Category Archives: Old Photos

The value of old photos in reflecting earlier times

Amazing Negatives

I was definitely busy this year with photo research for the expansion of my book, Settling In: First Homes of the Prairies. The new book includes early homes from BC to Manitoba, and it spans a time-frame that begins with early forts and concludes with wartime housing in Western Canada. So, given the expanded time-frame and content, I needed new photos.

During the process, my most exciting photo finds were two glass negatives. They belonged to my mother’s friend, Kathleen Kossowan, and they were from her family’s photo collection. Although I had long known about glass negatives, I had never actually seen them. So, I found it fascinating to view the black and grey images printed on the glass “plates,” which are about 5 by 7 inches in size. Similar plates are part of many museum collections, but to be personally entrusted with two of them was thrilling and helped me feel connected to our photographic past.

Collodion wet plate negatives were used from about the 1850s to 1880s, and since the ones I was offered were from the early 1900s, they had to be silver gelatine dry plate negatives. With the process invented in 1873, the negatives were widely used from about 1880 to 1920. In Alberta, museums and archives such as Glenbow in Calgary recognize the importance of photos to understanding and appreciating our history, and they have been supportive and helpful to me regarding my projects. Although glass negatives are part of their collections, having the negatives developed or scanned would be a big ticket item for their budgets, and cost concerned me, too.

As an individual writer with limited resources, although I wanted to use one or both images, I wasn’t sure if I could locate a local photographer or photography business able to develop them. Years ago, I had found an individual to develop black and white film negatives, but having the work done had been costly. This time, despite the availability of better technology, I assumed having the glass negatives developed might prove impossible or very costly.  So, as an experiment, I tired scanning the negative on my printer. The result was dismal, and the images were far too dark to see.

Next, I went to my favourite camera and photography store, Vistek, in Calgary.  The professionals there would have more knowledge and better access to whatever equipment might be needed. The individual with whom I had worked previously regarding special orders said, “Yes. We should be able to do the job.” Unfortunately, there was a problem with paper being stuck to one of the negatives, but that is another story. I had the two images scanned, and one will be on the cover of Settling In: Early Homes of Western Canada. The book should be in my hands in a week or two, and needless to say, “I can hardly wait!”

In the meantime, my sincere appreciation goes to Kathleen Kossowan and her family, the photo wizards at Vistek, and my editor at Detselig Enterprises, James Dangerous, who chose the image for the book cover. On behalf of myself and other photo buffs, many thanks!

Self Test: Photos With or Without Text

Photos are essential in photo essays and are great in collages. Yes, there is a difference between a photo essay and a collage, but both are interesting, whether presented as art, on a poster, in a book, scrapbook or magazine, or on the Net. Neither form needs text, and in both forms, story or an important progression of ideas might be evident. Certainly for me, with or without text, photos have unbelieveable potential in captivating us emotionally, intellectually and artistically.

 I’m a writer not an artist or photographer. Yet I find it interesting to think about whether photos, on their own, are as effective as those with photo captions.  Often enough, teachers assign photo essays and collages, and some assignments are to be completed with text, others without text.

I firmly believe visual literacy is essential in today’s world, and I often try to promote it when visiting classrooms. But also, I suggest that contemplating how such elements work in our own learning process is time well spent. Might there be a difference in terms of how artists, writers and readers respond to photos appearing with or without text? Personally, I suspect there is.

 So, I’ve included this self text for you. Oh, there is absolutely nothing scientific about it. Yet, I was surprised  when one of my very best friends—who for years was a special education teacher, an elementary teacher and an elementary principal—said that I might be a multimodal learner or close to it. But what in the world would that  mean for me?

Already, I realized that words and print were central to my learning style. Also, I knew that I loved visual works, whether fine art or photography. Too, for me, like many other writers, the senses of sight, smell and touch are important.

Do I learn effectively through oral or sound experiences? I like hearing interesting speakers, but listening may not be my best learning mode. Today, countless slide shows and videos present images  accompanied by music, with or without lyrics. I enjoy the images, hear the music but I have trouble picking up the exact words, perhaps because I am too distracted by the images and music to mentally process the lyrics.

So, think about it.  Do you most enjoy photographs when displayed for their visual and artistic merits only? Do you prefer the type of visual presentation that includes music and lyrics? Do you gravitate to photos accompanied by a context and caption?

 The attached images  aren’t intended as great photo art. Still, maybe great works would be so captivating we would find it more difficult to evaluate our responses. 

Next week, I’ll give you a context and captions for the images, but, think about your preferred learning style and responses. And remember, this is just for fun and has absolutely no scientific basis!

Photos and Inspiration

Need more help with inspiration, context, colour and perspective?  Take a look at a photo or ten. For me, as soon as I see a photo, settings, historical context and people become more real—whether the people actually lived or become fictionalized characters in a story. In fact, when I was a student in a workshop instructed by my good friend Shirlee  Smith Matheson, she noted, “Faye, all we have to do is give you a photo and you are off and writing.”

She was right, and any photo can work the magic. But, in terms of my published my work, countless historocal photos have found their way onto the same pages as my writing. With books such as Alberta: A History in Photographs and Canada’s Rocky Mountains: A Photo History, I outlined where I wanted to go, and then I began the photo research. For each of those books and the others, I’ve skimmed or studied thousands of images–online, in archives and in private collections. Once I have the images, then writing becomes easy—well, not exactly easy.

I dp have to research and confirm all my facts, and then I have to find the right words for the content and the image. But, once the photos are selected–or at least tentatively planned–the projects most certainly take shape in my head. So, clearly, given the images in all of my books, old photos matter to me.

Yet, I love contemporary photography, too. My husband, Walt, is a great amateur photographer, and I revel at the intense and subtle colours he is able to capture. The one below is hanging in our dining room. With my limited computer and web skills, I haven’t done justice to his work of art in terms of colours and intensity, but maybe, someday, I’ll acquire those skills.

Others with a sound knowledge of Photoshop would make you see what I see on my wall, but anyway, you get the idea. In fact, this image almost became  my banner. Why? Because I want to create bridges, all kinds of bridges including between writers, history buffs, photographers, photo enthusiasts, learners and teachers. Unfortunately, as I edit the image to the specific size needed for the banner, the photo lost so much of its content and beauty.

Still,  even with out the unique banner, I plan to explore how photos can become bridges, offering us new ways to “see”–whatever our passions, roles and processes, and whether we are engaged in writing, thinking, teaching or learning. 

Next week? Lifelong learning takes centre stage. Join me and I’ll explore how learning works for me–and maybe for you, too.