Transcript of podcast episode 8
Angèle Alain: Welcome to Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage. I’m your host, Angèle Alain. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.
The invention of photography in the early 1800s revolutionized the way humans communicate and share information. And while it’s hard for us to imagine not having a device with a camera at our side at all times, photography has only recently become available to the masses. In this episode, we explore the evolution of photography using Library and Archives Canada’s extensive photographic collection as our guide. Archivist Jill Delaney takes us through the collection and brings to light some of the incredible stories surrounding these iconic images.
AA: Hi Jill.
Jill Delaney: Hi Angèle.
AA: Thanks for joining us today.
JD: Thanks for inviting me.
AA: Can you give us an idea of the scope of Library and Archives Canada’s photographic collection?
JD: Well, we have a huge collection, as you know. We have probably an estimated 30 million photographic items in the collection. That includes photographic prints, photographic negatives, but also more historic processes like daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, autochromes, colour transparencies, slides and then some digital photography as well.
AA: Can you tell us a bit about the difference between a daguerreotype and the other ones you mentioned because I don’t know all of them.
JD: Well! Well I could spend all day talking about the difference processes.
AA: Well of course, but in a two sentence…
JD: But, I mean the main difference really between a daguerreotype and more modern processes is that a daguerreotype was a single unique image. It wasn’t like a negative where you could…
AA: Make more.
JD: make more from it. Once it was made, that was it. It was a unique object, it went into a special case, it became a sort of…
JD: … memory. Yeah, almost a bit like a piece of art and then if you wanted a copy, you would make a copy of it as another daguerreotype.
AA: I see.
JD: So that would sometimes happen, or sometimes you would just have to sit there while the daguerreotypist made several—which would be a very lengthy process.
AA: So if we have a daguerreotype in our collection we might have the only, well we have the only one of that one unless…
JD: That’s right.
AA: …the person did more.
JD: Yep that’s right, exactly. For the most part it would just be a single daguerreotype that would have been taken. So if we have it in our collection, chances are it doesn’t exist anywhere else. For example, we have daguerreotypes of Lord Elgin and his family…
JD: …that were taken in Canada. Then, when he came to visit in the 1850s, 1857 or 58, he had a daguerreotype taken here and he took it back to England with him. Then we purchased it again in the 1990s, I think it came back to Canada.
AA: So it is a travelling daguerreotype.
JD: It is a travelling daguerreotype! A lot of daguerreotypes were travelling like that. In fact, at the very beginning it wasn’t the daguerreotypes that were travelling, it was the daguerreotypists who were travelling.
JD: Right, because the process was invented in 1839 by Daguerre in France and it spread like wildfire. The news of this amazing thing—you could take a photograph of somebody—was really, really popular. Daguerreotypists set up very quickly, so there were probably daguerreotypes done in Canada in the early 1840s, but we think they were done by Americans who travelled up from, say, New York City or Boston or somewhere. They would come and they would camp out in, say, Montreal for a week or so. They would put ads in the newspapers—come and have your likeness taken—and then…
AA: It is like caricatures now! At the fair.
JD: Exactly, it is kind of like that. It is kind of like that, yep. But, it was expensive too.
AA: I can imagine.
JD: I read recently that some of those daguerreotypes didn’t work too well because these early daguerreotypists didn’t necessarily
know what they were doing.
JD: So people would pay a lot of money to have their portrait taken and then six months later it [the image] would be gone. The image would have faded away.
AA: Do we know which is the oldest daguerreotype we have in our collection?
JD: We don’t. They are very difficult to actually date because it’s not like you can write on the back of a daguerreotype like you would today with a modern print or with a digital photograph that doesn’t get imprinted like it would. So you kind of have to put it in context and try and date it that way. Sometimes you can date it by looking at the person and guessing what their age might have been or you can look at the case that the daguerreotype would always… daguerreotypes were always kept in a case because they were very fragile. So sometimes you can date something by the case because they changed over the years and sometimes you can date it according to what else is around it. Or maybe it was taken for a particular event.
AA: And you know when the event was.
