The photography of L.B. Foote
L.B. Foote's photographs of Winnipeg in the early 1900s deliver the combined energy of a burgeoning
polyglot city and the Aboriginal struggle to retain land and rights. The story of his work, originally
featured in Geist 86, is written by Michal Kozlowski and can be read online below.
The photography of L.B. Foote
Text by Michal Kozlowski
Lewis Benjamin Foote (1873–1957), perhaps the best-known Winnipeg photographer, claimed that he ran away from home in Newfoundland in order to avoid a life of fishing cod. He travelled through the Atlantic provinces and worked as a farmhand, cleaned printing presses, hawked Christmas cards and silverware, and held many other jobs. In Nova Scotia he sold coupons for sessions at the Cogswell Photo Company, mostly to young military men and their girlfriends and to working-class families; he made $1,200 in his first three months. At this time he began to work with a photographer, shooting community events. He developed a scheme to sell portraits of clergymen to members of their congregations, and he and his wife continued moving west (possibly in pursuit of the clergyman-congregation market) until 1902. That year they settled in Winnipeg, where Foote continued photographing clergymen for a Winnipeg studio. In 1909 he opened his own studio on Main Street. He worked there until 1932, when a fire destroyed the building.
Foote arrived in Winnipeg during a huge boom, some twenty years after the Canadian Pacific Railway linked the city to the east. Winnipeg had about 50,000 residents when Foote arrived; within twenty years it was bustling with a population of 180,000. Aboriginals, Jews, Ukrainians, Russians, Poles and working-class Canadians of various other origins flooded into Winnipeg, mostly into the North End, which then, as now, was separated from the rest of the city by class, language, religion and the massive CPR railyard. The expansion of Winnipeg came at the expense of Aboriginal populations struggling to maintain their presence in the Red River area, identified as Metis and the Treaty 1 First Nations—the first treaty signed by the Canadian government—comprising Ojibway, Cree and other nations.
Traces of the Aboriginal struggle to retain land and rights emerge in Foote photographs, in staged scenes in which politicians and figureheads (such as the future King of England) associated themselves with the “disappearing” peoples that the European culture was supplanting: Aboriginal leaders in traditional garb pose with British royalty at celebratory events and in performance in front of white audiences, almost never in the absence of whites. These images are evidence of Aboriginal protest as much as they might be seen (by non-Aboriginals) as indicative of subservience: they are proof that a people who are presumed to be vanishing are indeed alive and well; they provide one of the few public venues in which Aboriginal people are allowed to appear with dignity.
L.B. Foote, as he was known, took his first photographs at the turn of the twentieth century, a mere sixty years after the camera was invented. His motivations were mainly commercial, and he taught himelf photography by simply going out into the city and taking pictures. During the boom years he turned his camera on new building developments, busy sidewalks, weddings, funerals and wealthy families who commissioned portraits, as well as poor families in the North End—all imbued with the energy of a burgeoning city. His early photographs reflect inquisitiveness, an eagerness to engage with photography and with his new home. He was drawn to a wide range of subjects, locations and experiments with technique. Some of his early photographs anticipate the urban photography that came to define much of the look of the twentieth century: his photograph of a man crossing tram tracks at Portage and Main is reminiscent of the photography of Cartier-Bresson thirty years later; his photograph of a group of people viewing a corpse bears close resemblance to Eugene Smith’s Women Mourning at Wake of Juan Larra, taken years later. Some of Foote’s photographs can be seen as precursors of the city photography of Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész and other photographers.
Foote’s later photographs are more staid. He seems to have photographed the entire Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 from a second-storey window, far away from the clashing police and strikers. His photographs of Prince Edward emanate from a standard template of portrait photography rather than an encounter with his subject. Photographs of munitions factories and bus depots, of Winnipeg during World War II, resemble postcards rather than evidence of life. By then Foote had been photographing Winnipeg for more than forty years, and Winnipeg had long passed its heyday; building slowed down, the Great Depression hit hard; the population grew by only 50,000 from 1920 to 1950. As the boomtown energy faded from the city, so did it fade from Foote’s photographs.
These photographs were selected from Imagining Winnipeg: History through the Photographs of L.B. Foote, written by Esyllt Jones, to be published this fall by University of Manitoba Press. The photos in Imagining Winnipeg came from the Archives of Manitoba, which houses a collection of more than two thousand Foote photos. While compiling the book, the University of Manitoba Press started a blog project called the Lost Foote Photos, and invited Winnipegers to send in their own stories about Foote photographs, most often about their relatives who appeared in the photos. The blog can be read at lostfootephotos.blogspot.ca.
Michal Kozlowski is the Assistant Publisher of Geist. He is the author of the children’s book Louis the Tiger Who Came from the Sea (Annick Press) and several fiction and non-fiction stories in Geist. Read his work at geist.com.
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