Canadian Icons

Why send an email when you can post Leonard Cohen?

“My photographs have always been about reporting on the culture and telling stories,” says John Reeves. Since the 1960s, the Toronto-based photographer (and journalist and broadcaster) has created iconic portraits of Canada’s cultural heroes, including jazz musician Oscar Peterson, singer-songwriters Gordon Lightfoot and Leonard Cohen, authors Robertson Davies and Margaret Atwood, film-maker David Cronenberg, and visual artists Alex Colville, Harold Town and Michael Snow.

A small selection of Reeves’ vast trove of images are now available on postcards produced in collaboration with TOWN, a boutique on Bloor St. West in Toronto’s burgeoning Bloor West Village. “I was doing some work with John for the Harold Town Estate when I saw what an abundance of riches he had,” says store owner Shelley Town. (The last name isn’t a coincidence; Town is the daughter of the Painters Eleven-affiliated artist.) “I immediately thought many of John’s images would make great postcards and that this would be a good way for people to discover his work.”

According to Town, the store’s ‘Canadian Icon’ postcards fill a gap in the market. “The New York company Artpost/Fotofolio where I get most of the store’s photo postcards has very few images of Canadian artists, writers, poets and musicians,” she says. “The images we chose started with Harold… ‘Town at TOWN’. When John agreed to show me more of his files, I concentrated on creative Canadian contemporaries of Harold’s. We picked images that were interesting on their own, regardless of the subject.”

Some of the postcards, like the one picturing short story writer Mavis Gallant, are straightforward portraits. Others, however, find the subjects situated alongside objects that suggest something about their interests or personalities: a Diane Arbus monograph is propped on a tabletop behind Alice Munro; a television can be seen in the mirror behind media guru Marshall McLuhan; Town assumes a tough-guy pose under the Rosedale Valley bridge near his studio. “The offices, studios and living spaces of artists and writers have always fascinated me,” says Town. “Thus, the shots of poet Al Purdy at the typewriter with booze, coffee and cigarettes beside him, or Michael Snow at home at the piano.”

The portrait of the internationally renown Snow selected for a postcard is the second that Reeves has made of the artist. “The first was in 1964,” recalls Reeves. “I was on assignment for Canadian Art, taking photographs of ex-pat Canadians. I photographed Snow and his then-wife, artist Joyce Weiland, in their New York apartment. The more-recent image of Snow was commissioned by The Walrus magazine. I like that Snow is sitting at his piano in this later picture because, when I first met him in the 60s, he was playing piano in bars to make extra money.”