“I have had enough buffalo” : the photographer who was nearly trampled to death

Last Buffalo Chase in America
“Last Buffalo Chase in America,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

As visitors to this blog may note, I never get tired of stories of bison, past and present. I was recently trying to track down some images of the roundup of bison in Montana from the Pablo-Allard herd – the bison that were sold and shipped North to Canada to Elk Island National Park in 1907-1909. The last great roundup of wild bison was quite the media event and newspapers in Montana and Alberta are full of epic death-defying stories.

One of the men on the scene to document this event was N.A. Forsyth, who took a large number of stereoscope images of the “Buffalo Roundup.” A while back, I ran across this story of how he nearly died for his craft in a Wainwright, Alberta newspaper.

“The entry of the buffalo into the corral came nearly being accompanied by a regrettable fatality. Mr. Forsyth, an enterprising photographer from Butte, Mont., being anxious to get some photos of the animals in the water, had stationed himself at a point of vantage amidst a clump of trees close to one of the booms in the river where he judged he would be out of path of the oncoming herd. However they chose to take the bank directly below where he was standing, and before he could reach safety they were upon him in a mad, irresistible stampede. How he escaped being trampled to instant death is a miracle which even he cannot realize. He has a recollection of the herd rushing upon him and of having in some way clutched a passing calf which he clung to until it passed under a tree. He then managed to grasp a branch and although he was unable to pull himself up out of danger he was able to keep himself from under the feet of the plunging herd. His dangling legs were bruised and cut by their horns and his clothes were torn to shreds, but he still clung to the limb for life. Twice the herd passed under him as they circled back in an attempt to escape, but fortunately before he became exhausted they rushed into the corral. The Canadian Pacific officials and the riders who knew the location chosen by Forsyth shuddered when they saw the animals rush in there and expected to find his body trampled out of semblance in the clay. Consequently they were rejoiced to find the luckless photographer slightly disfigured, but still hugging his friend the tree in his dishevelled wardrobe. His two costly cameras were trampled to pieces and his opinion of his predicament was summed up in the words, ‘I have had enough buffalo.’”

Source: Wainwright Star, January 8, 1909, Page 1, Item Ar00104, at Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Recently, I discovered the digitized collection of this photographer’s images in the collection of the Montana Historical Society… and one image really struck me. I believe that this photograph may well have been taken only moments before the photographer was nearly trampled half to death. Several details stick out.

"After the Swim, Herd of Wild Buffaloes, Mont." by N. A. Forsyth. Courtesy of the Montana Historical Society Archives. http://mtmemory.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p267301coll3/id/2468/rec/12
“After the Swim, Herd of Wild Buffaloes, Mont.” by N. A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Firstly, the description of the scene: bison swimming across a river, near some trees, but the photographer was out of the perceived path of the herd. He was near some trees, which he clung to as the bison went by not once but twice.

Secondly, the reference to “two costly cameras.” Why would he need two cameras? To take stereoscopic images like this one. You need two lenses to create two near-identical photographs simultaneously – hence, two cameras. Though if they were smashed, would that necessarily ruin the film…?

Anyway, perhaps I am wrong. Maybe this photograph wasn’t taken right before this photographer was nearly stampeded by bison. I can tell you for certain that this photograph was taken by the same photographer of the same herd of Michel Pablo’s bison, and based on his photographs he didn’t always stay a safe distance away from these wild animals.

Here is a selection of more photographs Forsyth took of the roundup. These are all stereoscopes. With a special reader, these photographs would have appeared 3D, so you too could experience the Great Buffalo Roundup from the comfort of your own home! All of these images are from the Montana Historical Society. Please click on the images to follow the link to the archive’s page to zoom in on high definition digital scans of these stereoscopes.

A buffalo calf six months old

“A Buffalo Calf Six Months Old,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

A Fine Pair in the World's Finest Buffalo Herd

“A Fine Pair in the World’s Finest Buffalo Herd,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Bringing in a Bunch to Load

“Bringing in a Bunch to Load,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Buffalo escaping from the wagon

“Buffalo Escaping from Wagon,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Forsyth A Very Mad Little Buffalo

“A Very Mad Little Buffalo,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Buffalo Refuses to be unloaded - Forsyth

“Buffalo Refuses to Be Unloaded,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Forsyth - a buffalo is good on the turn

“A Buffalo is Good on the Turn,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Forsyth - Bufaloes roll like a horse

“Buffaloes Roll Like a Horse,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Subdued Prisoners Waiting for their Exile - Forsyth

“Subdued Prisoners Waiting for Their Exile,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

The Great-Grandmother of the Herd - Forsyth

“The Great-Grandmother of the Herd,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Forsyth - Making a last and fierce struggle for freedom

“Making a Last and Fierce Struggle for Freedom,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society. Note that this escapee is in fact a female bison. Newspapers said that Pablo had to specially reinforce cattle cars because bison would burst right through the sides of normal cow cars.

