Monday, December 24, 2012

Interviewing Esyllt: part three

6) Was it difficult to select 150 images from the thousands in the Archives of Manitoba?

Yes! David and Glenn Bergen from the press and I spent hours down there. We looked at literally EVERY photograph in the provincial collection, which is not even all the Foote photographs in existence. Many of them are simply extraordinary. Everyone should go down there and look at them.

7) What’s your favourite image in the book?

My favourite is a photograph I write about in the introduction. It appears on page 32 of the book. It is a woman in Aboriginal dress, her hair in braids, smoking a pipe. Many of Foote’s images are technically almost perfect. This one is partly hazy and has a ghost-like blur on one side, and a little girl in a white party dress. The woman is a mystery to me, and I like that. I don’t think history should be about definitive answers. Sometimes the questions are far more interesting.

8) What's next for you? What are you working on now, beyond the collections?

I’ve been working on a book about the men and women who designed Saskatchewan’s first medicare policies, after Tommy Douglas was elected in 1944. There are two Winnipeggers in it, actually. It is called Red Medicine: Transnational Lives and the Birth of Medicare.

After it is finished, I want to write a book about my father. He was a music teacher, a Welshman. His family members were Welsh nationalists. He taught me a lot about curiosity and independence of thought, but also tolerance. We lived in rural Saskatchewan, where he built rock gardens, took me bird watching, drove a turquoise Peugeot, and wore a Sherlock Holmes-style hat and a British overcoat to work. As you can imagine, he was considered a total weirdo. This never bothered him. He developed Alzheimer’s Disease when he was in his fifties. Last year, I inherited his old records, which he often played in the house when I was young. My plan is to write my memories of him one record at a time. My partner Todd and I are building a cottage on the beautiful Whitemouth River, and I plan to listen to my dad’s records and write a sort of biography, which will also be a history of an immigrant life. I am going to start with Peter Ustinov’s classic recording of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.”

That record used to scare me to death.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Favourite Foote Photos: PJ Burton

My father was born in 1927 into the sepia and grey-toned world that Foote's photos captured like a bug in a mason jar. So many interesting things going on in there. It was a small commercial miracle, notewothy and slightly impossible. In the forties, mini-entrepreneurs stalked the streets of every city of any size and offered to "take your picture", then hand you a fancy calling card announcing where the results could be purchased. Say, at a near by department store where you may become inclined to browse. Well, not everyone had cameras and the alchemy that is photography gave one existential pause.

"I was over there, but now I'm here, yet I can see myself as I have recently been." Or, more astonishingly, I can see them as they were; a handy portable piece of witchcraft on paper where even the deceased live in permanent evidence of what we did that day.

My grandfather was born in 1892 and fully inhabited the world Foote knew. He was a full-share partner in the development of that world. They were kids in Brandon which, at the time, had a population of maybe seven or eight thousand primarily Britishers who took pride in their sense of organization, and for the most part, always wore a specific kind of hat. He went off to war in one, he and my great uncle, lying about their age (they were only 16) but that didn't prevent him from being capture by the Germans and spending many months in an unexpectedly accommodating P.O.W. camp. There were amenities: musical instruments and some guy from a nearby village who, like Foote, would take the band's photo so you could send it home to the missus.

So Foote and the people like him, had a new gadget of fascination and anything was a reasonable target from the mundane to the most cunning of stunts. Some of Foote's works clearly predates "Everyone say 'cheese'" and its subjects appear to just mildly tolerate the invasive box while others are clearly posed, amused and ready to have even more great fun!

My father's great chum in Brandon was a lad named John Robertson. Together, they would run around the back lanes and streets of the west side of Brandon. Don't expect that they were up to mischief; they were just running around unfettered by the constraints of the mantle of responsibility that came with being an older boy of, say, fifteen. Since they were only nine and ten the worldly cosmos of encroaching maturity had yet to grab them by the coveralls and shake the dreamy dust of boyhood out of them. So, they just ran around and did things. They did, however, have pigeons and would get together to discuss different breeds and their qualities. One quality my father found particularly disturbing was that they tasted pretty good and grandmother (his mum) would occasionally prepare squab. Knowing each of his feathered charges personally, my father railled against the black fates that he was unable to control and the unfairness of it all let alone the barbaric horror of having to eat his friend.

