Thursday, July 26, 2012

Unknown man #13

One of the things I most appreciate about photography is the documentary sense of the everyday, the unexpected, and the unplanned it’s given us.

Posed photos and portraits give us a “frozen” image controlled by the artist (and often by the subject as well). But a photograph of a city street taken by a photographer who was literally ‘prowling’ looking for an interesting shot can give you an immediate sense of “ordinary” people in that place and time (think of the photos of John Paskievich, just to name one of many). My own images (perhaps largely fictional?) of cities like Paris or New York have been created by street photos of people going about their business largely unaware of the photographer.

L.B. Foote spent over 50 years taking pictures of Winnipeggers, but he took almost none of these kind of ‘random’ shots of street scenes. He was likely just too busy making a living, hustling from one commercial job to another. Most of his street shots are of a formal events like a parade, with a shot he had clearly thought through in advance, and was probably going to sell to newspapers or a wire service. While Foote is our great guide to the visual past of Winnipeg, he does so largely without spontaneous images of “everyday” life.

There is, however, a strange group of photos in the Manitoba Archives’ Foote Collection that comes close to this for me. They are a set of 14 nearly full-length portraits of unidentified men, taken outside probably taken around 1914. Each photo includes its own unique number on a chalkboard, often held by an arm coming from just off frame (probably the next person in line). Judging from the buildings in the background, this may be in the field between the old University of Manitoba Broadway campus and the Legislative Building, where Memorial Park now is.

We have no information about why Foote took these photographs or who these men are. The numbers suggest that he was taking these for a group portrait that he would later cut, edit, and re-assemble. Maybe this was a club? Several of the men seem to have medals or military ribbons in their lapels, so perhaps it was a soldier’s reunion.

These are certainly not spontaneous shots, although they are more or less on the street. In a strange way, though, they are a kind of ‘man in the street’ gallery, a grab bag of Winnipeg male citizenry, c. 1914. We have men of all ages, dressed in all manner of clothes, and with all sorts of expressions, from the grim to the frozen to the downright goofy (check out number 12 with his big grin and bowler hat). Although they are certainly dressed for some sort of occasion, this is definitely not the Board of Trade in tuxedos. It feels like these fourteen men have been yanked out of crowd, almost randomly, and told to stand still for a minute.

My favorite is number 13. Who in world is this fellow, standing at a defiant angle to the camera? With his impressive mustache, cocky look, and the jaunty tilt of his cap, if he’s not a man about town, he’s certainly someone who knows his way around a bustling city. While the other men stand stiffly, almost at attention, he seems like he’s just stopped for a minute (just enough to put his cigarette down), almost as if he’s still in motion. And to finish things off, instead of a medal in his lapel, he seems to be wearing a dandy’s boutonniere. This looks like someone who would be as much at place strolling down a metropolitan boulevard, a Parisian flaneur, as he seems to be posing for Foote’s camera.

- David Carr

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

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