All Bison, All the Time: Related Blog Posts on Bison 

Postcards That Intrigue Me #3: Cattle Roping in Moose Jaw

A quick post to prove to you that I am not dead, merely buried under a large pile of books and papers, in the final stretch before completing my final major research project for my Master’s degree in Public History at Carleton. I have been staring at hundreds of postcards of First Nations people over the past year. I would be hard pressed to point to the ones I find the post intriguing (though the privately produced “Calf Robes Resisting Capture” series I’ve written about before may come close). The main thrust of my MA project is in the analysis of postcards not as neutral photographic representations of the past (which has of course been thoroughly debunked by many a historian of photography) but in the very “biases”/incorrect assumptions about Aboriginal people written on postcards in the captions and the handwritten messages. I examine the way that the textual elements of postcards reveal how such images were interpreted in the first three decades of the twentieth century and therefore how the photographic subjects were understood by white settler communities and tourists. Picture postcards served as interesting platforms for the spread of a certain rhetoric about “Indians” in circulation in the Prairie West. I’m interested in the ways that postcard messages, even “lighthearted” ones with (often racist) jokes, reflected and propagated usually damaging depictions of Aboriginal people.

Heavy thoughts for such small objects.

“Roping – Moose Jaw Stampede.” PC025680. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

At the moment, I thought I would leave you with a postcard that I did not discuss in my thesis, mainly because it was not sent through the mail and has no handwritten message on the reverse. I chose to post this example here because of how visually striking the composition of the image is – and because it reminds us that whatever American Wild West films say about “cowboy versus Indians,” First Nations people have also historically been cowboys.

Wish me luck as I wrangle words, not cattle!

Related Posts (With Postcards!):

Bears Behaving Badly (And the Humans That Encourage Them)

Throughout my childhood, growing up in Canada, my family would often go on summer camping trips. We always used tents, not trailers (also known as RVs or Caravans), as I think that my dad always considered having a vehicle with a kitchen and a washroom inside it cheating. We also loved going for walks in the woods any day, and I have fond memories of my father pointing out animal tracks, animal scat, and various plants. He would quiz my siblings and I on the identification of various flora and fauna. (I still remember feeling ashamed at hesitating and not being able to immediately identify a poplar tree in junior high.) We grew up watching nature shows, and reading through big illustrated books of North American animals. We were always aware of wild animals and their habits. They behaved nothing like the animals with big eyes and squeaky voices we saw in cartoons on TV.

Whenever we’d go to the Rockies, we were always told about bear safety: by my father, in books, in cheaply printed pamphlets, and by park rangers and guides. I actually can’t recall a time where I ever thought that feeding a bear was a good idea. I grew up with the idea that wild animals should always be assumed to be just that: wild. They didn’t need human food. I have clear memories of struggling with the special bear-proof garbage bins in Jasper (littering is also something I have always thought of as a cardinal sin) and while we never hoisted bags of food up trees, I can’t recall the first time someone told me about the practice. I think that I picked up bear safety advice through osmosis.

That’s why, when I’m perusing images on Peel’s Prairie Provinces or other collections of old photographs of the Rockies, I’m shocked by photographs like the ones below. Fully half if not more of the early postcards with “bears” as a keyword on Peel’s Prairie Provinces portray some evidence of human influence or interference. What is pictured runs so counter to what I was always taught was good practice. I was also amazed at the sheer number of these historical images, and their variety. I suppose having a chance to interact with bears was a huge attraction in the park in the early twentieth century, as I’m sure some consider it now. People come to “commune with nature” or what have you. However, so many of these pictures, while shenanigan-filled and fascinating, leave me with unanswered questions. Crazy things are happening in front of the camera, to be sure, but the pictures only tell a small fragment of the story. Here are some of the most intriguing images of bears misbehaving that I ran across:

Harmon Byron (Photographer) . Black bear. Banff: Photographed and Copyrighted by Byron Harmon, Banff, Canada, [before 1942]. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
Postcard 11779: Black bear. Banff: Photographed and Copyrighted by Byron Harmon, Banff, Canada, [before 1942]. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
Is this the photographer’s car? Did they lure the bear into the car with food to get this photograph? Did it get in their accidentally and did the photographer just take advantage of a great photo opportunity? Or did someone have to let it in? The passenger side door appears to be open…

Taylor G. Morris (Photographer) . Bear - Jasper Park Lodge. Jasper: Photographed and Copyrighted by G. Morris Taylor, Jasper National Park, Canada, ca. 1940.
Postcard 8070:  Bear – Jasper Park Lodge. Jasper: Photographed and Copyrighted by G. Morris Taylor, Jasper National Park, Canada, ca. 1940. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Real life “Teddy Bear Picnics” are never as full of charm and magic as the song. Dangerous! This “nuisance” ground is pictured in many postcards. Was trash laid out explicitly for the purpose of attracting bears to be photographed by tourists? Or was it to attempt to prevent the bears from strolling through the town site and only became popular with photographers after the fact?

Weiss J.A (Photographer) . "Hello You". Jasper National Park: Photographed and Copyrighted by J.A. Weiss, Jasper National Park, Canada, [1945]. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
Postcard 8197: “Hello You”. Jasper National Park: Photographed and Copyrighted by J.A. Weiss, Jasper National Park, Canada, [1945]. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
Innocence is no excuse. I’m having flashbacks to my first summer job at a cabin place out by Hinton, AB – I had to babysit the manager’s kids a few times in between housekeeping and bussing tables at the restaurant, and the cherubic three year old approached a full grown moose in much the same manner, though she didn’t get nearly as close. Please don’t encourage your kids to do this, no matter how “cool” you think the resulting photograph would be.