But this idyllic garden can never last and just assuredly as spring will melt into summer, both John and George were growing up. It was time to get a hat.

But look at the hats! Look at Foote's photo of, say, the Winnipeg General Strike. By golly, you don't get that many men together in their sharp fedoras, slouches and bowlers without a serious commitment to common purpose. Don't tell me they didn't mean business. And just look at the hats!

- PJ Burton

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PJ Burton was born in Winnipeg in 1952 and received his teaching degree at the University of Alberta in 1979. During a brief stopover in Edmonton, he appeared on SCTV as a drummer in an Earl Camembert sketch, and again in Mel's Rock Pile. When he moved back to Winnipeg in 1980, he formed the band The Smarties. Soon after he put together Winnipeg's legendary showband The Chocolate Bunnies From Hell. He currently teaches at West Kildonan Collegiate and performs regularly with his band.

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.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Reprint: Winnipeg Bestsellers (again!)

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Thanks to everyone who helped Imagining Winnipeg get back on the bestseller list! Yay!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Interviewing Esyllt, part one

As the Lost Foote Photos blog winds down, we thought we'd share author Esyllt W. Jones' thoughts and impressions around working on a project like Imagining Winnipeg:

1) In the last two years, you’ve co-edited three texts:

Epidemic Encounters: Influenza, Society, and Culture in Canada, 1918-1920 (with Magda Fahrni),

People's Citizenship Guide: a response to conservative Canada (w/Adele Perry), and 

Place and Replace: Essays on Western Canada (w/Adele Perry & Leah Morton). 

And now Imagining Winnipeg.

Is this breakneck pace normal for you? What has it taught you, in terms of managing your workload as a prof, parent, and community member?

I like to be busy! Editorial work is different from writing. Editing is collaborative work, and the collections you mention are things I’ve done with others. This book, too, belongs as much to the press as it does to me. It’s a cliché to say that academic work is solitary, but there is truth to it. I need projects that bring me into connection with other people, and sometimes this means I work on several at once. Finding time to write is more difficult. I’ve never really mastered that Alice Munro ability to write in between everything else going on in life.

I don’t know about managing workload. Our family always has a lot on the go, and it usually works out. A lot of opportunities come your way when you are a university professor, and there are obligations, too – to your students, to your community. Ultimately, I appreciate commitment more than its absence.

2) How did you come to working on social history and the history of health and disease? Did you have a particular mentor who piqued your interest?

I was a labour historian first, and for that I owe Doug Smith, who sent me to the archives, and also my employers at the union where I worked, for letting me help to write its official history.

I became interested in disease when reading documents from the Brandon and Selkirk mental hospitals. I had no idea how compelling these fragments of evidence from people’s past lives would be for me. I wanted to know how ordinary people lived with and through illness, and how it shaped their lives. I once read an interview with the novelist Ian McEwan, in which he talks about the influence on his writing of listening to the women in his working class family talk endlessly, without boredom or irony, about every gruesome detail of their own illnesses and those of their friends, neighbours, or mere acquaintances. I laughed when I read that, it was so deliciously familiar to me. That is my mother’s family. I grew up hearing stories of diphtheria, tuberculosis, pleurisy…it was sad, but also carried a certain meaning. It was a vocabulary for shared experience.

I had many good teachers when I did graduate work; Manitoba is fortunate to have such talented historians in our universities. I was inspired by gender historians like Ellen Ross, whose book Love and Toil about working class motherhood in England is still a model of humane scholarship to me.

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Stay tuned for the next two sections from UMP's interview with Esyllt W. Jones, which will be posted December 17 and 24th.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Favourite Foote Photos: Mary Horodyski

I first came across Foote about twenty-five years ago in the basement of the Manitoba Archives.

