Category Archives: Photography

Archival Appraisal for Acquisition

The Usefulness of Press Photographs

Acquisition of images which will both fit the mission of the archives and offer maximum usefulness to numerous archive clients is a challenge.

The most useful pictures are those which illustrate activities, events or specific locations. Original press photographs may be appropriate and useful additions to the photograph holdings, but press photographs have a poor reputation amongst archivists. Many repositories have had recent copies thrust upon them, minus the original documentation. Sometimes, these copies have been made from the many digitized image sources available online, and the original is the proud property of another archive. Not all archivists are skilled at separating silver prints from dye and plastic. Nor does every institution have staff time to check the provenance of each image. Once embarrassed by being caught serving a photograph with a really bad donor-imposed caption, the archivist cannot be blamed for being nervous about accepting more.

We wish that family photographs were richer in documented views and vignettes of activities. However, what are most commonly offered by donors are portraits. Portraits of accomplished persons are of wider use, particularly if they are not represented in another accessible collection and are not restricted by copyright or donor agreements. However, the sad truth is that portraits of average citizens will have limited appeal (mostly to the occasional descendants who are thrilled to finally see great-uncle Fred). If the portrait is both identified AND dated, there may be useful details such as costume or hair style which will serve the clients at the archive. The archivist might ponder, however, just how many clients researching the history of hairdressing arrive each year. A quick glance at the photograph index will prove that, outside of portraits, the major subject groups are family activities such as picnics, weddings and cute grandkids. Being part of the family fonds these are kept. The topics are useful, but they not the important themes which give the archive status and win public support.

In my opinion, the small local archives in particular must be proactive with image collections. There is a danger of becoming a substitute shoebox for guilty families who no longer want grandma’s photos. Although lovely, many family photo fonds lack sufficient image “oomph” to be widely useful and desirable to patrons.

Below is an example of a press photograph which enhances a collection of portraits of World War Two soldiers.

Many Lennox and Addington veterans served in the Canadian Artillery in World War Two, and were part of the Canadian First Army in 1945, which was a multi-national force commanded by Canadian General Harry Crerar. In February 1945, they were advancing into Germany along the Nijmegen-Cleve road. A ridge of land held by the German 84th Division was a major impediment. The Allies called this ridge, “The Nutterden Feature”. The airforce was to bomb the ridge on February 8th, but bad weather and the proximity of the Canadians delayed the attack. Instead, the artillery was used, consisting of the British Worcestershire Regiment and the Canadians. On February 9th through February 10th, following the bombardment, the allies advanced on the ridge. This assault was actually commanded by General Brian Horrocks. The weather was grey, cold and generally miserable. After a struggle with the very determined enemy, the Nutterden Feature was won, opening up the Cleve Road. This action was part of “Operation Veritable” (Battle of the Rhineland).

This photograph (British Newspaper Pool No. 390213/4) shows British troops and Canadians advancing into the German trenches on the Nutterden feature. It conveys more quickly then words the military significance of the ridge and the size of the bombardment necessary to win it.

Allied troops in the German trenches of Nutterden Feature, 1945

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Filed under Archives, Canada at war., Photographica, Photography

Maria M. McLaren, Winchester, Ontario

N2009-031This little photograph dates from the 1890’s.  It was taken by N.W. Trickey, who was also one of the barbers in the town.   Although the picture is clearly identified on the back, it is a challenge to find her family history.  There are many “Mary McLarens” in Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry, but none living in Winchester, and none of suitable age or location called “Maria”.

I have a theory that this is the Mary Morrison McLaren, widow, who died in Lochiel, Glengarry on 28 September, 1896.  She would have been born in circa 1822-4.

This Mary McLaren stands out for me because her daughter said that she was born in Quebec.  This would account for the spelling of her name, “Marie”.

However, looking back on the 1871 and 1881 census, we find that Mary McLaren, while living, said that she was born in Ireland.

Also, Lochiel, Glengarry is rather distant from Winchester.  Why would she have her photograph taken in Winchester?  And what about  her clothing, which seems rather nice for a poor widow.  However, the Mary McLaren of Lochiel made her living as a seamstress, and it is tempting to think that she made her own elaborate cape and bodice.

If anyone has family connections with Marie M. McLaren,  and has helpful information, I would be interested to know.


Filed under History, Ontario, Material culture, Photography

A Woodstock lady, with her pug, circa 1888


This cabinet photograph taken by George Kirton of Woodstock, Ontario, surfaced down in Michigan.  Nothing keeps the ego a reasonable size like being confronted with a face from long ago, now without a name.  So shall it be for most of us, one day.