Harmon Byron (Photographer) . Cinnamon bear.. Banff: Photographed and Copyrighted by Byron Harmon, Banff, Canada, [before 1942].
Postcard 9354: Cinnamon bear. Banff: Photographed and Copyrighted by Byron Harmon, Banff, Canada, [before 1942]. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
Whose cup is that? Is this bear somebody’s pet? Is it the bear‘s cup?? Is there anything in it? Beer, perhaps? (I have read at least one historical account of a saloon owner with a pet bear giving it enough beer to get it drunk. Apparently drunk bears were entertaining.)

Harmon Byron (Photographer) . Cinamon bear.. Banff: Photographed and Copyrighted by Byron Harmon, Banff, Canada, [before 1942].
Postcard 9352:  Cinamon bear. Banff: Photographed and Copyrighted by Byron Harmon, Banff, Canada, [before 1942]. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
 Possibly in the Banff zoo? Whose hand is that, and what is it holding that the bear finds so fascinating?

Postcard 9355. Harmon Byron (Photographer) . A day's hunt, three grizzlies. Banff: Photographed and Copyrighted by Byron Harmon, Banff, Canada, [ca. 1910]. (Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.)
Postcard 9355: A day’s hunt, three grizzlies. Banff: Photographed and Copyrighted by Byron Harmon, Banff, Canada, [ca. 1910]. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
Yes, Harmon, I respect you as a photographer and everything, and I understand it was a different time and all and you kind of had to be there, but… I’m not proud of you for being proud of this. Now I have to go and watch cheerful clips from Brother Bear and their anthropomorphized animals to make myself feel better.

Postcard 8196  Johnston Tom H. (Photographer) . Room service Jasper Park Lodge. Jasper: Photographed and Copyrighted by Tom. H. Johnston, Jasper, Alberta, [ca. 1941].  Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
Postcard 8196: Room service Jasper Park Lodge. Jasper: Photographed and Copyrighted by Tom. H. Johnston, Jasper, Alberta, [ca. 1941]. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
Again, what is this man holding? Is it the tourist getting room service, or the bear?

Now please, and I can’t stress this enough: these are historical photographs. Yes, they are amusing (uh, in general? Not all of them?), but they should be amusing because of their incongruity and ridiculousness. These are wild animals behaving in ways that they shouldn’t be because of human intervention. Please do not feed the bears. Or any wild animals, for that matter. Not even – especially not even – if it makes a good photograph.

Further Resources

Post Script: I deliberately excluded most of the hunting photographs from this list, because this post is too lighthearted for such things. But believe you me, they definitely exist.

View(s) of Spirit Island

Consider this photograph, taken when I was on holiday in Jasper National Park three years ago with my family.

Spirit Island, Maligne Lake, Jasper National Park, 2010. Photograph by Lauren Markewicz

I’m quite proud of it. It’s a beautiful view, if I do say so myself. The way the trees and the mountains frame the island, the richness of the colours of the water and the plant life, the starkness of the lighting because of the storm clouds, the stillness of the water… Only I could have taken this photograph, right? It’s a big lake. There has to be thousands of possible shots for tourists to take, right?

Postcard 7957.
The Camera Products Co (Publisher) . The narrows, Maligne Lake, Jasper National Park, Alberta. Vancouver: Published by The Camera Products Co., 1731 Dunbar Street, Vancouver, B.C, [ca. 1940]. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
Nope. I’d wager that many people who have visited Maligne Lake have taken a photograph almost precisely like this one, at least in terms of composition. Do a quick Google Image Search, keywords “Maligne Lake.” Fully half, if not more, of the photographs are narrow variations on the theme of this small island. And this isn’t anything new.

Maybe the photographs are in black and white, or are coloured by hand. Perhaps the resolution changes with the settings and/or quality of the camera, or there is more or less snow or greenery depending on the season. Maybe the trees on the island have grown, or there is a different log floating in the foreground. There are slight changes in angle based on the photographer’s height, or perhaps it is framed slightly differently according to the photographer’s eye for the scene. Nevertheless, in composition and choice of subject there is a striking consistency in shots taken at Maligne Lake.  If you further refine your Google image search to “Maligne Lake Spirit Island”, the similarities in composition are even more narrow.

Postcard 8271.
Weiss J.A (Photographer) . Maligne Lake, Jasper Park. Jasper National Park: Photographed and Copyrighted by J.A. Weiss, Jasper National Park, Canada, [after 1930]. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces (click image for link).
Why is this the case? Is this the photograph that Jasper’s tourism industry “wants” you to take?

Historian David E. Nye, in “Visualizing Eternity: Photographic Constructions of the Grand Canyon”, speaks to the initial difficultly Americans had in attracting tourists to the Grand Canyon. Put simply, it was too big. Ironic, I suppose, because that’s its biggest draw, today. When you imagine the Grand Canyon, you picture “bigness” in your head. But unless it’s the new “Skywalk”, do you “picture” any particular aspect of the Grand Canyon? Since the nineteenth century – well, since the popular rise of tourism period – tourism and photography have been intrinsically linked. It’s a cliché; tourists are inseparable from their cameras. They seek out the most photogenic things for the express purpose of capturing their image. The search for the perfect shot becomes bound up in the touristic experience. So much of touristic sites are viewed through the camera lens. What sites become havens for tourists are often determined by how pleasingly they can be photographed.

