Reframing the Historical Image

Courtesy Brock University Archives, Art Gallery of ontario

Courtesy Brock University Archives, Art Gallery of ontario

Julie Crooks, Assistant Curator of Photography at the AGO, is the curator of Free Black North, an installation of close to 30 rarely seen photographs of Black men, women and children living in Ontario in the mid-to-late 1800s. Many were descendants of Black refugees who escaped enslavement in the southern United States. The exhibition tells the story of how historically Black Canadian communities used photography as a tool to visualize and lay claim to their complex histories.

These portraits, drawn from collections at Brock University and the Archives of Ontario — many exhibited here for the first time — highlight how these mostly unknown individuals presented themselves with style, dignity and self-assurance.

For the past two years writer and journalist Paul Seesequasis has scoured archives, researching Indigenous communities across Canada from the 1920s to the 1970s. This social media project reflects the day-to-day life of Indigenous peoples, reflecting images of family, relationship to the land, celebrations, work and play. The photographs are within a framework of resilience, resistance and community bonds and are outside the framework of "tragic" representation often portrayed in mainstream media.

A book of many of the photographs, along with narratives and community recollections will be published by Penguin Random House in fall, 2018, as well as on-site exhibits.

Seesequasis and Crooks recently took time to discuss their respective projects, the similarities and differences in their approaches, and the politics of archival depictions. 

'Girl in smoke lodge' (Oji-Cree) Weagamow Lake, Ontario 1956 Photo: John Macfie [AoO]; 'Elisapee Partridge & Lizzie Saunders' (Inuit) Kuujjuaq, Nunavik 1951 Photo: Wilfred Doucette [LAC]

'Girl in smoke lodge' (Oji-Cree) Weagamow Lake, Ontario 1956 Photo: John Macfie [AoO]; 'Elisapee Partridge & Lizzie Saunders' (Inuit) Kuujjuaq, Nunavik 1951 Photo: Wilfred Doucette [LAC]

Paul: Maybe what we should do is both start off in discussion explaining what our project is in terms of the archival photos. Do you want to start, Julie?

Julie: Sure! So the project is a show at the AGO called Free Black North. It basically pulls materials from two archives, two Ontario archives, the Alvin McCurdy collection and the Richard Dell collection that is part of Brock University’s collection. The materials are tintypes featuring Black subjects with some kind of connection to southwestern Ontario, either Amherstburg, which is about 20 minutes outside of Windsor, or St. Catharines and the Niagara region area.

So really, the project is looking at photographs of individuals, probably descendants of African-descended people, self-manumitted slaves who escaped to the north, to Ontario and settle between 1850 to around 1865. Many go back at the end of the Civil War, which is 1865.

Paul: My project is somewhat different, I mean, we’re both dealing with archival, but mine has been dealing with Indigenous day-to-day life, generally from the 1920s up to the 1970s and relying on archival photos like yours but sort of on a broader spectrum, from the National Archives or regional archives, museums, historical societies, as well as individual photographers.

My main framework was kind of to get outside of the pictures of residential schools etc. that so permeates imagery of the early 20th century, more to the day-to-day life, how people actually lived, the strength of communities and family and stuff. For me, a big part of it was posting them online, which began to get feedback and people recognizing names and family histories and that sort of things.

You said that because it’s an earlier period of time, you don’t necessarily have descendants responding to you, right?

Julie: Right, so I should say that they you were talking about images that evoke or show lived experience. And these photographs are mostly studio images, various studio,s maybe in the US, maybe in Canada, but show the individuals in a studio setting. In terms of kind of the question was about naming, identifying some of these individuals. Yeah, that’s more difficult because of the time frame and the era. We know, because they come from specific collections or archives, there was a connection to the McCurdy family, maybe they lived in Amhertsburg or environs or for Rick Bell’s case, in St. Catharines, they were friends and families and acquaintances of the Bell family. But there is a dearth of names.

The tintypes especially, at least on a photograph you may have some kind of inscription of the name of the subject. It’s harder on tin. You certainly don’t know what the studio is, unless they are encased in some kind of frame that one could pull out, or in an album, a tintype album that you know belonged to a specific family.

Paul: Even in my case, even though my photos are much more recent in terms of Indigenous experience, there are many cases where the photos were not identified in the archives, but the lived memory is still there for the people in the photos. The response from using social media to post those photos has been much more one of the more interesting aspects, people do recognize the names even if they’re never seen the photos before.

Because mine are more recent, they generally tend to be by photographers who were either priests or photojournalists or in some cases, Indigenous photographers themselves, who actually lived in the communities. From a curatorial aspect, that’s sort of what I was looking for, as opposed to someone who was flying into a community then flying out the next day. You get a much more relaxed kind of photo.

Julie: I don’t know many of the studio photographers. Most would be Caucasian, I’d imagine at that time. I found one Black Canadian photographer, but he’s working much later, 1880s into the ’30s, not with tintype.

I haven’t found a specific photographer, Black photographer that took the tintype images. And that poses some interesting questions as well, in terms of the relationship between the photographer and the subject, in this case Black. He’s basically commissioned to take these images. And they too for the most part look very relaxed, very self-assured and self-possessed. Because at the end of the day, they paid for this service, so he wants to present a very good quality, professional photograph, because his reputation rests on producing great photographs despite the race of the person in front of the camera.