JD: And you know when the event was.
AA: A lot of investigation work involved.
JD: Right. We have a daguerreotype, for example, of the site of the old Molson brewery in Montreal just after it [the building] burnt down. It is a very rare daguerreotype because most daguerreotypes are portraits and this was taken outside. It’s a very complicated process, so it is something that is fairly rare. We can date…
AA: Date it because…
JD: …that one because we know from newspaper accounts and from the Molson history—Molson family fonds that we have—we can date when the fire happened.
JD: So we know more or less. We know the year it was taken in at least, but the earliest photographs in our collections would date from the mid to late 1840s. Those would be daguerreotypes, and then we also have salted paper prints which are the other really early process.
AA: What does that look like?
JD: It looks like a very grainy print. The advantage of a salted paper print was that you could reproduce it because, in fact, the photographer would make a paper negative first and then you could make a paper print from that. That process was invented by a Brit, Talbot, who was in sort of competition with Daguerre. That process in Canada… we don’t really have anything probably before the early to mid-1850s.
AA: Those are still pretty amazing images.
JD: But they look very grainy.
AA: I imagine that LAC’s photo collection tells pretty much the history of Canada. What can we learn about early Canada from looking at these photos in our collection?
JD: Well, we can learn a lot from looking at them and I think one of the aspects of photographic history that I would like to talk about is that photographs are not just illustrations that go along with text. You can read a photograph and you can learn a lot about the history of Canada, in a way by just having had the photo taken, especially in the early years, in the 1850s up to, say, the 1880s. It was a difficult process, and so somebody was making a very specific choice to take a photograph.
AA: Of that.
JD: Of something.
JD: It wasn’t like today where you just pull out your smartphone and start clicking away hoping that something will turn out. Then you send it to your friend—HA! Look at this, that was hilarious—and then it dies and you move on. This was a huge process to take a photograph, it could take hours.
AA: As camera and film technology advanced, as we went along, and photos could be taken in a split second, what sort of opportunities did that open up?
JD: Well, it opened up opportunities to kind of capture the moment. It really opened up the field of photojournalism and documentary photography. That is huge for us at Library and Archives Canada because we collect documentary photography. We aren’t collecting photography as art, but we are collecting it as a document of Canadian history and society. Once the cameras became smaller and more portable, once the film speed became faster so you could expose something and you didn’t have to stand there for 30 seconds while somebody took your portrait, once you could kind of do a live-action shot, it really fundamentally changed the way that photography was used. One really good example of that is… it’s sort of pre-photojournalism, but it is the photographs that we have from Captain James Peters from the Battle of Batoche and the Battle of Fish Creek from the Riel Rebellion in 1885, 1886. Peters was an officer in the British military and he was assigned to go out with Middleton to put down the rebellion, but he was also an amateur photographer. He took his camera with him and had this fairly new type of camera that was actually called a detective camera because it could take photographs fairly quickly and it was considered very small because you didn’t need a tripod.
AA: Now how small or big are we talking about here?
JD: Well exactly. It was a box camera.
AA: Hold it with two hands?
JD: Yeah, well he slung it over his shoulder, but the camera probably weighed 15 to 20 pounds.
AA: So we aren’t talking about small as in today?
JD: No, we aren’t talking about a spy camera, but compared to the technology before that, it was revolutionary. It also had a system. It had a shutter on it so you didn’t have to just take the lens cap off, and wait, and then put the lens cap back on. You just clicked the shutter and it released. It also had what was called a negative magazine, so it was still using glass plates, but they were fairly small and it would automatically change the plates for you. It would move the film to the next negative, this did the same thing. You could fit about 10 glass plates into one of these cameras. The amazing thing about that camera was that he actually took it into battle with him and those photographs are considered to be the first battle photographs, ever, in the world.
AA: In the world?
JD: In the world. And they are action shots. He was on his horse, remember he was an officer, so he was leading his men into battle and he was trying to take photographs at the same time. He kept diaries and wrote reports and he would apologize for the poor quality of these photographs, but he was being shot at by Métis snipers while he was taking these photographs.