But what of the things that can’t be photographed? You can’t fit the entirety of the Grand Canyon into one frame, or even a panoramic shot. Nye argues that that is one of the reasons why the Grand Canyon was so slow to become popular: because it was difficult to photograph. The best shots that showed the most depth could only be taken from the bottom of the canyon, where very few tourists visited. Some early photographers tried to treat the canyon as sort of the reverse of the more familiar mountain landscapes, with little success. What do you train your photographic gaze upon, when the subject of your gaze is so gigantic? The photograph needs a focus, particularly something that is unique to the region, if your goal is to attract tourists there and not elsewhere. In the case of other national parks, it could be a geyser or a waterfall… or an island. I think that that’s what’s happening in these photographs of Maligne Lake. The mountain landscape is gorgeous, but a bit too big to comfortably fit into one frame. Or, if you do take a photograph of the mountains, there’s nothing strikingly unique about it. Spirit Island functions as a wonderful focus, and a symbol for this lake in particular. The landscape surrounding it, by contrast, isn’t atypical of the many other dozens of lakes in the region. Spirit Island and the eye-pleasing composition found there is an identifiable image and symbol of the region. Hence, its appearance on hundreds of postcards and in innumerable tourist scrapbooks.

Postcard 8272.
Gowen Sutton Co. Ltd (Publisher) . Maligne Lake, Jasper National Park. Vancouver: Published by the Gowen Sutton Co. Ltd., Vancouver, B.C, [after 1921]. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
Spirit Island on Maligne Lake resides in Jasper National Park, which is protected by the Canadian government as a preserve of the natural bounty of the Canadian nation. (Fewer people know of the First Nations who were removed from the “park” upon its creation in the early 20th century, to make sure that the land remained untouched and unused… unless you were a tourist.) Today, to get to Spirit Island, you must go by boat – you must buy a ticket, or theoretically rent a canoe, but it’s a long, long paddle over about 15 km of gorgeous landscape if you do. (Few seem to photograph the passage in between the dock and the island. Or, at the very least, they aren’t considered as striking as the ones of Spirit Island.) You are deposited on this island for about 20 minutes to take in “the view”. You would be a foolish tourist indeed to forget to bring your camera out to photograph this place. Why Spirit Island? Why not the mountains around it? Why not use Spirit Island as a platform to get out into the lake? Why not take photographs from the boat? Tourists have the option of moving about the dock or going through the trees… but many don’t seem to do so. Apparently, it has been determined over the years by consensus that this is one of the best views – the best of angles – to capture the spirit of Jasper. It fits neatly into your camera’s frame. It is uniquely identifiable as a place. Hence, its overwhelming representation on postcards of the region.

But it doesn’t have to be photographed in this way. Observe:

Where could this photograph have possibly been taken?! I recognize nothing! Photograph by Lauren Markewicz.

In case you haven’t guessed, this photograph was also taken at Spirit Island – it’s visible in the right of the frame. I had moved about five or ten metres to the left to take this shot. I believe it to also be a fine photograph. The mountains and the island dip down towards the centre of the frame, and the land also meets the water at precisely the middle of the shot. We can see the reflections of the mountains and the sky in the water. I like it, but it’s not a “postcard-worthy” shot. This photograph isn’t nearly as iconic as, well, the photograph of Spirit Island that’s on all of the postcards where the island appears front and centre.

Oh, and as an ultimate sign of betrayal and false advertising: Spirit Island? It isn’t even an island most of the time, except when there’s spring melt-off. It’s a peninsula. I suppose “Spirit Peninsula” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Except in this case. Here, it’s an island.
Postcard 8273
Taylor G. Morris (Photographer) . The Narrows, Maligne Lake, Jasper National Park. Jasper: Photographed and Copyrighted by G. Morris Taylor, Jasper National Park, Canada, [ca. 1940]. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
Post-Script: If you have never been to this region of the Canadian Rockies, you were probably pronouncing the word “Maligne” in your head like the word “malign”, and are probably wondering why such a beautiful area is referred to by a word with such negative connotations (“evil or malignant in disposition, nature, intent or influence”). It is in fact pronounced more like the original French, “Ma Ligne” (I guess on a map it kind of looks like a straight line?). To clarify, for the monolingual anglophones among us, it is pronounced more like like “mah-lean”, as in “lean meat.”

One more postcard for the road – this time, with bonus tipi and canoe.
Postcard 8276.
Photogelatine Engraving Co (Publisher) . Maligne Lake. – Jasper National Park.. Ottawa: Photogelatine Engraving Co. Limited, Ottawa, c1942. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Further Reading (and Viewing):

Nye, David E. “Visualizing Eternity: Photographic Constructions of the Grand Canyon.” In Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical ImaginationEdited by Joan M. Schwartz. London: I.B. Tauris: 2003.

Peel’s Prairie Provinces Postcard Collection.

