Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Favourite Foote Photos: Adele Perry

I find Foote’s photographs both very familiar and very strange. They are familiar in large part because of how frequently they have been used in the histories of Canada that I teach and study. The one of the young women pumping gas during the Winnipeg General Strike, trying not to laugh. The one of the poor people sitting on a bed in front of drying laundry in their north-end home. These are just some of the Foote images that historians have chosen to illustrate their books and lectures. For good reason: Foote’s images are vivid and compelling.

What is unfamiliar to me about Foote’s photographs is the city that he represents. I have lived in Winnipeg for over a decade, and in many ways, the Winnipeg I live in and the one photographed by Foote are often so different as to be regularly unrecognizable. Foote’s Winnipeg is startlingly white. Its feminists appear in black-face. Indigenous people appear rarely and in highly ritualized and stereotypical sorts of ways. There are lots of British flags and a fair number of kilts. The city in Foote’s photographs is very formal. Even when people are overturning streetcars in protest they are well-turned out, the men in ties, the women in handsome interwar suits, and everyone in hats. Sometimes I recognize the buildings or the street-corners in Foote’s photos, but my moments of unfamiliarity – where is that? – are more frequent. Winnipeg has been torn down, fallen apart, weathered by the ice and the grit and the floods, and been both rebuilt and not in ways that mean that the city in the 1920s cannot always be easily connected with the city of the present.

But amongst all this unfamiliarity there is this: the metal fare-box on the streetcar photographed by Foote in 1929. The streetcar itself is gleaming and prosperous. It signals a time and a place where public transit was valued and resourced. Winnipeg’s current public transit system looks very different and means something very different. Decades of decisions have resourced the private car and the kinds of roads and buildings that go with them. Everything in Winnipeg Begins in a Car, quipped one writer, and he was not far off. Efforts to imagine a Winnipeg again organized around public transit, bicycles and walking are happening but this is not an easy task.

But if Foote’s 1929 streetcar is unfamiliar, its fare-box is not. Winnipeg buses still use those exact fare boxes, their metal now softly worn. These fare-boxes are slated to be replaced in 2013, but for at least another year, they can stand as a reminder of the connection between Foote’s Winnipeg and mine. Winnipeg is full of things like this, odd curious objects and institutions that have survived when so much has changed. Much of what is depicted in Foote’s photographs I would be happy to consign to the past: its homogeneity, its embrace of imperial symbols and politics, its easy racism. But some of Foote’s city I would like to reinvent. I have to admit that I would be thrilled if those handsome women’s suits came back into fashion. I would keep the radicalism and protest that Foote so importantly documented. I would be happy to see a return of those streetcars, or at least the commitment to a life not dependent on the private car that they represent. Foote’s photographs prompt us to think about the connections between the past and the present, and where both might figure in the future we want to see.

 - Adele Perry

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Adele Perry teaches at the University of Manitoba, where she is Canada Research Chair in Western Canadian Social History (Tier II). She contributed an essay to UMP's Finding a Way to the Heart: Feminist Writings on Aboriginal and Women's History in Canada, released this spring, and will co-edit Place and Replace: Essays on Western Canada, due out in February 2013.

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