AA: …and he was apologizing.
JD: He was apologizing and saying, “well, I was really worried that I was going to ruin all of the plates because…” basically because he was worried that a bullet would hit his camera and then expose all of the plates to light. That’s kind of the beginning of that sort of photograph that can be instantaneous, and of course journalism picked up on that—as soon as it got to the point where they could really easily publish photographs that we see today. Photojournalism, especially in in the 1930s… photojournalism really opened up. All of a sudden you have all of this documentary photography happening around every possible aspect of life. Demonstrations, social events, inaugurations, crime scenes, all of that sort of thing… accidents, all of those sorts of things start to be documented in photojournalism… war.
AA: Do we have some of these?
JD: We do have some of these, absolutely; I think we have a little bit from the 1930s. For me, what really comes to mind when I think about the power of that type of photography—where you can take a photograph almost instantaneously of something that is happening in the moment—are the photographs that Kryn Taconis took in Holland in the last year of World War II.
Kryn Taconis was Dutch and he was a young man during World War II, and at the end of the war when the Germans realized they were going to lose, they essentially started starving the Dutch. It was called the Hunger Winter. Taconis pretty much took his life in his hands. He took a hidden camera out on the streets and he photographed people who were suffering, suffering really terribly at that time. After the war, Taconis immigrated to Canada and became a professional photographer, a photojournalist, but he brought those photographs with him, so we have those in our collection. They are really moving… and then he became a world renowned documentary photographer. He photographed for different magazines and newspapers. He photographed Hutterite communities, he went to a school for the deaf in the 1960s, and he really opened up people’s eyes to some of these communities that weren’t that well known before. He was the first Canadian photographer who was a member of Magnum, which was a photo agency… kind of a photo co-operative that was established by Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was the photographer who kind of invented the term “The Decisive Moment.” It was an agency you had to be invited to belong to so it was a great honour for Taconis to be a member of that agency.
AA: Most people are aware of the amazing feats made possible by digital editing tools nowadays, but this kind of trickery isn’t as new as we think. Can you tell us about some of the early photo manipulations being done?
JD: Well, it is really interesting because I was around when digital photography first came out.
AA: So was I.
JD: There was a lot of discussion everywhere about, well, people can manipulate these images and then maybe they aren’t the truth, but of course photographic historians know that photographers and others have been manipulating photos from the very beginning, so there is a long history there. The first most basic way that you can manipulate an image with a photograph or with a camera is that you can crop it and you can frame it. We all do that every day, we take our camera and we try to take a beautiful view over the river and there is an ugly building on the right-hand side, so we move the camera a little bit. Or now with digital imaging you bring up your photograph on your screen and you say, “oh well, I think I want to focus in on this one particular aspect of it,” so that is a kind of manipulation that goes on. That can be used not just to make a photograph more beautiful or attractive, but it can also be used to cut out things that maybe aren’t very convenient for the story that you’re trying to tell. Other ways of doing manipulation also happened in the 19th century. In fact, the Montreal photographer William Notman was a master at one of the methods, which was called kind of a composite photograph. He often did these for fancy-dress balls or fancy skating parties or something that would be happening in Montreal or Ottawa, so you would have all of the elite, , coming to, you know, a fancy-dress ball. Back then you couldn’t just say “Okay! Everybody pose together over against that wall and we’ll take a photograph” because the exposure was too long, so it would be very difficult to do. So he came up with this very clever way of doing it. He would go and take a photograph of say the ballroom separately with nobody in it. Then he would sometimes do a little bit of drawing enhancement and that. Then he would basically advertise to all of the people who were attending the ball and he would say “Come to my studio and I will photograph you in my studio and then I’ll paste you into the photograph of the fancy-dress ball.”
AA: It’s like the predecessor of the green screen?
JD: Yes, it is kind of like the predecessor of the green screen.
AA: It’s kind of like what they do now!