A Family Trip to Vimy Ridge, 1936


52C 3 6.1  20100116-002, Canadian War Museum Archive

Last semester, you may recall I was working on a project on the subject of the Vimy Ridge sculptures, which involved my own experience as a tourist to Vimy Ridge as well as archival research here in Ottawa.  I have also already written about another interesting find in the Canadian War Museum archive.  Often, in the course of performing archival research, the juiciest of finds are completely accidental; they happen to be place in the same fond as something else your search terms (or friendly neighborhood archivist) pulled out for you. It’s the pleasant surprise of running across something so unexpected that can really make these documents so memorable to individual researchers.

This is one such document. Now, to refresh your memory, the Vimy Ridge monument in North-Eastern France was meant to commemorate those Canadians who died in France during the Great War but whose bodies were never found. It was not completed and unveiled until 1936. (Incidentally, the dedication of this monument was one of the few major public events that King Edward VI performed during his short reign that year.) Several thousand Canadian veterans and their families attended the unveiling ceremony, travelling vast distances by boat and train. Called the Vimy Pilgrims, they were shown around England and Northern France in grand style in highly scheduled programs, ending with a visit at Buckingham Palace in London. This photo album documents one such journey of the family of a Canadian veteran, Corporal Henry Botel.

In many ways, particularly in the poses and “types” of images, these photos resemble the same sort of ones that would be taken on a family holiday to Europe today, for all that they were taken 77 years ago. There are shots of famous monuments from the ferry/steamship, triangles of family members photographed in groups in front of various landscapes, the family with their luggage, photos of travelling acquaintances, and of course crowds of other tourists swarming an “important” site with the relevant friend or family member in the foreground.

Paging through the album, it was odd for me to retrace these family’s steps in photographs. I do not know these people, but I know these places. That is my personal connection to this album. I have unwittingly visited most of the locations pictured in their album, just over seventy-five years later. I have followed this route, which is roughly depicted in chronological order (which was easy to verify, as the War Museum’s archive also contains their printed itinerary.) After a series of images of them leaving Montreal by ship, I had an eerie sense of déjà vu when I turned the page and suddenly saw a photograph taken at train station in Amiens (pictured above, centre). I have visited this city before, and I have distinct memories of pacing up and down the platform (and, once, racing down it to make a connection, after my train got in late) in between transfers. The look and style of the trains and the passengers may have changed, but the backdrop hadn’t. The structure of the platform, and even the sign announcing the stop’s name, hasn’t changed overmuch in the last seventy years. The Botel family also visited Rouen, a city to which I feel particularly attached after living there for seven months last year. I recognized the style of housing and the city’s coat of arms immediately, though the foreground contained many more smartly dressed men in caps that I remember being there. And of course there are the photographs of the Vimy memorial itself; then, recently built, but when I visited it, recently restored. The marble gleams like new in my own memory and my photographs, matching these images from three quarters of a century ago. I felt like the photographs in this album could have been taken by me. Minus, of course, the tremendously large crowds of men in uniform and their neatly-dressed wives and children.


Then there are pages like the above. Again, I recognize the place – or at least the type of place. Military cemeteries in Europe tend to resemble each other very closely, with their rows upon rows of near identical gravestones. My great uncle fought in the Great War and survived until the 1970s (though he made it out with one less leg than he had gone in with). I had no grave to visit, and three quarters of a century later, I had very little personal or familial emotional connection to these cemeteries. That was very much not the case for the Botel family. Often, the compiler of the album scribbles a quick explanation – sometimes just a date, or a place – to accompany the photograph. In this case, the photograph is of the little girl who is so often pictured elsewhere in the album: Frances Botel, the veteran’s daughter. She is pictured here next to a neat row of war graves. The caption reads “Charlie’s grave, Aubigny, France.” (Likely Aubigny-au-Bac, which is in the Nord Pas de Calais, a very war-torn region.) The girl smiles awkwardly, head tilted at an odd angle, squinting in the sun. The site is important to the family; Charlie’s identity would have been self-evident for the photographer and for the compiler. She would be too young to remember the war or this long-lost Charlie, but it was felt to be important to visit and be photographed visiting this site. To me, it is odd that they should be smiling in a graveyard, but perhaps that’s just what you do when someone points a camera at you: you smile.

Martha Langford in Suspended Conversations: the afterlife of memory in photographic albums speaks of photo albums almost in the same terms of oral histories; they are performances. Photo albums are ideally understood when it is mediated by someone who knows its contents intimately. These unpublished albums are generally compiled for a very small, private audience: friends, family, and those who would appreciate its contents. Because of this limited audience, often photo albums have few, if any captions, and the people and places that appear most often are often the least labelled, because their names would have been obvious to the observer. It was the odd locations and passing acquaintances, those who wouldn’t necessarily be immediately recognized, that are labelled. Ironically, in the very act of preservation, by donating a family photo album to an archive, one divorces this set of images from much of its meaning, because the album is separated from that source of oral, unwritten information.

That being said, under what circumstances are albums acquired by archives? Are they donated by family members who want their family history preserved? Or are they donated, alternatively, by family members for whom the album no longer holds any meaning or personal memories? Or do they find their way into the archive in a more roundabout way, through antique markets and specialty collectors, as mere examples of intriguing or “typical” examples of an age?

