Friday, January 20, 2012

Favourite Foote Photos: Janis Thiessen

How to choose only one favourite from the Foote collection? For those of us who love both history and this city, doing so is a challenge indeed.

This well-known photo of workers copper sheathing the roof of the Hotel Fort Garry circa 1915 has been one of my favourites for a long time. (I use it on my website’s homepage and as my Facebook profile photo.)

The skilled labour that is so often taken for granted is here visible, captured in a moment that might have similarly occurred four years earlier in the construction of the Union Station depicted in the photo’s background, and five years later at the Legislature a few blocks away.

Like the photos of the Winnipeg General Strike that Foote would later take, this picture of workers pausing to pose in the midst of their labour provokes questions about the nature of labour relations. Would such workers ever have had the opportunity to have a drink in the hotel’s beautifully ornate Palm Room to celebrate the end of a successful job? Did those who brokered business deals in the Palm Room ever contemplate the hands and minds that built their surroundings?

Winnipeg stretches away to the east in the photo’s background, and the working men atop the hotel’s roof look as though they are, at least temporarily, the ‘kings of the castle.’ Whatever challenges their working conditions, their relations with their employers, and their economic circumstances may have presented, Foote’s camera here elevates these workers to positions of honour. Foote has captured a moment in time that reminds us that our city was built – in more than just a literal sense – by workers like these.

- Janis Thiessen

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Janis Thiessen is an assistant professor of history at the University of Winnipeg. Her first book, Manufacturing Mennonites: Work and Religion in Post-War Manitoba, will be available from University of Toronto Press in June of this year.

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