Visual Arts DepartmentWestern Arts and Humanities

Sarah Bassnett

Ph.D.   Binghamton University (2004)
MA      York University (1998)
BA      York University (1996)
BAA    Ryerson University (1993)



I am a historian of art and visual culture working primarily on photography. My research to date has focused on moments when photography was central to the disruption and contestation that characterized modernity, particularly in relation attempts to reconfigure cities and campaigns to constitute liberal subjects. I am especially interested in issues of power and resistance, social crisis and reform, and movements for social change. I also write about contemporary art, especially photo-based practices, and I work on museum and exhibition histories as they relate to nation building and citizenship.

Current projects

I am completing a book manuscript on photography and the formation of the modern city of Toronto. My research shows that photographs did not simply document the changing conditions of modern urban life in early twentieth century Toronto, as previous histories claim. Rather, my study demonstrates that photography was fundamental to the constitution of a liberal political order, and it figured prominently in attempts by urban reformers to solve the perceived problems of modernity. In looking at government reports, city planning documents, social service pamphlets, and newspapers from the early twentieth-century, I show that photographs were at the heart of debates about what the city should look like, how it should operate, who should live in what area, and under what kinds of conditions it was considered appropriate for people to live.

Collaborative Research Project

The Toronto Photography Seminar is a group of academics and curators from universities in Southern Ontario. We have been meeting regularly since 2004 to conduct research on the history and theory of photography. We have collaborated on a guest issue on “circulation” for the History of Photography journal (guest editors, Matthew Brower and Thy Phu, summer 2008); a guest issue on “affecting photographies” for Photography and Culture (guest editors, Thy Phu and Linda Steer, November, 2009); and a conference at the University of Toronto entitled Feeling Photography.

Funded by a three-year SSHRC Partnership Development Grant, the Toronto Photography Seminar  is currently developing international partnerships with the Durham Centre for Advanced Photography Studies  (UK), and The Developing Room , Rutgers University. This research partnership is examining the photographic situation. We are interested in the idea of photography as a political event that mediates relationships between people, an event whose affective dimensions exceeds both the image frame and the triumverate of operator, subject and spectator.

Research Grants

2011-2014, SSHRC Partnership Development Grant, collaborator with members of the Toronto Photography Seminar. Project: The Photographic Situation.

2009-2012, SSHRC Standard Research Grant. Project: Photography and the Urbanization of Toronto, 1890-1920.

2007-2009, SSHRC International Opportunities Fund, co-investigator with members of the Toronto Photography Seminar. Project:  Photography and Affect.

“Arthur S. Goss: Photography and the Modernization of Toronto,” Arthur S. Goss: Works and Days, 16-25. Arthur Goss exhibition catalogue. Toronto: Ryerson Image Centre, 2013.

“Consuming Destruction,” Journal of Artists’ Books 31, no. 1 (spring 2012): 43-44. 

“Shooting Immigrants: Ethnic Difference in Early Twentieth-Century Press Photography.” The Cultural Work of Photography in Canada, 106-119. Ed. Carol Payne and Andrea Kunard. Montreal; Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011.

“Archive and Affect in Contemporary Photography,” Photography and Culture 2, no. 3 (November 2009): 241-252.

“Picturing the Professionalization of Planning in Canada, 1901-1927.” In Journal of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada, 33, no. 2 (2008): 21-32. 

"From Public Relations to Art: Exhibiting Frances Benjamin Johnston’s Hampton Institute Photographs." In History of Photography 32, no. 2 (summer 2008): 152-168.

“British Library” and “Exhibitions of Photography.” In Encyclopedia of 19th Century Photography, ed. John Hannavy, 215-217 and 508-510. London; New York: Routledge, 2007.

“Visuality and the Emergence of City Planning in Early Twentieth-Century Toronto and Montreal.” In Journal of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada 32, no. 1 (2007): 21-38.

“Picturing Filth and Disorder: Photography and Urban Governance in Toronto.” In History of Photography 28, no. 2 (summer 2004): 149-164.

Exhibitions Curated

Bassnett, Sarah and Patrick Mahon. Picturing Immigrants in the Ward: How photography shaped ideas about Central and Eastern European immigrants in early 20th-century Toronto. City of Toronto Archives Gallery. June 21, 2012 – May 2013.

