exhibition brought new understandings of inner-city childhood histories and produced new intergenerational perspectives, prompting emotional responses and public debate in the media (Radio Canada, National Post, L'Express, Toronto.com), which focused on changing attitudes to children in public space: "Vous ne pouvez pas imaginer nos enfants d’aujourd’hui dans la rue, comme dans ce temps-là. Ils possédaient les rues, c’était leur espace."
Its impact was reinforced by a companion exhibition on the displacement of the urban poor in Paris, Les Enfants de la Cité Lesage-Bullourde et Boulogne Billancourt, Paris 1950s, at the Alliance Française Pierre Leon Gallery in Toronto, which was sponsored by Alliance Française and comprised historical photographs by Marilyn Stafford digitised and meticulously restored by Winckler. This exhibition testified to the ubiquity of practices of demolition and dispersal and attracted extensive media coverage.
Former residents of the Cité Lesage neighbourhood recognised their own childhood experiences in the photographs and developed a dialogue with Winckler, bringing their unique experiences to the subsequent Paris exhibition and research event, while Marilyn Stafford herself said: "it means a lot to me that these photographs have so much meaning to other people now, people with personal connections to this part of Paris […] I am delighted that these children are coming back to life."
Julia Winckler’s photography research has invigorated museum education and public discourse. In a journée d'etudes at the Maison de la Recherche de l'Université Sorbonne Nouvelle in November 2020, Julia Winckler brought together her research into the photography of children in urban spaces, reflecting on Les Enfants de la Cité and From Streets to Playgrounds, exhibitions that were not only visually stunning but also increased the extent and depth of public engagement with museum and archive material, fostering a more collaborative archival practice and enhancing the audience experience.
Photographer and researcher Julia Winckler activated archive photography through her research, drawing new audiences and appreciation: [top] Arthur Goss, New Registry Office Site, May 15, 1912, City of Toronto Archives; [bottom] Book cover with photograph by Marilyn Stafford c.1950.