I was an undergraduate history student searching for evidence of women’s role in the Winnipeg General Strike.

It seemed strange to me that women had made up one-quarter of the workforce in 1919 yet had never made it into any of the history books about the strike.

Foote’s photographs helped me prove that women attended public meetings and were on the street alongside the male strikers.

After this first Foote encounter, and over the next quarter century, Foote became intertwined with the city in my mind. Iconic, like the Golden Boy or the Arlington Bridge. So I felt surprised this summer to come across a letter from Foote – I had practically forgotten he was human, so mixed into the cement and metal of the city had he become.

I found the letter at the City of Winnipeg Archives where I had been working on the records surrounding the building of the aqueduct from Shoal Lake (how we still get our water, by the way, almost a hundred years later).

The letter is dated July 23, 1935 and in it Foote offers his photography services to the Greater Winnipeg Sanitary District. He needs the work, he says, because a “fire cleaned me out” and “my taxes are long overdue.” In fact, he says, “I am finding it very difficult to get along.” At the time of his letter, Foote would have been 62 years old—a pretty cruddy time, if you ask me, to be stuck hustling for money.

Esyllt Jones, in her Imagining Winnipeg essay, tells us that in 1948, when Foote was 75, both his legs were broken in a car accident.

So, my favourite Foote photo, now that I’ve learned a bit more about his life, and gotten a bit older myself, is the very last photo in Imagining Winnipeg: tough Mr. Foote, standing upright on the corner of Portage and Main, 77 years old, cane dangling from his overcoat pocket, and with his camera raised.

- Mary Horodyski

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Mary Horodyski is in the middle of her third degree in history – an M.A. in Archival Studies at the University of Manitoba. She also has an M.A. in History from Concordia University and a B.A. in History from the University of Manitoba. In between (and sometimes during) history degrees, she works as a writer and researcher. She recently completed her archival internship at the City of Winnipeg Archives. Her Manitoba History article on women and the Winnipeg General Strike can be found here.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Blogging Foote

Hey all,

As you've probably noticed, Lost Foote Photos has not maintained...much...of a posting schedule since Imagining Winnipeg was launched back in September.

But between now and the end of the holiday season, we've a few humdingers in store.

First up is writer/archivist Mary Horodyski's discovery this summer of a 1935 letter from L.B. Foote to the Greater Winnipeg Sanitary District offices, asking for work.

Next is the story of Jennie (Kaleka) Kubara, who was photographed by Foote for the Winnipeg Free Press in 1938 with a group of students from Aberdeen School. Jennie attended the Imagining Winnipeg launch not knowing that she'd find a picture of herself inside...and it was such a treat to meet her!

After that comes a reaction to Imagining Winnipeg by P.J. Burton of Chocolate Bunnies From Hell fame.

Over the next few weeks, we'll also be serializing an interview the press conducted with author Esyllt W. Jones on the process of working on a book like Imagining Winnipeg.

And then...UMP Director David Carr will write a farewell to the Lost Foote Photos blog. We've greatly enjoyed sharing Foote's photographs and your thoughts on Foote's photographs, but there are five non-Foote books on our spring 2013 list...

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In other, non-blog related news, the University of Manitoba Bookstore is offering what might be the best price in town on Imagining Winnipeg: $24.95. So if you're looking to give this book to family over the holidays, U of M Bookstore might just be THE place to do it...

U of M Press is also selling Imagining Winnipeg via our website. And we've recently created an e-single of author Esyllt Jones' introduction plus a few select photos that's for sale on Kobo and Barnes & Noble for $3.49.

Finally, I thought I'd let you know that there will be two more Imagining Winnipeg events in the new year.

Esyllt Jones will be doing a presentation on Imagining Winnipeg at the Louis Riel Library on Thursday, February 28 at 6:30 pm. A second event will follow at the Henderson Library.


Ariel Gordon
UMP Promotions/Editorial Assistant