The stated theme of this year's Contact photography festival is figure and ground. There's an open invitation: landscape, still life, portrait, pretty well anything goes, but it's up to the main show at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art on Queen Street West to draw those strands together. It does so provocatively by juxtaposing images by four international photographers that include Olga Chagaoutdinova's view of a grim Russian bathroom tiled with gaudy images of some island paradise and Scarlett Hooft Graafland's surreal interventions into the Arctic landscape including antlers floating in melting ice.
From Mississauga to the Beaches, from North York to Harbourfront, that theme is picked up again and again in 50 curated gallery exhibits and public installations featuring the work of about 80 different artists. The month-long festival, most of which is free, also includes another 150 venues that are voluntarily participating by hanging the photography of another 1,000 artists. Here are some good bets amongst the riches:
Mirrored by Maslen & Mehra
General Hardware Contemporary, 1520 Queen St. W.
British artists Tim Maslen and Jennifer Mehra create mirrors in the shape of human silhouettes, place them in well-known natural or urban settings and photograph them, creating images where reflections of ground, sand, pavement or water take human form and stand as eerie portals into the depicted scene. These unsettling interventions seem tailor-made for this year's Contact as they people their landscapes in ways that suggest both a confrontation and a confusion between figure and ground.
Vancouver by Fred Herzog
Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, 952 Queen St. W.
Perhaps this is the biggest find of this year's Contact: In the 1950s, German immigrant and medical photographer Fred Herzog began photographing his new home on colour slide film. These pulsating images of downtown Vancouver street life in the 1950s and '60s feel like Canada's answer to LIFE photography as they catch men smoking cigarettes, gamblers eyeing a win or mothers pushing strollers against a backdrop of neon signs and dirty pavement. The complexity of their colour is revealed through contemporary inkjet technology, as the 21st century brings the 20th to life.
"Where I was Born …" by Abel Boulineau
Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas St. W.
The AGO is offering another remarkable find, a series of 19th-century photographs of life in rural France newly attributed to the minor French painter Abel Boulineau. It's a great art-mystery story: the photographs had been wrongly attributed because Mr. Boulineau was unknown as a photographer but gallery intern Vanessa Fleet found, among other evidence, a photo of washerwomen that is clearly the source for one of his paintings. This is one of the rare historical shows in Contact, a festival always much stronger on contemporary work.
Avenue Patrice Lumumba by Guy Tillim
Design Exchange, 234 Bay St.
These large-scale photographs of decaying late-modernist colonial architecture in southern and western Africa are a must-see. The South African photojournalist Guy Tillim eschews a post-colonial political interpretation of these public buildings left behind by the Europeans, preferring to see them as a "floating world," unanchored to the Africa that still uses them. In truth, these big, haunting images encourage many readings.
Illuminated Manuscripts by Robert Bean
The McLuhan Program, University of Toronto, 39A Queen's Park Crescent E.
To celebrate the Marshall McLuhan centenary, Nova Scotia artist Robert Bean has brought together photographs of outdated printing and computer technology with images of Mr. McLuhan's own manuscripts. The machines include both the iconic (an old typewriter; one of those early computers as big as a room) and the mysterious (a device for exercising the typist's fingers that looks like an instrument of torture). Still photographs and a video of the manuscripts jauntily reveal the way form torques content as Mr. Bean dissolves the focus on Mr. McLuhan's point about every word being a moment of perception or enlarges a statement about how the eye perceives pixilation.
Permanent Error by Pieter Hugo
Parking lot at the northeast corner of Spadina and Front streets
There's a darker take on built-in obsolescence to be had from the South African photographer Pieter Hugo's Permanent Error, billboard-sized images of a digital dump site in Ghana and its stoic inhabitants. The people who live off the discarded computers of the West, creating toxic fumes and runoff as they burn plastic to retrieve copper, appear almost heroic in these photographs mounted on billboards. Placing contemporary art in an outdoor, commercial context often has more impact in theory than in practice - the busy commuter can easily mistake the images for advertising - but this excellent exception works powerfully in the desolate yet commercialized environment of a parking lot.
Sachliches and Formen by Josef Schulz
Pearson International Airport, Terminal One
If you happen to be travelling through Terminal One this month, take a hard, focused look at what happens when you juxtapose images of unseen and unknown places in a space where everyone is too busy to see or too bored to care. German photographer Josef Schulz creates highly formal images of pristine modern warehouses and suburban offices of the kind you often see in the vicinity of an airport; they are displayed along the moving sidewalks past security.
The Americans by Gauri Gill
Mississauga Central Library, 301 Burnhamthorpe Rd W., Mississauga
Indian artist Gauri Gill lays bare the immigrant story with this gripping series of portraits of South Asians living in the United States. Some toil in grim workplaces; others lounge in the suburbs or celebrate in lavish hotels; one pair shake hands with the Capitol as a backdrop as they prepare their ascent on the American dream.
over here over there by Alain Paiement
Brookfield Place, 181 Bay St.
In this head-turning public installation, Montreal photographer Alain Paiement takes overhead views of domestic interiors and turns them into floor murals, literally placing them at your feet. The effect is slightly vertiginous and slightly voyeuristic as you perch above an over-stuffed, all-white bedroom or a rock band jamming in a cluttered living room.
The Station Point by Robert Bourdeau
Stephen Bulger Gallery, 1026 Queen St. W.
Take a look at a black-and-white image of a spirea bush photographed somewhere in Ontario, and you'll get a clue to the concentration, the detail and the patience that animate the work of Canadian photographer Robert Bourdeau. It explains the power of the much showier images here, pictures of dramatically decaying Virginian collieries or the organ-like pipes of some abandoned French factory.