PhD Dissertation Committees

In progress Jennifer Orpana, Topic - Representations of Identity in Toronto Participatory Photography Projects” (chief supervisor)

In progress Colin Miner, Topic - Aesthetics of Evil (committee member)

In progress Kate Tarini, Topic – Archives and Photography (committee member) 

2012 Matthew R. Smith, “Relational Viewing: Affect, Trauma, and the Viewer in Contemporary Autobiographical Art” (chief supervisor)

2011 Andrés Villar, “On the Cusp: Latin American Vanguardias in the Visual Arts” (committee member)

Masters Thesis Supervision

In progress Nicole Borland, Topic: Artistic Interventions and Urban Revitalization (chief supervisor), MA.

In progress Karly McIntosh, Topic: Participatory Art (chief supervisor), MA.

2013 Samantha Angove, “We Come in Piece: Art Exhibitions, Science Fiction, and Postcoloniality,” (second reader), MA.

2013 Cierra Webster, “Queer(ing) Politics and Practices: Contemporary Art in Homonationalist Times,” (program examiner), MA.

2012 Jordana Franklin, “Tracey Emin and Sophie Calle: Private Experiences in Public,” (chief supervisor), MA.

2012 Stephanie Anderson, “Use it or Lose it: Inuit Art and the Soft Power of Canadian Cultural Diplomacy,” (second reader), MA. 

2012 Neil Klassen, “The Elemental Earth: Renewed Ways of Seeing and Perceiving,” (second reader), MFA. 

2012 Daniel O’Connor, “The Joystick and the Paintbrush: Useless or Meaningful in the Age of Technology,” (program examiner), MFA.  

2010 Jennifer Orpana, “The ’Visual Griots’ of Mali: Nation Building and Cultural Negotiation with Youth Outreach Photography,” (chief supervisor), MA.

2010 Erin Rothstein, “Pablo Picasso and Primitivism: An Exploration of ‘Non-Western’ and Medieval Influences in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.”(second reader), MA 

2008 Maria Szabo, “Kaleidoscope Vision: Modern Perspectives in the Work of Pegi Nicol MacLeod,” (joint supervisor with Bridget Elliott), MA.

2008 Krystle Copeland, “The Annunciation: Visual, Spatial, and Textual Ideologies of Difference in Quattrocento Florence,” (program examiner), MA.

2007 Jennifer Kennedy, “Paris vu Par: New Wave, Modernism and the Cinematic City,” (program examiner), MA.

2006 Bettina Urcuioli, “Materiality and the Aura: Polaroid Photography in the Age of Art’s Technological Reproducibility,” (chief supervisor), MA.

2006 Ayako Kurokawa, “Past Memory, Present Feeling: An Investigation of Postmemory,” (joint supervisor with Patrick Mahon), MFA.

2006 Arnold Koroshegyi, “Beyond the Circle of Confusion: the out-of-focus photograph,” (second reader), MFA.

2006 Adam Stead, “The Visitatio Sepulchri: Acting, Ausstattung and Audience in Medieval Germany,” (program examiner), MA.

2005 Michael Windover, “Living Art Deco Style: An Investigation of Toronto’s Hybrid Modernity,” (second reader), MA.

2005 Carol-Ann Ryan, “Guido Molinari, Claude Tousignant, and Geometric Abstraction in the 1960s: The Canadian Contribution,” (program examiner), MA. 

2004 Marc Schilling, “Andy Warhol’s Contaminated Modernism,” (program examiner), MA. 

2004 Alex Homanchuk, “The City will Recall,” (program examiner), MFA.

Recent Courses

VAH 2240 Theories and Practices of Art History and Visual Culture
VAH 2276 Canadian Art
VAH 2242 / 2282 History of Photography
VAH 4478 Seminar in Contemporary Art
VAH 4482 Seminar in Photography 
VAH/S 9500a Art Theory and Criticism in Western Culture 
VAH 9554 / 9654 The Work of Photography 
VAH 9555/9655 Photography’s Discursive Spaces
VAH 9579/9679 Photography and Social Crisis
VAH/S 9600a PhD Seminar: Theory and Methods