On the eve of his retrospective, “Sixty Years and Counting,” U of T alumnus and amateur photographer Art Chow describes how his unorthodox creativity and drive for excellence can be traced back to the Hart House Camera Club and its annual competition.
Something transformational happened to University of Toronto (U of T) alumnus Art Chow when he was in second year in 1956: The undergrad student was on his way to the gym at Hart House Fitness Centre when he stumbled upon the Camera Club, one of the oldest student photography clubs in North America.
The synergy must have been arresting: Here was Hart House, offering a range of opportunities from fitness to photography; and there was young Chow, an uber-creative science student with a growing passion for photography. (A resourceful kid who picked up his first camera at ten years of age, he had built his own darkroom extracting materials from unorthodox sources, including the local dump where he repurposed an old car headlight.)
"It was an amazing experience to learn from so many talented photographers,” he describes the Hart House Camera Club with fondness.
In the Club, with its top-notch features such as a good enlarger and proper washing facilities, Chow had free rein to experiment with film, putting nylons over the camera lenses to create a certain effect. He also raised some eyebrows when he submitted his photo “Red” to the Camera Club exhibition in the black-and-white category. (It was, technically, black and white; he had just toned it to red.)
Competition set Chow’s Goals High
The Club’s annual exhibition of photography quickly became a focused passion for the student photographer. He began spending much time preparing his entries for this flagship event and, along the way, he interacted with and befriended photography buffs at Hart House, including William (Bill) Dowkes and Fred Perry. “Bill Blackhall was the mentor,” Chow adds.
Chow’s talent was first recognized by the Club in 1960/1961. He recounts how Perry called his parents’ home, where he was still living, to make sure that Chow was planning to attend the awards event. His winning was supposed to be a secret, of course.
“Another memory from that period is managing to win the Milne Trophy [for the most accepted entries] three times in a row, which prompted Fred Perry to suggest that they make a replica of the trophy for me to take home,” Chow jokes. “I still have that one tucked away with only minor wear due to a squirrel chewing the wood base.”
He went on to win that Trophy 19 times. He also served on the Camera Club executive for a few years and was in charge of the darkrooms from 1962 to 1966.
A Life-Long Learner, Chow Passes the Torch to the Next Generation
Today, 85-year-old Chow, based in Winnipeg and retired from the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Engineering, has not skipped a beat. Remarkably, he has been participating in the Hart House Camera Club annual exhibition for over 60 years. He has had more than 500 photographs accepted into the exhibition.
Aptly described as a force of nature, Chow also runs marathons. (Again, this man’s unique blend of artistic sensibilities, showcased through photography, and his clear love of fitness are striking.)
A life-long learner, he has embraced digital photography and he hopes to learn Photoshop soon.
Chow urges today’s students to take up photography. “I think it’s a wonderful hobby because it’s so portable [and] it gives you something to do that’s a little different.”
He is not, however, talking about selfies. Instead, he emphasizes the archival value of printed images, which the Camera Club also prizes, saying, “Pictures that are printed last a long time.”
Retrospective Underscores the Impact of Hart House on Chow
Chow’s virtual retrospective brings to light the significance of Hart House to Chow and the profound impact it had on his life.
About the photo to the left: This image won the William J. Dowkes Award: People Category in the 98th Annual Hart House Camera Club Exhibition in 2020.
He returns to the annual competition as a kind of metaphor for life, a template for his approach to his work. The competition galvanized his determination to create photography that was of the highest possible quality, to push himself to greater heights with his talent.
“The competition drove you to examine your pictures very carefully. It taught you discipline about choosing and it also taught you to be philosophical,” he explains.
Perhaps most significantly, the judging process enabled a more reciprocal relationship between the artist and the audience because it allowed Chow to see how others, whose opinions he valued, perceived his work. “Just to see what other people thought of your pictures. I mean, it’s one thing to show them to your family, and they’re going to love them anyways, but to get somebody external to judge it [is another thing altogether].”
About the photo to the left: This won the Karsh Award for best campus life image in 1966.
Chow sees how this feedback and refinement, this kind of artistic reciprocity that drove him to excellence, led to his winning the Camera Club’s Karsh Award, a prize honouring the legacy of Yousuf Karsh, one of Canada’s most well-known photographers.
Chow won the Karsh Award no less than 18 times.