JD: They would show up in their fancy dress or their costume because there were costume balls that were very popular in the 1880s amongst the elite. They would show up for these photographs. They would each be photographed individually or with their husband or their wife or whatever. He would take that photograph and print it, he would essentially cut it out, then he would paste it onto the background with all of the other ones (and we’re talking about large photographs here). There would sometimes be 100 to 200 people in these photographs. Depending on much you paid, you would either get closer to the front [of the photo] or [be placed] further at the back…
JD: But also, say if the Governor General was attending, they would get at the front obviously and then [for] other people it would kind of be a “Where’s Waldo” thing, right. Trying to find where your head ended up in that image. So he would paste them all on and then he would essentially re-photograph that photograph, do some touch up, and then sell those [combined photos] to the attendees of the ball. So you could buy prints.
AA: We have digitized some of those [photos of] fancy-dress balls and put them on the website.
JD: Yes that’s right, absolutely, and we were also lucky enough to acquire, several years ago, some of the original paste-ups as they were called; which are the ones where there is a background and then the individual items were kind of pasted on, or the individual portraits were pasted on. Those give us a really good sense of the process and how much touching up was going on with these images, that sort of thing. So there is that kind of manipulation, but that was also used, say, for propaganda purposes. We have photographs from World War I where specifically from what I have seen, are from the Battle of Passchendaele. Thousands of Canadian soldiers were killed in the Battle of Passchendaele and it was a real massacre and thousands more were injured. So it is a very important battle for Canadian military history and we had photographers there, but somebody back in the Canadian propaganda office or whoever, I am not sure who made this decision, apparently decided that what I considered really grim battle scenes (because there was mud everywhere. Passchendaele was famous for mud because the British and Australians had been fighting there for months and it was raining and it was just horrid before the Canadians even went in)… decided that the photographs were maybe not quite grim enough and didn’t really show what was happening to…
AA: Just how bad it was.
JD: …the Canadian soldiers. So you can see in some of the photograph albums that we have from the World War I collection that they have actually cut out bodies of dead Canadian soldiers from one photograph and moved them into the foreground of another photograph to make a stronger image.
AA: Right. Wow.
JD: Unless you actually compare them side by side it is a bit difficult to really see that that was done. It can be done very cleverly. The other master of manipulation was Yousuf Karsh. I think a lot of people don’t realize this, but he often did sandwich negatives for some of his projects. Those are a little bit different than a composite.
JD: They’re not fake photographs, but Karsh was always trying to bring out the best in his subjects and lighting was extremely important to the final results that he got for his photographs. In the 1950s, for example, he had a contract with Maclean’s magazine where he travelled across the country and he took photographs that were supposed to typify what happened in that city. For example in Regina, he visited the RCMP training centre that was there, this was 1952–53. He attended a graduation ceremony there. There’s one photograph that looks like it’s a young officer who is just graduating and he is actually in the chapel at the RCMP training centre and he is praying. I mean this is the 1950s, right. Karsh wasn’t really happy with the lighting in that chapel. So he took one photograph of the altar with his lighting and then he took another photograph of the officer, the young graduate, with different lighting specifically on him. Then with the negatives he made copy negatives, and then he cut out physically, you know with an X-ACTO knife or whatever, he cut out the officer and he cut the space out of the backdrop and he put them together in what is called a sandwich negative.
AA: OK, that is why it is called a sandwich negative.
JD: Then re-photographed it…
JD: … made a new negative and then made prints from that. If you look carefully at those kinds of photographs that Karsh did, those kinds of photographs depicting auto workers, for example, or steel workers that he did, or this RCMP photograph… if you look carefully, the lighting is not quite right in a way because it comes from two different sources. It’s very effective, it’s very dramatic and you can understand why he did it.
JD: But if you look carefully, sometimes the person’s face will be lit from one direction and the background will be lit from a different direction.
AA: But, photography is art?
JD: Yes, for Karsh it was definitely, I would say, it was definitely an art. He was doing portraits the same way that Rembrandt would have done a portrait.
JD: Karsh was doing a portrait and he was always trying to make the sitter look the best that they could possibly look, or make his photograph look the best that they could possibly look. But, everybody makes a choice when they take a photograph whether they realize it or not. As soon as they pull out their camera or their smartphone they are making a choice.