Henry Botel died in 1977. Judging by the control number, a large collection of his documents from the time of the war through to the Vimy Pilgrimage were donated en masse to the War Museum in 2010.  Taken together, the curator and researcher can learn from the additional documents that the mysterious “Charlie” whose grave was visited was Charlie Murphy of the 75th Battalion. Such information can only be found by reading through the supplementary documents provided with the album, which could also have been missing this and other crucial information. These documents together tell a very  compelling and fascinating story, full of at times surprising, contradictory reminders of the era: an advertisement in their Vimy Pilgrimage Guide for the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Berlin appears alongside ads for European tourism with captions like “This time… in peace”. However, are these supplemental textual documents any substitute for an oral narrative? Reading photo albums is really a performance, best done by someone who was there, or who knows the people picture, pointing and explaining throughout all of the little details that might otherwise be overlooked or remain unknown.

Further Reading

This photograph album is only one of many holdings on the subject of Corporal Botel’s family’s trip to Vimy Ridge held by the Canadian War Museum. Inquire with your friendly neighbourhood archivist to take a look at them for yourself!

Chambers, Deborah. “Family as Place: Family Photograph Albums and the Domestication of Public and Private Space” in Picturing Place: Photography and the geographical imagination. Edited by Joan M. Schwartz and James R. Ryan. London: I.B. Tauris, 2003.

Hucker, Jacqueline. “‘After the Agony in Stony Places’: The Meaning and Significance of the Vimy Monument.” Vimy Ridge: a Canadian Reassessment. Edited by Geoffrey Hayes, Michael Bechthold and Andrew Iarocci. Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2007.

Langford, Martha. Suspended Conversations: the afterlife of memory in photographic albums. Montreal, QC: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001.

Scott, Jill. “Vimy Ridge Memorial: Stone with a Story.” Queen’s Quarterly 114, no. 4 (Winter 2007): 506-519.

“The Vimy Ridge War Memorial Unveiled.” The Illustrated London News, August 1, 1936. (If anybody is desirous of a PDF scan of this edition, I happen to have one! Feel free to message me.)

The Mystery of the Historical Photobomb and the Missing Source

A few years back (which is the equivalent of centuries, in internet terms), I was shown this photograph by a friend of mine who knew I was interested in researching the American Civil War.


The photo appears to show a group of seven (in reality, eight) men in what looks to be military uniforms. One man on the far left may be holding a baseball bat and ball. There is some kind of canvas screen or tent behind them. And, hidden on the far left of the frame… a face.

The way it was explained to me (as I recall) was that it was the earliest known incident of “photobombing”. Now, for those not in the know (by which I mean the “uncool” ones in our midst), photobombing is the “art” of leaping into a photograph where you are unwanted, usually to the amusement of nobody but the photobomber. That being said, there can be a few hilarious exceptions, as seen in this photoset of photobombing celebrities.

Photobombing, by definition, is a sneak attack, executed with utmost speed and, at times, discretion – many people don’t realize that their photos have been photobombed by someone in the background until (back in the day, because I am a historian) the photos had been developed or (today, because I am a hip and cool cat) uploaded onto facebook and mocked by one of your tens of thousands of facebook friends (10,000 is a normal number of friends to have on facebook, right?). You would think that photobombing would be impossible if, you know, the photobomber had to hang around for thirty seconds or so for the shot to be exposed. Right?

Right. Apparently, as my vague memories of my friend’s story tells me, this photograph was taken during the American Civil War, when exposure times were commonly, what, at least 15 seconds, which is why as far as I know there are no photographs of the actual battles of the Civil War. The action would happen too fast to be recorded on film. The leadup and the aftermath of these battles were very often photographed, to gruesome effect. But I digress.

My friend informed me that that man hiding under the bench on the bottom left is a man from a rival regiment. (How can we tell that? The shoulder pips? The hat?) Clearly(?), this man snuck into the photograph by hiding under the bench, and thus managed to be photographed for posterity.

Now, I am currently the teaching assistant for a second year American History survey course, so when the subject of Civil War photography came up, after I thought of the usual gruesome examples of Civil War photographs  (and some not-so-typical but also gruesome images: more on those in a later post), my mind immediately went to this historical example of photobombing, because I quite like to hook my students with a quick historical comic or image to get them initially engaged in the discussion we were going to have that class.

However, being the good little historian I am, I wanted to find the original source so we could discuss the image in detail. When I found it on my favourites list, it turns out I was linked to it from Retronaut.com. Not a problem. They often cite the source their images come from, even if it’s not written on the page in the description box. Except they didn’t this time. No other information, either, just the title: “19th Century Photobomb”.

So I knew I’d have to go deeper. A few months back, via Twitter, I was linked to this blog post which drew my attention to a little-known Google search option: you can search not just by text but by image. Seriously. Check it out. It’s really neat, and can be very useful for people trying to find out more about an image. However, it’s not a perfect system. I managed to find quite a few other websites that showed this particular image, but when they cited their sources, they almost invariably led right back to the Retronaut page I’d begun with, or an eloquently-named website called i-am-bored.com which also had no further sources. That one called it “One of the First Photobombs Ever: The Civil War,” but they don’t explain where they got that information either, despite apparently having enough spare time to be bored enough to post this picture. (You’d think with that much spare time on their hands they could put me out of my misery and write a bit more?) It looks like everyone else had just spotted it on either of these two pages and reblogged it without thinking anything more of it.