The photograph is damaged, probably from exposure to humidity, but we can see that the lady wears the soft, feathered bonnet supposed to resemble the hats in Rembrandt paintings.  These were introduced to the fashionable in the early 1880’s  and lasted only until about 1888 in Canada.  This photograph could be as early as 1882, but is much more likely to be 1887-8. 

Pugs were very popular dogs in Ontario in the 19th century.  Although they were frequently the choice of young families, they also had the reputation of being good companions for single ladies.   Lord Frederick Hamilton (1856-1928), remembering the 1880’s later in life, wrote:

“One ought never to be astonished at misplaced affections I have seen old ladies lavish a wealth of tenderness on fat, asthmatical and wholly repellent pugs.”  (The Vanished Pomps of Yesterday)

However, this bright little pug is certainly not fat and wheezy.

Lord Frederick Hamilton, who disliked pugs,  is credited with introducing the sport of skiing to Canada — but that is another story.

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Filed under Archives, Material culture, Photograph history

An Acrobatic Troupe from Palmerston, Ontario


More than a quaint picture!

Four male performers pose for the camera. Three men wear the uniforms of acrobats: the fourth wears the costume of a clown. These are the Aberdeen Minstrels of Palmerston, Ontario in 1898, and today the group is unknown. This is an interesting photograph. Obviously, the picture records the preferred dress of circus or side-show performers of the 1890’s, but there is much more here.

The Governor-General of Canada from 1893-1898 was John Campbell Gordon, Marquis of Aberdeen and Temair, known as the Earl of Aberdeen. Aberdeen was wildly popular with most Canadians. Even today, when there is a list of exceptional men and women who have succeded him to the office, he is remembered as the man who changed the role of the G-G from representative of Royalty to an agent for the best interests of common Canadians. His term ended in 1898. The name of this group might have been chosen in his honour.

The Earl took a great interest in sports. He spoke out strongly for school athletic programs to improve the fitness of young Canadians. The name of the group probably reflects the profound influence of the Governor-General during the time these young men attended High School.

Moreover, this Governor-General was Scottish and the Palmerston neighbourhood included many Scottish immigrant families. The minstrel on the far left is David A. Cox of Palmerston, born November 6, 1879 of Scottish descent, son of David D. and Mary Cox. The minstrel third from left (the shortest) is believed to be John A. McCombe of Palmerston, born 9 April, 1979 of Scottish descent, son of Samuel F. and Janet McCombe. The man second from left has not been fully identified but is believed to be one “C. Morrison”, and may also be of Scottish background. The clown is identified only as “J. Marshal [sic]”. The little troupe in its own way communicates the pride in Scottish ancestry current in the Palmerston community of the 1890’s.

At first, I wondered if this was a professional team from a travelling circus, but it was not so. Both David Cox and John McCombe were employed as railway brakeman. Palmerston owed its existence to the establishment of railway barns and a junction there in the 1870’s, and it seems that at the turn of the last century, the railway was still an important employer. Cox and McCombe likely knew each other at High School and continued as friends on the railway. Morrison and Marshall may also have been co-workers, but this has yet to be proven.

This all tells us that these are amateur performers. Also, they are not sons of the upper class with independent means, amusing themselves but rather working class men who probably had limited leisure time. The fact that they chose to spend it training and rehearsing tells us that the men certainly believed in the personal benefit of the activity. It is not outrageous to suggest that the publicity must have conferred rewards in the form of popularity or even status in their community.

Perhaps, at the turn of the last century, everybody in Palmerson and perhaps all of Wellington county had heard of the Aberdeen Minstrels.

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Filed under Archives, History, Ontario, Material culture, Photograph history, Photographica

William DeWindt: a soldier’s story

n2009-010smFrom California I acquired a Canadian postcard from the time of the First World War.  A laughing soldier, laden down by his kit, poses in the winter snow outside the Quartermaster’s Store.  The photograph was taken in Hamilton, Ontario.  His name is recorded on the back, probably in his own hand.  Wm. DeWindt. 

I wanted to know more about Mr. DeWindt, so I invested a couple of hours and this is what I now know.

William DeWindt was born in Ingelmunster, Belgium on April 26th, 1879.   He said that his mother-tongue was French, so he may have come from a Walloon family.  This is significant, because  there was conflict between the Flemish and Walloon ethnic groups. 