So it’s an interesting dynamic at that time, because one cannot claim that these were Black photographers behind the camera. But having said that, I would say that the relationship also changes when it is a Black photographer behind the camera, there is the sense of, I guess, connectivity or a kind of deeper dialogue, a sense of wanting to present the subject the way they want to be presented. As you said, a kind of move away from the stereotypical representation.

Paul: The majority, probably 80 per cent of the photos I’ve been using, are by non-Indigenous photographers. The 20 per cent that are, you do see that different comfort level I guess, intimacy between the photographer and the subject. Though I have to see in the general case, even with the non-Indigenous photographers, at least the ones I’m looking for, there’s a naturalness as you’re describing to the photos. They’re not like Edward Curtis, where someone’s asking someone to dress up in regalia.

Have you been able to discern which ones are by African-Canadian photographers and which ones are not?

Julie: No. That’s a more in-depth research project that I haven’t been able to undertake at this point. I really don’t know what the results would be. There are photographers lists that name the photographers and where they were operating, if they were itinerant, but I suspect most were Caucasian or perhaps British or Scottish.

There were more African-American photographers working in places like Michigan and Ohio and Montana, northern states or Midwest states, but I haven’t found that to be the case in Canada.

Paul: When you’re looking at these photos, did anything surprise you in doing your research? Did anything stand out for you that you weren’t expecting?

Julie: I think the range, I think it’s wonderful and I think it’s pretty similar to the work that you are doing, the kind of range and complexity and heterogeneity of people of subjects that you know dispels the myths of the monolithic Black or the monolithic Aboriginal experience or subject. These are diverse communities with diverse experiences and they’re all individuals. They’re not stereotypes. I looked at about 60-plus images before I edited it down for the show. I think that’s what struck me, I obviously knew this, but it was kind of confirmed.

These were these early areas of settlement, people trying to seek refuge in the north despite the same kinds of racism that they would have experienced in the south but still persevering and trying to live their lives. Taking a photograph to either commemorate something special that is happening in their lives or for circulation among their family members. I think that’s what struck me and confirmed this idea of diverse and complex communities.

Paul: Most of my photos are taking place during a time when the Indian Act is still very much in place and residential schools and disassociation. But the framework when I see these photos really showed resilience of human character, of strength, of humour, of relationship to the land etc. And then for myself because there’s a social media aspect to my project, the feedback that’s come in from people recognizing photos or sharing stories of their ancestors or relatives or people still living, really sort of reaffirms the strength of character of the subjects regardless of what was going on in Indigenous communities politically, whether they’re First Nations, Metis or Inuit.

Julie: People that come in to engage with the work, they’re really struck by the history. Similar to the histories that you’re speaking about, that these are long, deep-rooted histories in Canada and often these histories are erased, are underrepresented, are misrepresented, are certainly not taught. I think the interest in these images gives a kind of entrée to those histories and allows for a broader idea of what Canada is.

New settler or immigration stories are fine, absolutely, but there are earlier ways in this case, earlier immigration or forced dispersal. And also in your case, these are people that this was their land.

I think it’s really important to keep reiterating these stories through the photographs so that it’s kind of a relentless pursuit of rewriting Canada’s history and putting these histories on that continuum of Canadian history. And now Canadian photography.

Paul: When you were selecting the photographs for the exhibit, did you have a list in mind of how you were going to select, or was it more of a gut or emotional response?

Julie: I think it was a mixture of two. Obviously we wanted to represent gender and groups, a mixture of men and women, and children, you know in terms of groups. And then of course, what was in the photograph, what was compelling about the image? What stood out? I think the photography theories talk about the puncture, what stung us when we saw these images. There are several rounds of editing and then I think we chose a really tight group that spoke on many levels about this range of subjects, different poses, different backdrops. What their eyes were telling us, how their image spoke to us.

Paul: For me, again, it’s much a similar process. I was looking at different aspects of age, gender of course, children, indoor, outdoor, whether it’s people hunting or harvesting on the land or whether it’s people just socializing at a dance, I guess the 24-hour day-to-day cycle of life in that time. Through doing that, I started to get a sense of the depth, the range of photos that were out there and how they represented Indigenous life in those years.

Julie: And the breadth of that life.

Paul: Exactly. So I guess the last question is ,what is the update on our collective projects and where do we see them going next?

Julie: Well, I guess, the show closes in August. The show is called Free Black North and it will close in August and it’s at the AGO.

Paul: And after the show is over do you intend to continue your research into these photos?

Julie: I’d like to. I think I’d like the show to travel. I’m not sure what that would look like, but based on the response it would be very interesting for it to travel to other parts of Canada where there have been historically Black communities. And yeah, I think I would just like to continue the research in this area.

Paul: For myself, the project will eventually be a book with Penguin Random House. It’ll be a photo book with accompanying narratives, and I’m in the process of doing interviews and research on that book. And that will come out in the fall of 2018. And similar to your exhibit, I’m hoping as well there will be a chance to tour some of these photos in different communities, maybe specific to each region or each tribe or nation, whatever. 

In this process of reclamation, many people sort of claiming them back, “that’s my family” or “that’s my grandmother, grandfather,” et cetera, for me that really is the reward of doing this research. So I hope to continue doing it even after the book comes out.

Well, Julie, this has been a pleasure.

Julie: Yes, I’ve learned so much. My interest is so piqued by your research, I went online and I was like, wow, this is really, really interesting material that you are finding and posting. That kind of connection when someone recognizes a family member, it’s so special, that’s why you do this work.