But where did it come from? I honestly couldn’t tell you. And that bothers me more than I thought it would. I want to talk about it, I want to show it to people, to point to the humour in the story, the unique ways people in the past weren’t all that different from us today: we still have the same urge to sneak into photos where we’re not wanted, for instance. However, I don’t feel that I can keep repeating the story I was told without knowing more about what I’m looking at. Do I even know that this was taken during the Civil War? I’m not comfortable stating with certainty from the uniforms we see that these are even members of the American military. By itself, stripped of context, it is still a fascinating image, but I’m projecting my own impressions and thoughts upon the men pictured.

So I didn’t show it to the students. I probably could have spoken about the same things I spoke of here, or even the reasons why we reblog photographs like this because of their aesthetic value or what we think they are, divorcing them from their original contextualizing explanations, if such explanations ever existed in the first place. Right now, I have this imaginary caption in my mind that accompanies this image. It would read something like “The [number] [State] Regiment, 1863, and an unwanted addition from the rival regiment, the [different number] [State].” However, I don’t want to contribute to the misinformation so common on the internet when it’s so easy to make yet another copy of the same picture and yet so apparently difficult to create a link back to the original source – if, again, such an original ever existed in the first place.

Further Links:

Civil War Photography Slideshow via Discovery News

Time Photos: Faces of the Civil War

And just for fun: The Three Most Notorious Photobombers on the Internet, Part I and Part II, via Cracked.com

The Gaze of the Sioux Indian Medicine Man


I ran across this postcard on Peel’s Prairie Provinces a few months ago, and I was struck by it for a multitude of reasons, only some of which I can put into words. (What specifically is the “punctum” for me with this image, to borrow Barthes’ terminology?), I find myself noticing details – the three lines on the left side of his coat, indicating it to be a capote made from a Hudson’s Bay Company point blanket (still all the rage), a slightly furrowed brow, the gleam of a ring on his finger, his slightly hunched almost defensive pose, the casual way he holds his pipe.

But most of all I feel that I was struck by his gaze, staring directly at the camera – and therefore, us, the viewers, over a hundred years later. What is communicated in this gaze? What, if anything, can we know of this man?

Recently, I read a fascinating article by Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins, “The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes”, which was a chapter in a book on different aspects of reading and understanding National Geographic magazine. They pointed out something startling to me about choices in representation of the “gaze” of their photographic subjects. Namely,  when it came to different types of posing in photographs, (“to a statistically significant degree”), “Those who are culturally defined as weak – women, children, people of color, the poor, the tribal rather than the modern, those without technology – are more likely to face the camera, the more powerful to be represented looking elsewhere.”(199)

Subaltern peoples, particularly in the cases of women and children, are often depicted photographically staring directly into the camera. (Think about the famous Afghan girl.) It is perceived as being more both a more direct and more naïve gaze; perhaps they are curious about the camera or the person who wields it. Those with power, who are perceived to have intellect and so on, are often depicted gazing into the distance, as if they have more important things on their minds than the camera taking their photograph. Thinking back on examples of photography in the 19th century, I can picture many examples of photographs which fit this mold. Think of all of the depictions of Queen Victoria in which she is in profile or slightly off-centre. Traditionally, however, working class folks (“the rougher classes”) were depicted with direct gazes, whilemiddle- to high-class subjects with a (at times) more casual lounging posture, gazing to the side as if lost in thought. Both, especially in a studio setting, are constructed poses, but what I find intriguing are the subconscious ways in which such poses speak to the individual’s personality and background (at least as imagined by the photographer and viewer).

That being said, these authors were speaking of a specific set of photographs accompanying photo essays published quite some time after the postcard above. (Judging by the use of “N.W.T.” (Northwest Territory) instead of “Alberta” to designate the location of Qu’Appelle, and the format which places the message on the front alongside the image instead of the reverse with the address, this postcard likely predates the formation of Alberta as a province in 1905). However, the photographs were selected by the magazine editor because in some way they were compelling photographs that helped them tell the story they wished to tell. Whether consciously or subconsciously, the editors selected photographs that fit into this model, and rejecting others. Creators of postcards, too, wanted to sell compelling images that didn’t jar overmuch with the understandings their purchasers held of the world, a region or its peoples.

As a viewer, I definitely feel a sense of connection with the man depicted in this photograph. The purchaser and sender of this postcard certainly must have felt some element of this connection as well, judging by the message on the front: “Dear Teddy: – How would you like to greet this man? – Aunt J—(Jason?)” Photographs like this one facilitate imagined encounters between the “Indians” of the West and interested (likely white) parties elsewhere. Intellectually, I understand that the man pictured in this image was looking at a photographer and his camera lens, but due to the nature of the medium, he seems to be looking directly at me, erasing the distance of both time and space. Photography – and photographic postcards – facilitate such connections.

Nevertheless, in the case of postcards at least, such imaginary encounters are not accompanied by much information aside from just enough to tantalize the receiver. Is he truly a medicine man? How does he live? What does he believe? We think that we know this man – we meet his gaze as he “meets” ours – but how much can we truly know of him?


Further Reading:

Francis, Daniel. The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture, Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1994. (E-book at least partially found here.)

Lutz, Catherine A. and Jane L. Collins.  “The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes,” Reading National Geographic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993: 187-215.

