Stephen Bulger made a deal with himself in the summer of 1994. It was right after a trip he’d made to New York City to buy inventory for his soon-to-open Toronto photography gallery. A photographer since childhood, Bulger happily shot roll after roll in the city, only to have a rude awakening back in the darkroom: there wasn’t a single frame worth printing. “I realized my mind wasn’t on it. I was thinking about the meeting I was going to have, or had just had. I thought ‘I’ll give it up for three years. And if the gallery is still around I’ll work it back into my schedule.’” It’s 14 years later, and the Stephen Bulger Gallery is going strong. “It was about four years until I even remembered to ask myself,” says Bulger. “Now, I live vicariously through the artists I represent.”
Many photo dealers have a story like Bulger’s—a moment when they awakened to their role as seller and promoter rather than maker—but few relate to it, or face it, with as much clarity. The 44-year-old dealer now represents artists from Canada and the U.S. and is first vice president of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers (AIPAD). He also co-founded CONTACT, the largest photography festival in North America, which runs for the month of May in Toronto. It’s all the result of taking an approach to his career that is as much about facing up to facts as it is about good-naturedly seeing what comes next. The fourth of five children, Bulger was born and grew up in a middle-class neighborhood of Toronto, where he attended the same Catholic school that his father had. Photography had been his childhood obsession, and by the time he was in ninth grade, he had saved up enough money to outfit his own darkroom in the family basement. He made cibachrome prints, mind you, even though color processing was a bit advanced for a novice of 14, and he worked at it assiduously.
Practical matters like school, however, were a different story. He kicked around for two years (1983–84) in a liberal arts track at Carlton University in Ottawa before he quit. He took a job at a trendy restaurant, happily raking in the bucks. He traveled a bit and shot photographs. Finally in 1986, a cousin put him wise to Ryerson University, which had a four-year still-photography program. “I thought ‘why would I study my hobby?’ But I applied and got in,” he says. “I went from hating school to being the first one in the door and the last one to leave at night. I think photography saved my life, basically.”
At Ryerson, department chair Don Snyder recognized Bulger’s gumption, and gave him the task of founding and running the newly born Ryerson Art Gallery. It was a formative experience, and even after graduating and landing a good teaching-assistant job at the Ontario College of Art, Bulger missed gallery work. In 1991 his father passed away, and Bulger, with some inheritance money in hand, faced up to a good question: Should he have a gallery of his own? He leveraged the inheritance to secure a bank loan and formulated a business plan with the help of his siblings. He wrote out all the pros and cons—and found there was one pro for about every six cons. Still, he recalls, “I was like, either I’m doing it or not. And I thought, oh crap, just do it.” He opened his gallery in March 1995 on 700 Queen Street West and has since moved to expanded quarters at number 1026. Among the photographers in his stable: Dave Heath, Larry Towell, Alison Rossiter, and Jeff Thomas, whose work is on view through June 7. “I’m interested in stories and history—a strong narrative,” says Bulger, “photos that help us understand ourselves better.”