The street is like a stage of everyday life, the public sphere of much of our existence, especially in larger cities where the critical mass of the urban environment easily provides artists with an array of rich visual materials and activities. It is no wonder then that the genre of documentary street photography has evolved into one of the most defining elements of the medium. The streets of New York, Paris and London inspired some of the most iconic photographs created by the medium’s foremost practitioners.
Canadian cities were no less kind to photographers, if less famous than their European or American counterparts. In the 1950s and 1960s, Toronto and Montreal, in particular, experienced a surge of documentary photographic activity on their streets. It was the golden age of street photography, when Sam Tata, John Max, Michel Lambeth, Michael Semak and John Reeves—to name a few—walked the streets, cameras in hand, and incessantly observed and recorded the grandeur of staged spectacle like parades and celebrations, or the subtleties of quotidian life en passant. In the post-war period the country was on a cultural and economic upswing, and documentary photographers helped to solidify a new sense of identity for Canadians. Mass circulation magazines like Star Weekly and the weekend inserts in large daily newspapers regularly published photo stories; the first galleries dedicated exclusively to photography began to be established; and photographic books began to appear.
It was into this ambience of positivism that a young German photographer, Lutz Dille, stepped off the train in Hamilton in 1951, having sailed from Hamburg to Quebec City aboard a converted trooper ship full of immigrants. He arrived with nothing but a few clothes, $30 in cash (a loan from Canadian consular officials in Hanover, Germany, that had to be paid back, together with the ship passage), his precious Leica f camera and his enlarger wrapped in two blankets in a wooden crate. He had no knowledge of English, but the 29-year-old immigrant was endlessly resourceful. According to his daughter Maya Dille, “[My father] was a survivor. He was very good at keeping a pretty good lifestyle on almost zero money.” In time he would become one of the leading documentary photographers in Canada.
Lutz Dille was born in Leipzig into a well-to-do middle class family who prospered in the fur-trade business (on his mother’s side), especially after Hitler’s National Socialists took power in 1933 and the demand for leather for army uniforms increased. His father, a bureaucrat in the postal system, was an amateur photographer who owned a wooden view camera. In his unpublished memoir written in 2002, Dille vividly describes a dramatic family photo session that speaks as much to the complex state of taking photographs, and the expertise which that required, as to the advanced economic state that his bourgeois family enjoyed.