As a young man with limited prospects, William enlisted in the Belgian Army, likely at the age of 16 in April, 1895.  This was a dangerous time to enlist, as the notorious Leopold II, King of the Belgians, was intent on expanding his influence, in particular in Africa.  Having grabbed the Belgian Congo, he insisted on giving it to the Belgian people in 1890, even though most of his government did not want it. 

There was great turmoil in Belgium as landed and industrial elites were trying to squeeze gains from industrial expansion by exluding most of the population.  Since Belgium had become a sovereign state, it had lost access to the sea, and this together with other changes had precipitated economic hard times, which increased internal friction.   Frightening disturbances occurred in Belgium with major unrest betweent 1899 and 1902 over who could and could not vote.  Flemish people battled Walloons for influence and workers took  on factory owners and the government for more rights.  (Even after the extension of the franchise, less than 22% of Belgians could vote.)  Troops were used to put down violent protests particularly in 1893.

I do not know whether William DeWindt was one of the soldiers turned on the citizens.  He may have avoided danger as he was talanted musically, and had been sent to one of the Beligian military bands.  He served in the army for about eight years so he could scarcely avoid seeing some of the violence.   He left active service in about 1903.

At about that time, he married Rachel, daughter of Orchid Remie of Ghent.  A son, Polidor DeWindt, was born in about 1905.  With a new family dependent upon him, William looked overseas and decided to go the United States.  His destination was Chicago, where another appearance of the unusual name DeWindt suggests to me that he had at least one relation.

The U.S. Census says that the whole family emigrated in 1905, but in fact only William left Belgium.    Rachel and Polidor followed later, arriving at New York on October 20th, 1908 on the Kroonland, out of Antwerp.  The little family appear on the 1910 census, living in the Flat Building in Chicago where William was the janitor.

Life expectancy for women in Belgium at the turn of the last century was less than 40 years, but Rachel did not gain much through emigration.  Sometime between 1910 and 1917, Rachel died.  As she was born in about 1879, she was not yet 40.  I do not know what happened to the little boy, Polidor. 

In the autumn of 1917, British and Canadian officers were in Chicago recruiting.   Heavy losses prompted the need for more men.  William enlisted on Dec. 5th, 1917, in Chicago, and was sent across the border to Canada to join the First Depot Battalion of the 2nd Central Ontario Regiment (Serial No. 3105913).  He gave his next-of-kin as his sister back in Belgium.  He was sent to Toronto, and then probably to Hamilton, where this picture was taken, likely in January, 1918. 

William was only 5′ 1″ tall.  Although to his generation this was not as short as it appears to us today it was less than desirable and combined with his age (39) and relatively non-combative background (bandsman) one would expect that he would have been deployed in one of the support activities.  -But I can’t be sure, being reluctant to pay for copies of his file from the National Library and Archives of Canada.  Perhaps he was sent to the Western Front and saw Flanders once more under very different circumstances.

I found William after the War back in Chicago, at the Washington Park Hospital.  He was still single.  At first, I thought he was a patient, but upon examining the census I concluded that he was on staff and living on the grounds.  This was confirmed by the 1930 census which shows William DeWindt, now age 51, occupation “orderly employed by hospital”.

At the hospital, William probably met his second wife, Nettie, an American from New York State who worked at the same place as a nurse’s aid.  Nettie was seven years younger than William, and he married her in late in 1920 or early in 1921.

The couple was living comfortably in a small house in Ward 7 of Chicago in 1930, and that is the last I found of them.  Perhaps there is someone else who knows the end of the story.   William DeWindt lived through a period of great changes, some of them terribly violent.  Imagine the adventures that he likely experienced.

I am indebted to Sandra Halperin, whose interesting book, “War and Social Change in Europe, 1789-1945” was a great help in understanding William’s times.  The book is published by Cambridge University Press.

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Who was the lady with the sad eyes?

She looks into your eyes across time — sad and far away, the lovely woman in the photograph.  She was no elegant lady of fashion.  Her beautiful bonnet would have been the acme of style in the 1840’s when she was married, but by the time she posed for the daguerreotypist in the 1850’s it was just a little too fussy and too large.  We know that she was a hard worker.  Her linens and printed gown are spotlessly clean and pressed.  She is not old, but there are already lines etched on her pretty face.  


So, who was she?  We will never know.  Almost certainly, she was a farmer’s wife from northern New York State, where her photograph surfaced a century and a half later. 

