John Chalmers

Cinema Owner, Photographer


Published, EAC Communiqué, January 1992


ith the founding of the Elora Arts Council in 1985, John Chalmers became the first editor of the EAC publication Communiqué. He is also owner and manager of the Gorge Repertory Cinema on Mill Street West, Elora. With this first issue of The Gorge, many interests have come together.

For the most part, however, John’s contribution to art has been through hotography. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, his family moved to Oakville in 1967, during his high school years. A child of the ‘60s, he was inspired by the film “Blow Up”, which featured a young photographer involved in the vacuous world of high fashion but who interprets the plight of miners through his photography with empathy and realism.

Leaving high school, John studied photography at Sheridan College. In 1972, not yet finished at Sheridan, John was approached by a group of Toronto photographers to participate in a show at one of Toronto’s first photography galleries, the Baldwin Street Gallery. His contribution consisted largely of portraits taken on board the ferries plying between Toronto and the islands. The success of this show led to his involvement in the collective gallery Mind and Sight with 11 other photographers. Represented were a cross section of formative, established people like Michel Lambeth and young talent beginning to explore potentials. The gallery derived its name from a quotation from Alfred Steiglitz:
“Of what use are lens and light
To those who lack in mind and sight.”

Through association with role models like Lambeth, whose work was more mature and sophisticated, John developed high standards and began to be aware that a living could be made through personal photographs. Formal elements were not primary in his own work; the use of unmanipulated landscape and portraits to present social issues interested him more than light and shade. The confrontation between the natural and contrived landscape, the interaction of people on the street, these were subjects for which his skills provided both incisive and ironic comment.

John points to the social legacy of Canadian artists like photographer Lambeth and the National Film Board’s John Grierson. Years later their influence is still working its way down through younger generations in this country.

In 1974, desiring to make a different statement than his Toronto contemporaries and influenced by the rural movement of the times, John came to the Elora-Fergus area. The Gorge Cinema had just opened and held an interest and attraction for him even then. During the next five years he won two Canada Council major awards and had individual photography shows in Rochester, New York, at the University of Guelph, and in Bowmanville as well as taking part in two group shows at the Art Gallery of Ontario in ‘75 and ‘77. Selling and exhibiting, with some help from grants, he made a living on his own terms. “What I like about still photography is that one is the sole author of a work and there is no need to compromise.”


After five years of rural life, John felt the need to be part of a community of artists once again and went to Concordia University in Montreal. There he finished his Master of Fine Arts degree and taught for a year. Subsequently he taught at the University of Ottawa as well. In 1981 he returned to Elora.

Inspired and rejuvenated by the contacts he had produced in Montreal, John Chalmers made his best photographs in the Elora area between ‘81 and ‘86. During this time he had seven individual exhibitions and his photographs were widely published and collected. Perhaps the most striking were a series of unposed but formal portraits taken at the Elora Quarry and landscapes from the surrounding lakes. Hopefully one day we will see them exhibited in our community, bringing to the familiar a more universal dimension through John’s insight and  skill.

Decisions, John believes, are the result of circumstances and conditions. About 1985, still active in photography, John started to work as projectionist at the Gorge Cinema now and then. As his photography output declined, his work at the cinema increased. Three years ago, when the Gorge suffered fire damage, John had it redecorated in the Art Deco style of the ‘30s and brought in a new projector and sound system.

First manager of the Gorge Cinema, he is now the sole owner. John has been part of the founding group for the National Organization of the Canadian Independent Repertory Cinemas Association (CIRCA). Nine of the Ontario members of this organization are now involved in a pilot project to promote Canadian films, which John believes are on the rise often better received outside the country than at home. John has attuned himself now to the practicality of running one of the oldest repertory cinemas in Canada, and he has again found autonomy.

Taking another new direction, John Chalmers looks forward to the creation of this area’s first arts publication, “The Gorge.”

by Beverley Cairns, January 1992

 What I like about still photography is that one is the sole author of a work and there is no need for compromise.

UPDATE – 1997

The Gorge Cinema continues to be a valued source of culture, entertainment and inspiration, under the direction of John Chalmers. Its stone walls and intimate setting are just right for our community. A new sound system now augments the assets of the cinema. In February 1997 John collaborated with EAC to bring us a Gorge Cinema Winter Film Festival. It was a great success and we hope it might become an annual event.


In 2004 John purchased the mid-nineteenth-century building in which the cinema is located, guaranteeing The Gorge Cinema an excellent future.