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The Official Picture

The Official Picture: The National Film Board of Canada's Still Photography Division and the Image of Canada, 1941-1971

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    The Official Picture
    Book Description:

    Mandated to foster a sense of national cohesion The National Film Board of Canada's Still Photography Division was the country's official photographer during the mid-twentieth century. Like the Farm Security Administration and other agencies in the US, the NFB used photographs to serve the nation. Division photographers shot everything from official state functions to images of the routine events of daily life, producing some of the most dynamic photographs of the time, seen by millions of Canadians - and international audiences - in newspapers, magazines, exhibitions, and filmstrips. In The Official Picture, Carol Payne argues that the Still Photography Division played a significant role in Canadian nation-building during WWII and the two decades that followed. Payne examines key images, themes, and periods in the Division's history - including the depiction of women munitions workers, landscape photography in the 1950s and 60s, and portraits of Canadians during the Centennial in 1967 - to demonstrate how abstract concepts of nationhood and citizenship, as well as attitudes toward gender, class, linguistic identity, and conceptions of race were reproduced in photographs. The Official Picture looks closely at the work of many Division photographers from staff members Chris Lund and Gar Lunney during the 1940s and 1950s to the expressive documentary photography of Michel Lambeth, Michael Semak, and Pierre Gaudard, in the 1960s and after. The Division also produced a substantial body of Northern imagery documenting Inuit and Native peoples. Payne details how Inuit groups have turned to the archive in recent years in an effort to reaffirm their own cultural identity. For decades, the Still Photography Division served as the country's image bank, producing a government-endorsed "official picture" of Canada. A rich archival study, The Official Picture brings the hisotry of the Division, long overshadowed by the Board's cinematic divisions, to light.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-8894-3
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-1)
    (pp. 3-16)

    Several years ago while working in Ottawa at the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, I began to ponder the photographs, histories, and ideas that would form this book. The museum holds an extensive collection and has organized dozens of exhibitions dedicated to Canada’s vibrant contemporary photographic activity;¹ as a curator there, I spent my days immersed in contemporary photographs and photo-based art. But while I was and continue to be highly engaged by contemporary photography and art practice, I kept catching out of the corner of my eye the shadows of photographic images from the past. What I at first...


    • CHAPTER 1 “Civil Servants with a Camera”: A History of Still Photography at the National Film Board of Canada
      (pp. 19-52)

      In a 1976 interview, Lorraine Monk, then executive producer of the National Film Board of Canada’s Still Photography Division, spoke about the bureaucratic environment in which she and her staff had long laboured. Division photographers – and other staff – she protested, were treated as little more than “civil servants with a camera.”²

      Yet during most of the division’s history, photography production was decidedly institutional and bureaucratic. Routinely described as a “service” to the federal government, the Still Division aided various federal departments and agencies in producing the Canadian government’s “official picture.” For decades it rendered in visual form a range of...

    • CHAPTER 2 “The Materials of Citizenship”: Documentary and the Image of Childhood in NFB Still Photography
      (pp. 53-76)

      The story of the NFB’s Still Photography Division and its “official picture” of Canadian nationhood is one of bureaucrats, memos, policies, and the routine, daily work undertaken by photographers, writers, editors, and other staff. But it is also a visual story told through the hundreds of thousands of photographs (as well as photo texts) that the division produced and the changing styles of those photographic representations. According to Benedict Anderson, nations are distinguished “by the style in which they are imagined.”³ At the NFB, that “style” was defined by the broad concept of documentary, a term coined by John Grierson,...


    • CHAPTER 3 “Made in Canada”: Labour, Gender, and Class during the Second World War
      (pp. 79-106)

      The history of still photography at the National Film Board of Canada in the previous section was told from a somewhat distant perspective, looking out over three decades to reveal broader patterns in its institutional mandates and documentary style. But histories, of course, are also told at the micro level where, under close observation and analysis, the detailed textures and complexities of a period come into focus. This chapter and the two that follow each examine specific periods in this history through a discussion of a defining trope of those years.

      This chapter addresses the theme of work in the...

    • CHAPTER 4 “For the Land … Has Always Held the Nation Together”: Landscape, Race, and the Nation in the 1950s and 1960s
      (pp. 107-133)

      By the 1950s, the image of industry, a focus of the NFB Still Division’s attention during the war, all but faded from view, to be replaced by the distinctive and diverse scenery of Canada. In the 1950s and ’60s, landscape imagery became increasingly prominent in its photo stories, publications, exhibitions, and individual images, employed as a powerful emblem of Canadian nationhood. Depicted repeatedly and disseminated widely, landscape views exemplify the effect of “banal nationalism” in the division’s work. Images of the land served not only as markers of Canadian identity but as sites for promoting economic status and enacting cultural...

    • CHAPTER 5 “Ces visages qui sont un pays”: Portraiture, Citizenship, and Linguistic Identity in Centennial Canada
      (pp. 135-162)

      On the hundredth anniversary of Confederation, while Canada: A Year of the Land and Canada, du temps qui passe celebrated a nation seemingly without people, the Still Photography Division was also at work on a series of centennial projects that focused directly on Canada’s citizenry. The division’s two large-format picture books, Call Them Canadians and Ces visages qui sont un pays (figs. 5.1 and 5.2), as well as the Expo 67 installation The People Tree (fig. 5.3), are populated by hundreds of images depicting Canadians. Lorraine Monk intended the projects as “counterparts” to the centennial landscape volumes, but they also...


    • CHAPTER 6 Lessons with Leah: Rereading the Photographic Archive from the North
      (pp. 165-188)

      On 16 June 2004, Leah Idlout d’Argencourt Paulson, an Inuk writer, editor, and translator living in Iqaluit, spoke with me by phone about some images from the NFB Still Photography Division’s archive.² We talked specifically about a photo story made in the late 1950s featuring three photographs taken in Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island, today part of the Territory of Nunavut (figs. 6.1 and 6.2). As we spoke, Leah looked at a copy in Iqaluit while I examined another in Ottawa. Through photographs, captions, and brief text, this photo story recounts the experience of a young Inuk woman teaching English...

    (pp. 189-194)

    When I pried open a few old file-cabinet drawers filled with photographic prints and index cards several years ago, I entered into a vast but largely forgotten archive, the repository of the National Film Board of Canada’s Still Photography Division. In some 250,000 photographs, hundreds of photo stories, and myriad publications, negatives, card catalogues, distribution ledgers, board minutes, legislation, and correspondence, I discovered a complex composite picture of Canada during the Second World War and the decades immediately following. As my research continued, I discovered a division staff attentive to the communicative and expressive possibilities of photography and driven to...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 195-222)
    (pp. 223-238)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 239-244)