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Karsh exhibit captures Ford City heyday

Rare images by famed Canadian photographer portray workers at Windsor auto plants in 1961

Published January 31, 2014

WINDSOR, ONT.—The unsung heroes of the Canadian automotive industry have long been the workers toiling on the assembly lines, whose pride and dedication often remain anonymous and become lost in the passage of time.

However, back in 1951, preeminent Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh captured a handful of those moments in Ford City, the company town created by the automaker in Windsor.

These rare Karsh portraits were recently donated to the Art Gallery of Windsor by Ford of Canada. A selection is on display at the gallery until April 6.

Karsh arrived in Canada from Armenia in 1924 and maintained a photography studio in Ottawa for more than 60 years.

He is well-known for his images of dignitaries — his iconic portrait of Winston Churchill became a symbol of British resilience in the Second World War — but he was also often hired by corporations to photograph their operations.

Until a few years ago, the images Karsh captured at the Windsor plants had rarely been seen by the general public. They were commissioned by Ford to be featured in the company’s annual report. After seeing occasional use in other internal communication materials, they were set aside and forgotten for decades.

Ford archivist Sandy Notarianni began hunting them down more than a decade ago in preparation for the company’s centennial celebrations in 2004. The first Ford operations in Canada were established in 1904 in Walkerville, a town that is now part of Windsor.

Notarianni, who is now retired, enlisted the help of Lauren More, who is now Ford’s vice-president of communications. The search became a true treasure hunt. “We had a few of the actual photographs but we knew that there were many more, so we started looking for them,” More recalls. “We found them in the backs of storage rooms at plants and things like that.”

When the Windsor art gallery learned of the collection, then-curator Cassandra Getty recognized its significance, not only to preserve examples of Karsh’s work, but also to document the city’s rich industrial heritage.

“In Windsor, it’s extremely multicultural, extremely diverse,” Getty says. “All sorts of people (came) to find a better life working with the Big Three. (The collection) tells you about post-war values, and Cold War values to an extent.”

After Ford’s centennial celebrations, the gallery approached Ford about organizing a national tour of the works.

Ford agreed, and those exhibitions began in 2007. When the tour ended in 2010, the importance of giving the collection a permanent home in Windsor became apparent.

“We make great vehicles, but the people who really know how to preserve and exhibit artwork are at the art gallery,” More says. “We decided to start working on how we could make sure the collection was properly cared for and accessible to the public.” The agreement to transfer ownership was completed last year.

“Yousuf Karsh’s work helps to demonstrate the proud legacy Ford of Canada has in Windsor — a commitment to quality, involvement in the community, and a dedication to our workforce,” says Dianne Craig, president and CEO of Ford of Canada. “This is a gift to Windsor and a celebration of a special era of our everyday heroes captured by a true master.”

Perhaps the best testament comes from Karsh himself, written shortly after his 1951 visit to Ford City.

“It is the people who tell the company’s story the best,” he wrote. “They give the machines life and movement. It is really their skill that gives (a car) strength and beauty.”

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