AA: Right. Library and Archives Canada holds a vast collection of photographs from Yousuf Karsh. What kind of material can we find in that collection?
JD: You can find almost everything. Well, I shouldn’t say that. You can’t find almost everything, but it is a very large collection. We have almost all of his negatives for his entire career. (He opened his studio in Ottawa in 1932 and we have glass-plate negatives which he was using then, which would have been common to use back then.) Starting from 1932 and moving forward until he closed his studio in 1992.
JD: So we have all of his negatives. Now, he did cull some negatives when he moved his studio. He moved his studio from Sparks Street to the Chateau Laurier [Hotel] in Ottawa in the 1970s and they went through… you know as you would during a move…
AA: You clean up.
JD: They went through [the negatives]. For some sittings that nobody had ordered reproductions of for years and years and years, a decision was made to cull those. All of the photographs of, that we all know, all of the sort of celebrity photographs, the photographs of politicians and artists and everything are there.
Then, on top of that, we have proofs and we have archival prints; some of which he made specifically for the Archives when he donated and sold his collection to us. But we also have all of the business records from his studio. Those are really fascinating because there’s all kinds of correspondence in there and you can really see how he organized his work and how he managed to get some of these incredible portraits that he got over the years. You know he didn’t just sit back and wait for famous people to come to him. Famous people did come to him. I mean after the Churchill portrait was circulated around the world during the Second World War, after 1942, people wanted to be photographed by Karsh. But he also went after certain people when he thought that he could sell their portraits to magazines, or make a book, or those sorts of things. So he would organize these tours that he would do, to Europe, to London, to Washington, Cuba, all over the place and you can see in his appointment books or his day books or his correspondence that he would set up very specific appointments, rounds of appointments, while he was there to try and capture the portraits of some of the leading people of the day.
I think that he was quite fascinated by power. In his autobiography you do get a sense of that. That he was quite interested in trying to kind of capture the sense of power that people had. Politicians, musicians, artists, writers, dancers, he really was interested in those issues. So he did go after those sorts of people. He was attracted to them, but it was also a business, right? We shouldn’t forget that this was a business. He knew that if he did manage to convince Pablo Casals to have his portrait taken, that then he could sell that photograph to a lot of magazines around the world and make an income from that. That was a big part of that process. Now mind you, when he first started out he was taking passport photographs, he was taking wedding photographs. He was doing all of the ordinary things that struggling photographers do in order to make money. Then after a while, obviously, he didn’t really need to do that anymore.
There is one kind of really kind of interesting story that happened last year. A researcher contacted me because he’s writing a thesis on Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut: Ray Bradbury the science fiction writer and Kurt Vonnegut the modernist, let’s say. I said to him “Well that is very strange, why are you writing about them?” and he explained it to me and it was kind of interesting, but what was most interesting is he said “Why I am contacting you is because I have heard there is a photograph taken by Karsh of Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut together.”
JD: I mean, I had no idea, but I went in and I looked and there it was. Then I thought, I am going to try and figure this out. It turned out that they were both in town the same time as Karsh was going to be there. I think it was probably in New York City that he did that portrait. They actually had appointments back to back. Ray Bradbury went in for his appointment, found out that Kurt Vonnegut was coming in next, and was kind of talking with Karsh and said “Well I would like my photograph taken with Kurt Vonnegut.” So there is this whole great set of photographs of these two amazing American authors, iconic American authors, but taken together in a Karsh studio. It just showed that when you look at some of these booking lists, these appointments, it is just famous person after famous person after famous person: it’s quite astonishing.
AA: We have those.
JD: And we have those.
JD: Absolutely, and we have his correspondence. We have Karsh’s correspondence with Marshall McLuhan, which was pretty entertaining. I mean there’s not a lot there, but Karsh kept saying to McLuhan “Well, I am just an uneducated Armenian immigrant. I wouldn’t understand what you are talking about.” and McLuhan responded a couple of times very curtly “Of course you would understand! It’s what you do, the medium is the message” sort of that kind of… I mean I am just paraphrasing.
