Monday, October 8, 2012

Footepaths, part 2: Take me home, Mr Foote

To archivists, the lost Foote photos present a paradox. The L.B. Foote fonds – fonds being the term archivists use to denote a collection of archival documents – is held by the Archives of Manitoba. The Foote fonds was acquired from L.B. Foote’s heirs after the death of the man himself. These records were acquired because of the importance of L.B. Foote in the history of the province. But, as I suggested in an earlier post, it is what is missing from the fonds – the lost Foote photos – that demonstrate the importance of the fonds.

In preserving records, archivists are careful to note down their provenance. It is the provenance, or origin, of a record that connects it to a larger group of records. Archivists preserve provenance through archival description, the text that describes the records held by the archives. Traditional archival provenance, however, preserves only one view of provenance: that of the material creator of the records. The provenance of the Foote fonds, for example, might state that the records came to the Archives of Manitoba from Foote's studio via his heirs.

But should Foote be considered the sole creator of these photos? It is true that his eye framed the photographs and his shop produced the prints, that it is his name in his writing that appears in the corners of the photos. But it was the city of Winnipeg that gave Foote the architectural and social subjects for his photos. Foote's photographs of landmark buildings and era-defining historical events, like his photos of the famous, the not-so-famous and candid photos of everyday life, were taken as opportunity afforded. It took the entire city of Winnipeg to create the Foote photographs. In this sense, we are all heirs of Foote, and we are all bequeathing our Foote photographs to the archives.

My friend Tom Nesmith, who also teaches archival studies at the University of Manitoba, pioneered this notion and calls it societal provenance. Archives do not describe the societal provenance of their records. To find that, you must go to Flickr.

The Foote photos found on Flickr have not been posted by archivists, but by Winnipeg citizens concerned with the history of their city. Most of the Foote photos on Flickr are scans of photos held by the Archives of Manitoba. Once posted, some acquire layers of comments and description, as people debate exact locations and compare the city that was with the city that is.

The photo selected for this blogpost is a simple photo of Foote's residence. But follow the link to the Flickr page and read the comments, detailing a conversation spread over eight months that identifies the location and a later, more famous neighbour (Marshall McLuhan!), while disparaging the subsequent development of the site ("the house is gone, now a wading pool next to the school. blah. sucks.").

What is the provenance of this photo? By one light its provenance is the Foote fonds, held by the Archives of Manitoba. But seen “In_The_Right_Light” (which just happens to be the Flickr commenter’s tag) the provenance of the photo is the city itself, the city that provided the material context in which this house, built in this style with these materials, was built on that particular piece of land. And then torn down. And then developed into a park with a wading pool.

It took L.B. Foote's eye to frame this photo, his shop to print it. It took the Archives of Manitoba to preserve this photo for future generations. It took an industrious Flickr user to post it onto the social network. It took other Flickr users to recognize the location and research the history of the site. It took Flickr to provide the virtual space in which all of these forces could come together to express the photo's societal provenance.

- 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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