Monday, February 4, 2013

A year (and a bit) of L.B. Foote

A little more than a year ago, our press launched this blog dedicated to the photography of L.B. Foote. Over the last 14 months, guided, corralled, and inspired by the irreplaceable Ariel Gordon, nearly three dozen contributors have written about Foote and his photos. We’ve had contributions from journalists, visual artists, historians, archivists, musicians, film makers, collectors, and of course photographers, all riffing off whatever Foote inspired in them.

Over the year, as we worked with Esyllt Jones on her book Imagining Winnipeg, these different voices became a kind of running commentary on the book. I want to thank all of the blog writers for their contributions — it’s been a delight to discover what new side road or even back alley each of you would take us down. Now, as a new year begins, it is time for us to bring this regular blog to an end as well.

How to explain the persistent appeal of Foote’s photographs to so many different people? Photographers admire his art, and I think many also respect his stamina – it’s hard work being a freelance photographer, always on move to the next job. I suspect historians and archivists are fans because they don’t often have such beautifully composed and arresting photographs to work with. And for the rest of us, I think, it has something to do with what Guy Maddin calls Foote’s “peculiar and ennobling eye.” How is it possible that one photographer could record in one place such an abundance of the odd, the majestic, the ridiculous, and the painful?

To be honest, nostalgia of a sort also plays a part in our fascination with the world Foote chronicles. Those of us who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s (and were lucky enough to be introduced to Foote by the likes of Bob Lower and Doug Smith) discovered in Foote’s photographs the big, bustling prairie metropolis whose traces and ghosts we could still glimpse. His was the city for which those magnificently overblown public and commercial buildings were built, like the Legislature building and the banks with Roman columns. Foote’s city seemed to be a “live wire city,” its streets jammed with people, like the crowd watching Houdini or the 1919 strikers, in which a dynamic downtown was the hub of civic life. It seemed like a vanished place worth missing. At the same time, Foote’s photos also made that Winnipeg a place hard to take seriously — how else to react to his many portraits of the city’s powerful decked out in beanies, fezzes, and grass skirts, or dining at the bottom of sewers? Even through the filter of this nostalgia, though, there are still many parts of Foote’s world that remain far too familiar in the city we live in today, especially his images of inequality and smugness.

Since we’re coming to the end of the regular Lost Foote Photos blog, it seems appropriate to end with a photo of the Foote family also celebrating the end of a year—in this case New Year’s Day dinner 1940 (reproduced on page 149 of Imagining Winnipeg).

Here the Footes are gathered for a festive dinner, in the same cramped dining room that L.B.’s son Eric and his jazz band hammed it up in thirteen years earlier (page 109). Eric (with glasses) is now a husband and father, and his wife and two little daughters are at the table, along with Mary Foote, L.B.’s wife. We think the man with the moustache may be L.B.’s other son, who had moved to Detroit in the 1930s and was perhaps home for a visit.

I like all of the little traces of everyday life in this photo. Although the Christmas tree is gone, there are still paper holiday ornaments throughout the room — the tin foil stars twirling down from the light fixture are an especially nice touch. The sheet music on the piano includes what seems to be a simple arrangement of Christmas music on the piano (perhaps for one of the granddaughters to play?). If you look closely, you’ll see that the other music on the piano is “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Walt Disney’s great Pinocchio, which is curious because that film won’t be released until a month after this photo is taken. At the centre of the table is a smallish fowl – its hard to tell if it’s a turkey, chicken, or goose — and not too far away seems to be a bottle of HP sauce, that once ubiquitous part of many WASP meals. There’s no sign of wine or beer or other alcoholic libations, so presumably this was a teetotal household (it looks to me, though, that the older, visiting son at the end of the table looks like he could use a drink about now). Those of us who still live in drafty old Winnipeg frame houses like the Foote home on Gertrude Avenue will appreciate the heavy curtains around the window and covering the doorway — anything to keep those Manitoba winter winds out.

All and all, this seems like a modest but comfortable household, with nothing remarkable going on. And yet that this was likely not an easy time for the Foote household. Thanks to Mary Horodyski’s recent discovery in theCity of Winnipeg archives we know that just a few years before Foote was desperate for work. In early 1933, he had lost his long-time downtown studio to fire. We don’t know what exactly was lost in that fire, but it must have included much of what he needed to make a living. As Mary found, nearly two years later Foote wrote to the city waterworks department, asking (actually pleading) for work. This was the photographer who had famously photographed royalty and visiting celebrities just a few years before, but who now had to come cap in hand to ask for the chance to photograph a municipal construction site.

This New Year’s Day dinner comes less than five years after that letter. Foote did get the contract to shoot the water treatment building. But the photos he took after that are of increasingly smaller and more modest. He’s no longer asked to record the homes and formal dinners of the city’s rich and powerful. By the late 1930s, his photographs are more likely in smaller middle-class homes or apartments, much like his own. When he photographs businesses, they are now small as well, like a hatchery on Logan Avenue (page 145). On New Year’s Day in 1940, L.B. Foote would have been 67 years old. He would have gone through all types of travails, including all of the usual indignities of someone who works freelance. And he would have to keep working well into his seventies — in the 1950s he would persuade the Free Press to carry an irregular column highlighting some of his “olden days” photos.

L.B. Foote didn’t take many photos of his family. In the over 2,000 photos at the Manitoba Archives, there are no more than a dozen Foote family photos. These include the wonderful shot of the Footes swimming atthe original YMCA on Portage Avenue (in what later became the Birks Building) and a mysterious one of the Foote family camping on a southern California beach around 1912 (what were they doing there?).

Because he took so few photographs of his family, it does make you wonder why he decided to record this particular family dinner at this particular time? Its hard to think that this might have been a time to celebrate — age and finances being what they were, not to mention with the Second World War just beginning in the background. But despite all that we can conjecture about his circumstances that day, Foote still has that slightly cocky half-smile that shows up in his other self-portraits. In spite of everything, he’s still willing to document his family and their progress into a new year, and seems to be doing it with some √©lan.

We are likely never going to know very much about the man behind the camera in these thousands of photos, but that spirit and that face—energetic, optimistic, with a twist of either irony or mischief—seems to persist each time we catch a glimpse of him. And it’s that spirit, I think, that keeps us coming back to his fascinating and baffling treasure trove of photographs.

- David Carr

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

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