It’s not clear how Arthur Goss acquired his first camera.
It was the 1890s and photography was a technical and expensive hobby for a teen recently sent into the workplace to help support his family following the death of his father. However he came to take his first pictures, Goss’s talent was immediately clear. Aged 15, he won an amateur contest. Over the course of his prolific career he would see Toronto become a city through the lens of his camera.
Goss grew up in Cabbagetown, a working class neighborhood in the east end of Toronto. To help his struggling family, Goss found work as an office boy at the age of 11 in the city’s Engineering Department, one of the few offices where a camera could be found.
City officials found that photographs of work sites, land conditions, street scenes, even tangled overhead electrical wires were an important documentary record. They also saw photography as a time and money saving device, reducing the need for site visits and protecting the city against lawsuits. “In the… matter of damage suits brought against the city, it saves the cost of itself many times over. It is photographic evidence that counts when a damage action is being tried,” the Toronto Daily Star reported in 1913. Faced with an ever increasing workload, the city hired Goss as its first official photographer in 1911, the same year Dr. Charles Hastings was appointed Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health.
Goss systematically documented the building of new roads, sewers, transit lines, and many of the major infrastructure projects that came to define the burgeoning city. More importantly he was also a skilled social documentarian, photographing with skill and empathy scenes of terrible poverty in the city’s poorest neighborhoods that helped bring about public health reforms.
Though he was officially part of the city works department, Goss was called upon to take photos for a number of other city divisions, such as the Board of Education and Hastings’ Department of Health. In 1911, his pictures illustrated a landmark public health report by Hastings that for the first time widely exposed the dire living conditions in the city’s St. John’s Ward, which was often known simply as the Ward. Before Hastings and Goss’ report, city officials and the public at large had ignored the poverty in the Ward where new migrants, many of them Jewish or Chinese, frequently found lodging. “It is a common saying that half the world does not know how the other half lives,” Hastings told the Star. “The truth is that one half not only does not know but does not want to know.”
Over a period of several years, Goss visited hundreds of tenements, rooming houses, and shacks in the Ward and beyond, many of which lacked basic amenities like heating or running water. His photos place the subjects, frequently children without adults, at the center of the frame in the broad context of their surroundings. He gave careful thought to how the photos would be received, taking care to avoid harsh flashes and making use of gentle natural light to illuminate his subjects. Many of the pictures are remarkably intimate. In one, a woman breastfeeds her baby in a kitchen crowded with children. In another, a group of workmen stand in a bedroom holding what seems to be copies of the same photograph up to the camera.
Just a year after being made city photographer, Goss’s department had expanded to include a small staff and a dedicated office. “He has a little department of his own on the top floor of the City Hall,” wrote the the Star in 1912, “with two assistants, a fairly good equipment, a couple rooms, a pair of cameras, and a host of lenses which make photography comparatively easy.”
Each negative created by the Civic Photography Department was carefully labelled and filed away for future reference. “Just as every dog has his day, every one of these pictures is liable to be needed at any moment,” the Star wrote. “Few people imagine what an important cog in the civic machine this photography department has become.”
Goss’ work was varied and occasionally dangerous, taking him high above the ground on plank scaffolds or deep underground. “Mr. Goss has on occasion been forced into some peculiar locations to get desired views,” wrote the Star. “For instance, when he has to take a flash-light picture inside a 3-foot sewer. That’s like getting under a bed to take a photograph.”
Apart from his pictures of the Ward, Goss is best known for his pictures of the Prince Edward Viaduct’s construction, which wrapped up in 1918. It was the first substantial bridge to link central Toronto with its newly-annexed eastern suburbs. The finished structure, 108,000 tons of steel and concrete, carried automobile, streetcar, and pedestrian traffic high above the Don River. Goss’s pictures of the viaduct encapsulate the entire project, ending with the completed structure and beginning with the land survey photographs of the valley slopes prior to the first turning of soil. Even in these utilitarian exposures, his skill as a photographer is clearly evident. Workers hold numbered survey markers at the center of skillfully composed landscape scenes. Author Michael Ondaatje drew inspiration and a vast amount of historical detail from Goss’s viaduct photographs in his 1987 novel, In the Skin of a Lion. Goss even makes a cameo in the book, emerging from a water tunnel under construction beneath the Toronto Harbor.
Though the bulk of his output was part of the official business of the City of Toronto, Goss was recognized as a skilled landscape photographer. He was an associate and contemporary of the Group of Seven artists and was responsible for one of the best known photographs of the group, taken at the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto in 1920. He was even called upon to judge the 1926 “Miss Toronto” beauty contest with the renowned sculptor, Frances Loring.
Goss was the city’s official photographer until he died in 1940 at the age of 59. The office was then reorganized (and reduced) and the role became “photographer and blue printer.”
In his career, Goss took more than 35,000 photographs, many of them now carefully preserved at the City of Toronto Archives as a vital document of Toronto’s formative years. Had he lived a longer life, he could have witnessed the post-war boom that turned Toronto into a sprawling metropolis with endless suburbs and a downtown filled with glass-and-steel skyscrapers. No doubt he would have been fascinated.