Some suggest that Lewis Benjamin Foote was a commercial photographer and just that. Yes, a man has to make a living. But I largely disagree with this assertion. What the lens captured was Foote’s vision and perspective and this photograph is one example.
Modest and simple; not much else can be said about this particular Foote photograph. Yet, inexplicably, I was attracted to this image above all others. Perhaps it was the setting, rustic and outdoorsy. But as I thought about it more and more, my attention kept on being drawn to the faces of the individuals in the picture. I found myself wondering; “What is it about this man and woman that Foote captures in such an endearing manner?”
“Mr. and Mrs. Andre Nault, Diamond Anniversary Party, St. Vital, Manitoba, 19 October 1910” reads the caption. So our man and woman were husband and wife! Perhaps the positioning already suggested that, but evidence-to-support is always a good thing when it comes to history. This piece of information, provided by the caption, may suggest an answer for the endearing quality of this Foote photograph; a husband and wife, having spent many years together, celebrating the accumulation of ___ years of accomplishment. Makes sense, such accomplishment is generally respected and revered. But wait…how many years exactly is a diamond anniversary?
Thanks to Queen Victoria and her Diamond Jubilee, this question wasn’t easily answered. Pre-1897 a diamond anniversary would have been 75 years. However, when Queen Victoria reached 60 years of accession to the throne, she decided to term the monumental achievement her Diamond Jubilee. Ergo, some discretion would exist in the classification of a diamond anniversary circa that time period. Since Mr. and Mrs. Nault’s anniversary was only 13 years later, it is hard to discern exactly how many years they were celebrating. Neither 60 nor 75 years seems farfetched. To support this, a clipping titled “Wedding Anniversaries” from The Brandon Daily Sun dated December 10, 1909 lists “Seventy-fifth year – Diamond.” (There is no listing for a sixtieth year.)
Yes, we are on a bit of a side track. However, 60 and 75 years prior, although overlapping, can produce very different histories depending. In aims to end this chase, I typed the caption of this photograph into the Google search engine. A returned search reads, “NAULT, ANDRÉ, buffalo hunter, farmer, and captain of the Métis.”
Hmm. Next time I’ll just start with the names! The returned search, quoted above, is from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. It continues by detailing Nault’s participation in the Métis community, although he himself was of French-Canadian descent. Key in Métis activism since his late teens, Nault participated as a leader in the Métis Resistance of 1869-1870, and actually commanded the firing squad that executed Thomas Scott. Of course, this was done under the guidance of his first cousin, Louis Riel. For one year, Nault was imprisoned on account of Scott’s murder, but was eventually acquitted.
Perhaps there were some visual clues to André’s significance in L. B. Foote’s photograph. Across the background of the photograph, we see horizontal lines dominate the page...except for behind Mr. Nault. There, we see vertical lines positioned across the background façade, against the grain, if you will. Furthermore, the angle from which Foote took the photograph seems to accentuate the tools to the left of the photograph. Lanterns, materials, an old shovel and metal machinery seat compose this part of the photograph. It is interesting that both Foote and/or his customers chose not to exclude this area from the photograph. To me it suggests an industrious character, proud of hard work, perseverance, and overcoming hardship. Is this symbolism possibly representative of André Nault’s accomplishments in the Métis community, farm life on River Lot 12 or his relationship with his wife?
With the help of Google Translate (everything was in French,) I discovered some information about André Nault’s wife, Anastasie. Daughter of an Acadian fur trader, Joseph Landry, she was one of twelve children; her mother was Geneviève Lalonde. It is interesting to note that Anastasie along with five of her siblings married into the same two families, the Nault and Bruneau families (both prominent Métis and French-Canadian families).
Back to a question posed earlier. How many years were Mr. and Mrs. Nault celebrating? Sixty years, as it turns out. André Nault and Anastasie Landry were married January 11, 1850. (Though the celebration in the photograph took place nine months after their actual 60th anniversary....)
Knowing how long they’d been married doesn’t contribute much to our understanding of these two people now. But these pieces of information are a starting point for analysis. We now know that these two people were part of the crucial activism that led to the founding of the province of Manitoba.
What was life like during that time for them? In this photograph, André Nault’s facial expression is steadfast, while Anastasie Nault’s is pensive. Which might suggest something of their personalities and relationship, shaped by sixty years of marriage, fourteen children and one rebellion.
I believe that Foote recognized the character of his customers. His interpretation and portrayal of their personalities and relationship not only provides us with information about the subjects, but it exposes Foote himself. A photographer captures intangibles but his perception of these qualities is largely subjective. Accentuating certain aspects of a frame is not only artistic, it’s his job.
Once his lens met his eye, Foote opened a gateway to Winnipeg’s local history…as he saw it.
- Caitlyn Carson
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Caitlyn Carson is pursuing a Bachelor of Education at the University of Manitoba, with a major in history. She looks forward to sharing Winnipeg's heritage (including Foote's photography!) with her students.