Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Favourite Foote Photos: David Carr

It's almost impossible to pick just one Foote photograph to write about.

Foote had an enormous and diverse range and any single photo seems to ignore the many other themes and styles that weave through his fifty years of photo taking.

Chose one of the great historical images (the North End slum photos for instance) and you seem to forget about the beautifully glossy portraits, such as the young Duke of Windsor standing, looking quite bored, next to a brilliantly polished black locomotive. Chose one of the portraits, and you‘re missing the powerful emotive images of ‘everyday’ family and private life.

I’ve chosen a photo that doesn’t seem to have any of these characteristics. It’s a long, overhead shot of the Elks (Winnipeg Lodge No. 10) marching up Main Street as part of something called “The Promenade of Progress.” “Marching” is perhaps not the right way to describe a group of men dressed in white pants and beanies carrying striped umbrellas at the end of September, although its probably unfair to call it “sashaying” either. It is, nevertheless, one of those strikingly incongruous images that run through Foote’s work.

It is this kind of photo, like the banquet in the sewer or the crew tasting the ice on the Red River, that always makes Foote seem like the artistic grandfather of Guy Maddin. What in the world could these men, dressed for some sort of odd Sunday outing, have to do with anyone’s idea of “progress?”

But the date and place put this strange little parade into another context. The “Promenade” took place September 28, 1921. Just a little more than two years before, only a few hundred feet further north on Main Street, Winnipeg’s working class had tried its hand at a very different and much more serious movement towards progress. No one, of course, would have know this better than Foote himself, who had famously recorded those events of the 1919 General Strike in very nearly the same spot.

Throughout the first part of the last century, this stretch of Main Street between the CNR Station and City Hall was the city’s ceremonial centre, certainly as chronicled by Foote himself. Every type of parade or procession went this route, and it may be adding too much symbolic weight to the crossing paths on Main Street of the strikers and the Elks. Nevertheless, its hard not to think that striped umbrellas and beanies in tight formation are exactly what Winnipeg’s city fathers thought was just what was needed to help erase memories of those nasty events two years before. And L.B. Foote was, as always, there to record it.

Elks at the Promenade of Progress, September 1921

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David Carr
is the director of the University of Manitoba Press.

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