I wonder what family cast out her picture, consigning it to the flotsam and jetsam of the antique trade?  Obviously, there was no one left alive among her descendants who remembered her name.  -But did no one in the family resemble her?  Was an accruel of $50 more important then keeping her where she belonged?

It is an humbling thought.  We all feel so needed, so connected while we live, but who will keep our life and times alive, after we are gone?

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150 Years of Visual Democracy may be Coming to an End.

What glimpses into the late twentieth century will survive?

Since paper photographs became affordable in the 1860’s we have been supplied with a wealth of images of folk, remarkable and unremarkable, and a supply of views of day-to-day life. Of course, historians and journalists might argue that is never quite the right particular photograph available when you need it, but in reality never has so much been documented to such an extent, by so many.

Those of us who work with historic images like to complain about our ancestors most of whom seem had a mighty aversion to labelling snaps. If only they had given us a clue as to who, when and where! However, archivists are not totally lacking in tools. Old photographs are physical entitites. Photographic technique, size of the print, and membership in a body of related materials (“context”) are all of help in identification, not to mention history of ownership (“provenance”). So the farmer’s wife may have known nothing about durability of her photograph, or of the tapes, glues, mounts and fingers with which it would have contact, but despite this, something which we can use remains.

Today’s amateur shutterbugs are now almost completely converted to digital photography. They are confused, challenged and seduced by a range of options for storing pictures. Many of the options use the words “archive” or “archival”. The word suggests survival for the future. The truth is that most early 21st century processes and products are so new that we do not know if or how they will endure.

Even if the best case is true, and floppy disks, cd-roms, hard drives and memory devices do not deteriorate, will the hardware and software still be around to read them in fifty years, or will data retrieval be the domain of specialists?

Printing out is not the answer either, as home printing devices produce snapshots that are light sensitive, or with a tendency to become sticky or powdery.

These scary thoughts have prompted exploration of other possibilities. One idea which has gained in popularity is to store digital images far away, on a site run by a reputable company. The photographer is supposed to have complete access and to relax, assured that the visual information is ultimately safe. The picture archive is responsible for providing the tools to enable translation from one format to another, offering the best of new formats to replace obsolete ones.

Experienced photograph archivists worry about usefulness of these photo banks to posterity. Amateur photographers who label their work are rare. Uploaded photographs frequently are accompanied by very little data. At least one firm has suggested a software to record the GPS locator and time taken as part of the digital image, as well as the date. I suppose that this might help, but it will still not tell us that the occasion was the Millenneum Parade and that the person in costume is cousin Susie.

Off-site photograph banks which were initially enthusiastic about playing a role in historical preservation are now getting cold feet as the size of memory resource which must be offered to clients for free (or for very little) becomes apparent. The most recent cause celebre was the death of AOL Pictures Service on January 8th, 2009. AOL turned the function over to a commercial partner, PhotoWorks, and clients are asked to register for a PhotoWorks account by June 30th, 2009, in order to continue to access their images.

The idea that the photograph bank would one day be a resource for millions of wonderful images is revealed as not credible. The need to clear intellectual property considerations (copyright) requires knowledge about the date of creation. Even setting copyright aside, there is the need to know just what the subject matter of the image might be and cryptic codes don’t explain. Then there is the matter of retrieval. In order to make the pictures useful, people have to be able to search the image bank. Unlike genuine archives, large commercial companies are not interested in the investment of manpower to carefully arrange and tag, image by image. The financial return for amateur photographs is just not juicy enough. As the size of the photograph bank grows, private interests sometimes group the images in virtual boxes under themes: “ships”, “lighthouses”, “sailors”, leaving the researchers to hunt for themselves through the boxes.

There is no doubt that carefully tended digital banks of commercial images, such as those maintained by Associated Press, have a good chance of surviving a long time. The AP image bank contains celebrities, stirring events and evocative views taken mostly by skilled professionals. AP presently charges $40 for an 8″ x 10″ reproduction for personal enjoyment and more than three times that for commercial use. The revenue potential alone of these top end photographs would be an indicator for preservation.

The question is how much about the grassroots will have the same privilege. Will the snapshots of the opening ceremony at the new public school be available in one hundred years? Will future researchers be able to find photographs of small-town mayors and returning veterans? While we would probably all agree that it is unnecessary to keep an image of every Hallowe’en costume worn by every Canadian child, it is troubling to think that very little of our day-to-day lives and times may survive.


Filed under Archives, History, Ontario, Material culture, Photography