Sarah Bassnett


Dr. Sarah Bassnett, Associate Professor (Art History)
Ph.D., Binghamton University, SUNY
M.A., York University
B.A., Honours, York University
B.A.A., Ryerson University


I am an Associate Professor of art history focusing on the history of photography and photo-based contemporary art. My research is guided by questions about how photography works in the world. In particular, I am concerned with photography as it relates to issues of power and resistance and moments of social transformation. I am interested in historical erasures and how photography has been variously used to both subjugate and empower. My book, Picturing Toronto: Photography and the Making of a Modern City, looks at photography’s role in the liberal reform of early twentieth-century Toronto, especially in terms of attempts to reconfigure cities and campaigns to constitute liberal subjects.

Current Projects

Funded by a SSHRC Insight grant (2017-2022), my current research is concerned with visual advocacy and the politics of recognition as it relates to late 20th and early 21st-century migration. Focusing on a selection of photo-based work, this study explores new perspectives on the way border security and immigration policy impact undocumented migration. 

“Witnessing the Trauma of Undocumented Migrants in Mexico.” Contact Zones: Photography, Migration, and Cultural Encounters in the United States, ed. Justin Carville and Sigrid Lien. Ithaca; Leuven: Cornell University Press / Leuven University Press, 2021.

“Undocumented Migration and Political Community in Susan Meiselas’s Crossings Photographs.” Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art 6, no. 2 (Fall 2020),

LIFE Magazine in Africa and the Ideology of Modernization.” photographies 13, no. 2 (2020): 273-293, DOI: 10.1080/17540763.2020.1734065

Picturing Toronto: Photography and the Making of a Modern City. Toronto, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016.

  • Winner of the Ontario Historical Society’s J.J. Talman award for the best book on Ontario's social, economic, political or cultural history, published in the past three years (2017). 
  • Winner of Heritage Toronto’s Historical Writing: Book Award (2017).

“Between Truth and Fiction,” Of Time and Building. 18-27. Exhibition catalogue, Dawn Owen and Alison Nordstrom. Guelph: Art Gallery of Guelph, 2015.

Co-editor with Thy Phu and Andrea Noble, special issue of the journal Visual Culture on “Cold War Visual Alliances,” 30, no. 2 (June 2015).

“Arthur S. Goss: Photography and the Modernization of Toronto,” Arthur S. Goss: Works and Days, 16-25. Exhibition catalogue, Blake Fitzpatrick and John Bentley Mays. Toronto: Ryerson Image Centre, 2013.

“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.

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

Editorial Essays

“Visual Tropes of Migration tell Predictable but Misleading Stories,” The Conversation, November 5, 2018,

“Turn the Cameras on the Architecture of Exclusion in Calais,” Witness, World Press Photo magazine, July 27, 2017,

Exhibitions Curated

The Family Camera, Royal Ontario Museum exhibition, Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, Toronto, 6 May – 29 October 2017. Curatorial team, Deepali Dewan (Senior Curator), Jennifer Orpana, Thy Phu, Julie Crooks, and Sarah Bassnett, with the assistance of Sarah Parsons and Silvia Forni. The Family Camera Network was funded by a SSHRC Partnership Development grant (2016-19):

Picturing Immigrants in the Ward: How Photography Shaped Ideas About Central and Eastern European Immigrants in Early-20th-Century Toronto, City of Toronto Archives, June 21, 2012 – June 5, 2013, Toronto. Curated by Sarah Bassnett and Patrick Mahon.

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 Supervision

In progress, Bruno Sinder, “21st-Century Migration and Photography as Social Praxis,” (chief supervisor).

In progress, Katie Oates, “Spirit Photography and Subversive Women: 1862-1930,” (chief supervisor). 

2019 Jessica Cappuccitti, “Rui(N)ation: Narratives of Art and Urban Revitalization in Detroit,” (chief supervisor).

2019 Tom Baynes, “More than a Spasm, Less than a Sign: Gesture and the Visibility of Queer Masculinity in the United States, 1920-1950,” (committee member).

2016 Michael Farnan, “Representing Wilderness: Culture, Community, and Artistic Practice,” (committee member).

2015 Jennifer Orpana, “Faces of (and for) Toronto: Community-Engaged Portrait Projects in the Neoliberal City,” (chief supervisor).

2014 Colin Miner, “A Photographic Ontology: Being Haunted within the Blue Hour and Expanding Field,” (committee member).

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

2011 Andrés Villar, “On the Cusp: Latin American Visual Arts in the 1920s,” (committee member).

Masters Research Paper Supervision

2018 Bruno Sinder, “Performing Citizenship, Picturing Identity: Family Photography and Post-War Portuguese Immigration,” Art History

2018 Michelle Rosenblatt, “Helen Levitt: American Woman, Jewish Sensibility,” Art History 

2017 Beatriz Asfora, “Memory, Trauma, and the Act of Collecting,” Art History

2016 Taylor Davison, “’Traditions of a Thousand Years’: Victorian Religion and Aesthetics in the Textiles of William Morris, 1880-1890,” Art History

2016 Katie Oates, “Visualizing the Women of the Beats Generation,” Art History

2015 Grace Bedwell, “Sitting in the Museum of Modern Art: Collecting Alvin Lucier’s Seminal Work, I Am Sitting in a Room,” Art History

Postdoctoral Fellowship Supervision

Susanna Santala, PhD University of Helsinki, “Redefining Civic Building: Viljo Revell and the Toronto City Hall” (2016-19)

Masters Thesis Supervision

2014 Nicole Borland, “Creative Interventions and Urban Revitalization,” (chief supervisor), MA.

2014 Karly McIntosh, “Come Together: An Exploration of Contemporary Participatory Art Practices,” (chief supervisor), MA.

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

2012 Jordana Franklin, “The Personal is Presentable: Transgressing the Public-Private Divide through the art of Sophie Calle and Tracey Emin,” (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.

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.

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.

Recent Courses

VAH 1045B Collecting Art and Culture

VAH 2240 Theories and Practices of Art History and Visual Culture

VAH 2276 Canadian Art

VAH 2272G 20th-Century Canadian Art

VAH 2242 / 2282 History of Photography

VAH 3393 Art and the Cold War

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 9586/9686B Writing for the Art World

VAH/S 9600a PhD Seminar: Theory and Methods