JD: But that kind of correspondence going on between him and Marshall McLuhan. So it is quite fascinating once you get in there.
AA: There must be some very sophisticated systems involved in preservation of photos and fragile photos and one-offs, for example, [of what] we were talking about. What types of facilities does Library and Archives Canada have to safeguard these rare photos?
JD: Library and Archives Canada really has two main facilities for the storage of our photographs. The first one is the Gatineau Preservation Centre [officially known as the Library and Archives Canada Preservation Centre] and there are several vaults at GPC, as we call it, that are specifically designated for the storage of photography.
AA: I always think of the cold one that you have to put your winter coat on to get in.
JD: That’s right. We’re not allowed to go in.
JD: In fact, yes the cold vaults, there are two cold vaults and they hold both colour photography and colour motion-picture film. But the reason is that some colour process[es] are subject to fade or shift colour.
JD: People have seen that they go yellow or they go red over time and that is because the chemicals are shifting. It is known that if you lower the temperature enough, you can kind of halt that progress.
AA: So if we have family photos that are staring to go yellow for example, if we put them in a cold storage we might be able to stop it?
JD: You might be able to… yes, you might be able to…
JD: Yes, you may be able to slow it down a bit. There is an issue of humidity.
AA: Okay. I see.
JD: So it is a little more complicated, and in fact the way that the cold vaults work at GPC is that they’re kept at about minus 18 Celsius, I think, and you can imagine that if you just stuck a colour photo in there that had come from plus 20, the humidity might crystalize and then you would get all of these ice crystals on the photographs.
AA: Yes, that is right.
JD: So there’s a series of kind of fridges that you put the photographs in and then, over a period of 24 hours, they reduce the temperature slowly to minus 18 and then they take them out of the other side of the fridge and then they go into the vault. If somebody requests those photographs to see, say a researcher wants to see them, then they go back through that reverse process.
AA: That is very interesting.
JD: Yeah. The other main facility we have, of course, is the new Nitrate Storage [sic] Preservation Facility [officially known as the Nitrate Film Preservation Facility], which is an amazing facility. The reason we have that is [because] nitrate, which is [the] short form for nitrate celluloid film negatives… it also has a tendency to chemically degrade over time. It was a popular film. It was the first film base that there was after glass plate negatives, [after] they moved to film. It really runs from the early 1880s up into the 1950s. You can imagine that is a huge part of Canadian history that could be lost. What happens, if it is stored at room temperature, is that it tends to off gas and then the image degrades and it is actually really kind of disgusting. It sort of buckles up and turns yellow and smells a bit like dirty socks.
AA: Not good.
JD: You know that something bad is happening there. The nitrate facility specifically stores nitrate at the best temperature to keep it stable. Again, there is a process of removing the negatives, warming them up slowly and bringing them to the researchers. The other thing about nitrate is that because it is releasing gases, you don’t want people just breathing that all of the time. It is also combustible and once nitrate starts to burn, it actually produces its own oxygen so it is almost impossible to put it out. The nitrate facility has been specifically constructed to reduce the chance of fire and/or spontaneous combustion, which has never really happened with photographic nitrate, but has happened with motion picture [film]. It’s built specifically to control that and to minimize it if something did happen.
AA: So it is very sophisticated.
JD: It is an extremely sophisticated facility and if there are ever tours, I encourage people (because it is quite fascinating) to see how it was constructed with all of these things in mind.
AA: Well, thank you very much for being here today, Jill.
JD: You’re welcome, it was fun.
AA: If you’d like to learn more about Library and Archives Canada’s photographic collection, please visit us online at www.bac-lac.gc.ca. On our home page, select Discover the Collection and then click on Photography. On this page, you will find links to multiple online resources about photography, including our Portrait Portal. Be sure to also consult our blog at thediscoverblog.com to find out how to locate photographic material in our collection.
Thank you for joining us. I’m your host, Angèle Alain, and you’ve been listening to Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you. A special thanks to our guest today, Jill Delaney.
For more information about our podcast, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at www.bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts.