Monday, December 17, 2012

Interviewing Esyllt, part two

3) What is it like researching and writing about a city/province that you didn’t grow up in? (You were born/raised in Saskatchewan, correct?)

Historians are trained to glean some sense of the past in its own right, and while personal connection has something special about it, a lot of great history is written without that.

William Eakin's mug shot, 2004-6, Subconscious City exhibit.
I was born in the UK, and moved around the prairies a lot as a child after we emigrated when I was three. I have lived in Winnipeg for over 25 years, and so it is home to me, and I value that. I am very attached to the place. I love its perception of itself as a failed project, although I also argue with it in my work. Winnipeg is a city where people are very aware of local history, and their place in it. I think we take this awareness a bit for granted. It’s a great town to be a historian.

4) What drew you to working on a book about the photographs of L.B. Foote in particular?

David Carr asked me to do it! I took it as a compliment, so I said yes. I have been looking at Foote photos for twenty-odd years, mostly as illustrations. A few years ago, David Churchill from the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Manitoba asked me to be on a panel associated with the show “Subconscious City” at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, curated by Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan. I called my contribution “Getting Lost in the North End,” and I used some Foote images, along with others, to illustrate how historical photographs of poor families in the North End have generated these extremely persistent and negative stereotypes. My talk was about the possibilities of ‘getting lost’ in that part of the city, to see it with fresh eyes – to actually go there! The things I thought about for that talk formed my way in to the Foote archive; how certain images carry so much weight in a city’s history, and how we should sometimes re-assess what we think photos tell us.

5) What was your goal for the project?

I don’t think I had a goal. I started writing without knowing for sure what I had to say, because I am not a historian of photography. I looked at the records. I read Foote’s odd little half-memoir, and tried to figure him out.

I would like people who read my essay to think about the stories we tell ourselves about the past. Especially, I would like us to re-think the story of decline, which says nothing great happened in Winnipeg after 1919. I agree with what Guy Maddin says on the back of the book – Foote’s collection gives this impression of Winnipeg as a frenetic place full of people who get up to all kinds of stuff all the time. His photographs have this intensity, this enthusiasm. It’s a selective impression, of course, but all does not all end after the war and the general strike. Some historians have written about Winnipeg as if that was an endpoint, a rupture. I think this sensibility is too pervasive.

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