Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? is a new exhibition by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) marking the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. This exhibition is accompanied by a year-long blog series.
Join us every month in 2017! Experts from LAC, from across Canada and from other countries provide additional information about the exhibition. Each “guest curator” discusses one item, then adds another to the exhibition—virtually.
Be sure to visit Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? at 395 Wellington Street, Ottawa, from June 5, 2017, to March 1, 2018. Admission is free.
Temples of Today by John Vanderpant, ca. 1934
Photographer John Vanderpant saw Canada’s grain elevators as temples. They were part of his utopian vision for the country, based on a faith in trade and industry. For him, industry would define the nation’s future.
Tell us about yourself
I knew I wanted to be a conservator since I was 13 years old. At this time, my uncle had married a wonderful woman named Janice. She was a fine art conservator, hence she treated paintings, works of art on paper, and photographs. I was very influenced by her, and it led me to work in her private lab as I was studying at university. It provided me with experience before I even started my graduate classes in conservation. When I graduated, there was no employment in Canada, and my aunt had closed her lab and was traveling that particular year. I ended up going to the George Eastman House on a whim. It was supposed to be just for three months. Instead I stayed there three years and three months! It was when I became passionate about photography, particularly historical processes. My hands were often black due to all the silver nitrate I was playing with! And now, I see my aunt’s name on a report or two, as she had actually interned here at LAC many years before me.
Is there anything else about this item that you feel Canadians should know?
LAC’s collection of photographs is really diverse. You can always find a variety of processes and images. For this exhibition, I favor Temples of Today by John Vanderpant. I am a photograph conservator, so often I look beyond the image, looking deeper at the materials and how the photograph was made, or if anything has been altered. Many times, not to be distracted by the image itself, I turn the photograph around, so that the image is upside down, making it less distracting, so that I can concentrate on the material and not the image before me. But for this item, all I had to do was lean down and look at the surface of the photograph in raking light. That is when light is falling across the surface and I am almost at eye level with the surface. It is at this point you can really “see” an object; all the handling dents and deformities are really pronounced. When you do that with this item you see cat paw prints! We actually think that the cat walked one way, turned around and walked back! The photograph was already mounted on the paper support when the cat had walked on it. This is noted as one of the prints lies on both the photograph and the support. Perhaps Vanderpant had a cat who would visit him in the studio? I really enjoy finding these hidden secrets. I did try to remove or at least reduce the paw prints, but they appear to be stuck within the emulsion. So I could not do much as for treatment, and the paw prints remain.
Tell us about another related item that you would like to add to the exhibition
A photograph that I enjoy showing people is a daguerreotype from July 1858. The daguerreotype has captured the Molson Brewery in Montréal, after a fire. It is a half plate in good condition. The image is sombre as the fire has left nothing. In the centre of this emptiness stands a man with a seated female to the left with a small child, who moved as the image was taken and is blurry. It is a moving image, as you can imagine that the daguerreotypist had to be physically there, at this moment to document this period of time. A few years ago, this item was going on exhibition; therefore I was fortunate enough to be able to open the daguerreotype package (the original sealing tape had been previously removed), to examine the plate. Upon removal of the brass mat, I immediately noticed in the upper left corner, a finger mark. This was hidden behind the brass mat. This fingerprint could be from the daguerreotypist, who is, at this moment still unknown. It could have been accidently placed there as he or she was developing the plate or placing it into the daguerreotype package. For me it is a sign of the mysterious past—a bridge, a connector between these people in the image and to the person behind the camera who is not visible and us, the current viewer.
On this theme of animals and photography, I would like to include the “Decadog,” as we call it at the Preservation Centre. This is a perfect example of an animal being an animal. It is a nitrate panorama negative of 7th Draft, “C” Battery, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery (RCHA). These were the units of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) and the Royal Air Force who trained at various camps in Ontario; here it was in Kingston. It was taken between 1914 and 1918. The nitrate negative was discovered when my colleagues Carla Klück and Louise Perrault were scanning the nitrate panorama collection in 2011. At first glance this long negative, which is 200 mm high x 1060 mm wide, is another documented proof of military troops from the turn of the century. On closer examination, a dog appears in the foreground. But not just any dog—a dog with eleven legs! Viewers are always confused when they notice this unusual aspect. Someone has previously outlined in black ink on the negative (which appears white on the positive print), ten of the legs (hence the name Decadog), omitting the second last paw on the left. You may be asking—how did this dog exist in Kingston? Easy enough answer is that the photograph was taken by a panoramic camera also known as a Cirkut. The Cirkut is a rotating camera that would capture a panoramic scene by pivoting horizontally while a roll of film moved across the film plane. At just the right moment, the dog must have walked as the camera was rotating from left to right. Consequently, the slow capture could capture the slow movement of the dog walking across the plane of view. To prove that this Decadog is a “normal” four-legged friend, I have included an additional nitrate panorama from our collection. This time it is from the 8th Draft “C” Battery, RCHA, CEF, Petawawa Camp on June 1916. From his face markings, we think that this is the same dog in both nitrate panoramas.
Tania Passafiume has been the Head Conservator of Photographic Materials for Library and Archives Canada since 2005. After graduating from Queen’s University with a Master’s in Art Conservation (specializing in photographs, works on paper and book conservation), she moved to Rochester, New York. It was in Rochester at the George Eastman House where she remained for over three years, first participating in the Certificate Program in Photographic Preservation and Archival Practice and then as a Fellow in the first cycle of the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in the Advanced Residency Program in Photograph Conservation. For the following three years, Tania was an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow, in Photographic Conservation at the Art Institute of Chicago. Tania has also worked in the following institutions and private labs: Jana Conservation, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, National Archives of Canada, City of Vancouver Archives, and Canadian Centre for Architecture. With the Canadian Conservation Institute she has published “Silver Gelatin Paper Sample Sets,” which is based on her George Eastman House thesis. Also stemming from this was research on Hippolyte Bayard, a topic on which she is currently working with the Centre de recherché sur la conservation des collections (CRCC), Paris. More recently, she spearheaded a LAC project with the Cultural Affairs Department of the City of Paris/Atelier de Restauration et de Conservation des Photographies de la Ville de Paris (ARCP) in a collaboration to create the first English-French visual glossary of photo conservation terms in enhanced eBook format called Lingua Franca: A Common Language for Conservators of Photographic Materials which will soon be available for free on iTunes.