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Manitoba History: Review: Roger Hall and Gordon Dodds, Canada: A History in Photographs

by John L. Finlay
University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 5, Spring 1983

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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One picture, we are assured, is worth a thousand words. For the historian, this cliché, unavoidable when contemplating a book like Canada: A History in Photographs, signals great danger. And when one reads in the Foreword that the authors have made their selection of almost 500 pictures from close to 1,000,000 prints and negatives, that danger is vastly increased.

It is the besetting problem of all history that selection has to be made. The facts are simply too many, and those that appear in any account are but a tiny fraction of those available. Any inclusion is immediately distorted by omission of the rest. The writer of traditional histories is able to go some way to redress the balance and meet the inevitable criticism; he may make explicit the basis on which he has selected, he may advance reasons why whole categories of facts have been passed over, and above all, he may by his nuanced writing convey more than the bare included facts can.

But the authors of a pictorial history? Not only is the selected “fact” an immediate problem; not only does a photograph have a disproportionate impact because of its very nature; but there is no prose with which to justify the selection or to qualify its message.

The authors of this work, the one Professor of History at the University of Western Ontario, the other Chief of the Government Records Division of the Provincial Archives in Manitoba, are simply too good historians to be ignorant of the problem—and too honest to evade it. In the Foreword they admit that “Our book is not an illustrated history ...” They add that “We are aware of gaps and imbalances in the photographic records.” They frankly (and disturbingly) acknowledge that “we were forced to reject imagery which was too static or sombre.” This book, then, is not to be taken as anything but a starting point, a spark, perhaps, from which “readers will discover ... many more thoughts and connections about the history of Canada than they had previously thought possible.”

Portage Avenue, Winnipeg, 1914
Source: Archives of Manitoba

To this end, the authors have opted for a straight-forward presentation. The material is arranged chronologically. Thus the opening chapter depicts the Dominion about 1867, while the second, entitled “Promises of Youth,” takes the story down to circa 1896. In this way, nine chapters and an epilogue span the period to the present. To orient the reader, each chapter is provided with an introductory overview of several pages. Each photograph is identified, and in some cases is accompanied by an additional text.

The pictures, then, are allowed to speak for themselves. There are times when the authors intend them to be read as part of a whole, with a message beyond their own immediacy. The frontispiece is of a score of naked youths sitting on the banks of the Don about 1908, a sunlit capture of a lost innocence. The concluding photograph is of Antoine Rosicky (all B and B in a name) who with his dogs peers out from behind the wire fence that protects his land and the idyllic but yet perhaps sombre hills in the distance. But such conscious structuring of the material is rare. More common is the juxtaposition on pp. 106-107 of a toboggan slide, a German family arriving in Quebec City, and Major Simpson embracing his horse “Tootsie” at Camp Sewell, Manitoba.

Taken individually, these photographs have much to offer. There is something for everybody. There are striking images of the land, though normally this aspect of Canada is subordinated to the human. There are dramatic shots of leading figures, notably one of Lord Strathcona talking with Father Lacombe, though on balance it is pictures of the “average guy” that predominate. There are old favourites, in particular Dettloff’s “Wait for Me, Daddy” of 1940, but many more that will be brand-new to the reader. Unfortunately, three pictures are often crammed onto some pages, and detail is inevitably lost. But to offset, there is the splendid page and a half spread of a diminutive CPR train inching across a massive wooden trestle.

The authors have avoided drawing explicit conclusions, yet the reader cannot help but conclude that Canadians are a dour people. In this entire collection, almost the only people smiling are professional politicians or those on a spree!

Page revised: 27 October 2012

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