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Inside the world of artistic photographs

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Jack Lazare is the source of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts's current exhibition, Of Individuals and Places: Photographs from the Lazare Collection. (Heather Solomon photo)

Jack Lazare loves artistic photographs with such a passion that, before he retired from the travel industry, a good portion of every trip he took was devoted to seeking out images for his collection.

His discerning eye is still active and he just has to walk into an auction or a gallery to be struck with the desire to possess a photograph that moves him.

With the growth of his collection came the need to welcome the public into his world. “I feel it’s an obligation to the artist to have their works shown and I want to share the pleasure,” he says.

From Nov. 28-April 28, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is showing Of Individuals and Places: Photographs from the Lazare Collection, an exhibition of 95 of Lazare’s photos, which have been curated by Diane Charbonneau. Twenty-seven of them have been donated to the museum’s permanent collection, including some large pieces that had hung in Lazare’s office.

Six donated pieces have been held back for eventual inclusion in a new photography cabinet. The rest are to be returned after the exhibition, when the collector will repopulate his temporarily empty walls.

It is easy to imagine the gap left by the photos in his home, since they fill the Contemporary Art Square on Level S2 of the Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion with such soulful presence.

“I had been collecting oil paintings and was late getting into photography. My daughter in Toronto had bought a photograph of Nan Goldin’s and she said if I like representational art, why not look at photography?

“I went to an exhibit at MOMA (the Museum of Modern Art in New York) in 1999 called Julia Margaret Cameron’s Women of Works by this Victorian photographer. Very shortly afterward, I bought my first piece by her, a portrait of Tennyson,” says Lazare.

He fell under the spell not only of the artist’s portrayals of famous people of her era, but of her soft-focus women and children. There are 14 Camerons in the show, as well as a Goldin.

Lazare is also enamoured with the strong yet vulnerable portraits of Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange, whose iconic 1936 image, Migrant Mother, is featured in the exhibition. Three others of her itinerant Dust Bowl families fill the viewer with a mixed sense of their desperation and courage.

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American Shimon Attie also makes historical commentary, with a simple plant standing as a symbol of forgetfulness in the window of a Berlin building, evidence of how life goes on after tragedy.

Telescoping time and place, the photographer has projected a slide of a 1920 police raid on Jewish residents of the building that presaged the horrors of the Holocaust. The photograph is from Attie’s internationally acclaimed 1992 series, The Writing on the Wall.

“There are not many people laughing in my pictures. The work I collect tends to be serious and some say melancholy, although I think of myself as a very optimistic person,” says Lazare, whose predilection for moody scenes and portraits is due to his sensitivity to the tenuousness of existence, the solitude of each human entity and his appreciation of the gift of life itself.

Now in his 80s, he continues to enjoy the thrill of the chase, looking forward to receiving a David Goldblatt photo that he purchased through an art fair in Paris a few weeks ago.

“Goldblatt was a South African photographer who chronicled the evil days of apartheid, the grimness of life with the black population there. When I saw this fantastic picture, I had told the dealer I’d think about it overnight, but when I went back, it was sold,” says Lazare.

“It was the last one in the edition, but Goldblatt’s family had a copy beyond the edition, one artist’s proof. They agreed to sell it. I’ve just become obsessed by it all. As Keats said, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’ ”