Friday, September 21, 2012

Footepaths, part 1: The promiscuous dissemination of L.B. Foote

L.B. Foote was promiscuous. Book his services, pay his fee, and he would shoot your wedding, funeral, board meeting, honourary banquet or any other event. Foote’s photographs are part of the stories of countless families. People may not recognize his name but nonetheless treasure photographs that were framed by his eye and produced by his shop.

My favourite Foote photo comes with a story. Shortly after I moved to Winnipeg in the summer of 2011, Ian Park approached me and showed me a photograph that had come to him through his family’s papers. This photo is featured elsewhere on this blog, and shows the retirement party of Ian's great-grandfather.

Ian showed me the photo because he knew that I was the new professor of archival studies, just arrived from the national archives in Ottawa. Ian hoped that I would be able to advise him of where the photo might find an appropriate home.

I came up blank. Archivists are used to dealing with records by the boxful, not individual photos. As I looked at the photo, I cast about for a way for Ian to find a collection to which his photo could be added.

Ian’s request started me thinking about the nature of commercial photography and its representation in archives. After the death of L.B. Foote, the Archives of Manitoba received from his heirs the L.B. Foote fonds – fonds being the archival term for a collection of records. But what photographs would a commercial photographer have in his possession at his death? Of the thousands of photos taken by L.B. Foote many, like the photo from Ian’s family records, would have been permanently dispersed from the Foote studio.

To say that the term “fonds” means “a collection of records” obscures a key nuance. To archivists, a fonds is not simply any random collection of documents handed over to an archives. It is, rather, all of the records created or accumulated during the life of a person or organization. The Archives of Manitoba holds many Foote photos, but the existence of many, many “lost Foote photos” is evidence that it does not, in the strictest archival sense, hold the Foote fonds.

But then, no institution could. Surely it would be a sign of the failure of a commercial photographer, not to mention his irrelevance, if an archives upon his death could take possession of all the photographs he had ever taken. An admired, successful and in-demand photographer like Foote could not possibly bequeath to an archive the full count of photographs that he had taken and sold in his lifetime.

Foote's studio was like an orphanage, each photo a child who might be adopted. The photos that came to the Archives of Manitoba at the end of Foote's career were the sad ones, never adopted. The "lost" photos, like Ian's, were the lucky ones that made it out. They never were lost. They went home.

Foote’s importance as a photographer, then, is not measured by the known Foote photos. It is measured by the lost Foote photos. It is measured by all of the photos identified in this blog, and by the countless photos that remain in attics and cellars, jumbled in among family papers and business papers. It is measured by the countless more photos that have been or will be destroyed through accidents and neglect or with full deliberation. Paradoxically, it is the dispersal of the Foote fonds that makes the Foote fonds worth preserving.

- Greg Bak

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Greg Bak is assistant professor of History at University of Manitoba, teaching in the Master’s Program in Archival Studies. Previous to July, 2011 he worked as a digital archivist and manager at Library and Archives Canada. His research interests include Aboriginal archives, digital recordkeeping, digital culture and the use of digital archives as tools for social justice.

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