By photographing ordinary men and women and their families, he gives historians valuable insight into the "lived experience" of those outside the elite.
—Esyllt W. Jones
Esyllt W. Jones is a history professor at University of Manitoba and the author of the award-winning book, Influenza 1918: Death, Disease and Struggle in Winnipeg.
Her new book is about the work of photographer L.B. Foote (1873-1957), called Imagining Winnipeg: History Through the Photographs of L.B. Foote.
She selected 150 images to capture the way Foote saw Winnipeg, and the history he captured as the city's pre-eminent commercial photographer.
Here's an excerpt:
Many of us have seen Foote photographs, whether or not we are aware of their provenance. For at least 30 years, since the creation of the Foote archive at the Archives of Manitoba in the early 1970s, these photographs--which are housed in a row of filing cabinets in the archives' reading room, mostly fully accessible to the public--have been used to tell the story of Winnipeg's past.
They have been used to illustrate everything from academic histories to posters for rock concerts. They have also informed cultural production in Winnipeg, influential in the work of visual artists, writers, and musicians.
And this familiarity is not only local--Foote's images have represented Winnipeg history to the nation, and have been included in national museum exhibits both real and virtual.
The photographs of L.B. Foote have, over the past 100 years, been employed to give credence to multiple, diverse, and sometimes irreconcilable views of Winnipeg's past. On one hand, Foote photographs have traced a narrative of progress, the coming of "white civilization," and commercial expansion in a frontier city.
As Doug Smith and Michael Olito argued 20 years ago, Foote chronicled Winnipeg's "best possible face." This was the face of western Canadian settler colonialism and capitalist development. Foote photographed Winnipeg at the peak of its expansionary promise and helped to forge its settler culture.
L.B. Foote and family, 1912 (Foote)
His photographs of downtown streets, leading elite families, or white middle class leisure pursuits, visually represented Winnipeg's emergence as a prairie metropolis. But this is not the only way in which Foote has spoken to his audience. Since at least the 1980s, Foote's photographs have fuelled challenges to any overtly celebratory narrative of the city's history.
In his images of Winnipeg workers, especially those of the 1919 Winnipeg general strike, viewers have found evidence of resistance to unfettered capitalism. By photographing ordinary men and women and their families, he gives historians valuable insight into the "lived experience" of those outside the elite.
Exploring its breadth from start to finish, the diversity and scope of his work becomes evident. Foote photographed Winnipeg and parts of Manitoba outside of the perimeter of the city--producing his startling images of hydroelectric development, for example--for over forty years. There is much of this diversity that is little known to the public, or to scholars.
Because Foote's images have seldom been brought together and considered as the work of a single cultural producer, certain images have been reproduced over and over again, while others have never been viewed outside the archive. However, it is in its diversity and scope that Foote's collection becomes fascinating. The photographs reflect back to us the familiar and the iconic, but can also present to us a new face of a city that we know less well.
There is ample room for seeing with fresh eyes but also for re-viewing our understanding of the city Foote documented and the history his work has shaped.
Launch for Imagining Winnipeg: History Through the Photographs of L.B. Foote is at McNally Robinson on Wednesday September 26 at 7:00 pm.