Every National Geographic magazine ever.

How to describe photography to someone who has never before seen a photograph:

“The daguerreotype is not merely an instrument which serves to draw nature . . . [it] gives her the power to reproduce herself.”

-Louis Daguerre (1838, from a notice circulated to attract investors.) Quoted by Susan Sontag, On Photography, 188.

I find this quotation absolutely fascinating for a number of reasons, chiefly because of the date: 1838, a year before photography (or, rather, the technique which would come to be known as “photography”) was debuted to the scientific public in 1839.

How do you describe photography to someone who has never seen one before? For whom the concept is entirely new?

We are so inundated with photographic images today that the very idea is foreign to us. The majority of us have been exposed to photographs since we were babes in arms. There are so many things about photography that we take for granted, simply because it has been a part of our reality for so long. One of these widely accepted concepts is, of course, that they encapsulate and depict a perfect representation of “reality” as it once stood before the camera lens. They have a sense of authority, of truthfullness, that sketches and paintings can’t hope to imitate. I’m really only just beginning to contemplate the enormity of just how problematic that statement is; even ignoring the obvious examples of photo alterations and photoshopping, issues of framing, posing and choosing what is worth photographing in the first place are all elements that make me scrutinize even the most innocuous of images. Regardless: what is a photograph? What is it to someone who has never seen one before, nor really contemplated the possibility of one?

A common trope in early descriptions of photography is the idea of almost anyone but the photographer himself (or herself) being responsible for the image. Now, we tend to see photography as an art form, but that is the result of a long struggle on the part of photographers to be recognized as legitimate artists. It was far more common in the 19th century for other metaphors to be used: the sun “drew” the image, or, as in this case, nature has been given “the power to reproduce herself.” It gives the photographic subject an interesting sense of agency. It’s almost as if the subject itself is the artist.

I find the early debates and discussions around the nature of photography as art or technology absolutely fascinating. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to see one’s likeness imprinted permanently on glass for the first time, in a (relative) instant.

Edwardian Street Life

Happy New Year everyone! I can never escape from historical research. I have attempted to relax over the holidays (though scholarly pursuits are never far from my mind), and through the joys of the internet I have run across a few gems I’d like to share with you.

I’ve run across historical videos of “everyday scenes” before. Here, for example, is a link to a video taken from a tram in San Francisco in 1906, just prior to the famous earthquake and fire. I’m fascinated by historical videos and pictures of everyday life. One can learn a lot about portraits taken in studios, but of course most people would dress up for that, and until exposure times were shortened in the late 19th century poses were often very stiff and formal. (See here for an interesting article with photographs of Edwardian “street style” from London and Paris.)

Videos of everyday life can tell us so many things. They generally aren’t as posed. One can see how real people dressed (and moved in those dresses), how people interacted with their environment and the people around them, etc. You can see things like garbage and horse dung in the streets, cyclists taking risks, children running and laughing, and so on. It’s amazing.

Below is a video taken from a tram on various streets in Barcelona in 1908. I find it absolutely fascinating. I am intrigued by how people interacted with the tramway. The trams moved at about the same pace as the motorcars, the horses, and the cyclists. There is a wonderful flow to traffic in the video that I feel is absent today. When everything moves at about the same pace, there’s less of a chance of accidents, not as many sudden stops and starts, and everyone seems to interact more and be more aware of their surroundings. You can see children running ahead of the tram, men shaking hands and parting from the tracks at the last instant before the tram runs them over, cyclists constantly weaving in and out of traffic…

I also find the history of fashion to be quite fascinating. One person that caught my attention appears at about 4:15: a young girl with an enormous feathered hat. One tends to see the Merry Widow Hat on young women instead, so this is an intriguing example of children’s fashion to me. It’s interesting to see how the feathers of the hat actually move, too.

Some of the people seem to be aware of the camera and wave their hats at the cameraman, or at least the tram. If you pay close attention to one of the male figures near the front of the screen at about 5:05, I think he tries to “moon” the camera. At the very least he cheekily turns and presents his rear end to the camera and then grins.

On a slightly more adorable note, at about 5:20 a cart starts trundling along in front of the tram. During that time, many men lining the road wave their hats at the camera, and one of the men on the cart looks back several times. At about 5:45 they seem to have been told about the camera and the man on the left waves. I don’t suppose that these men were filmed very often! There’s something endearing to me about their reaction. (A subjective view, yes, I know.) Still, due to the power of moving pictures, people from over a hundred years ago seem to wave at me, out of history.

These films of everyday life are well worth a view.

Let’s Start Talking About Postcards and Research Topics

Hello, all! This will be the first of many posts on the subject of my research project for my Public History Master’s program. I’m going to make every effort to demonstrate to you just how interesting everything I’m studying is.

Roughly, I am going to be studying tourism to Western Canada (particularly the Rockies) post-Confederation to the 1920s or 1930s. Yes, that was very vague. You see, I picked up this topic just at the end of August, though I was doing related but more specialized research for Fort Edmonton Park as a part of my costumed interpretation on 1920s street. Particularly, I was looking at automotive tourism in the 1910s and 1920s from Edmonton to Jasper. Early “auto-camping” is sure to be a subject that I will pick up on this blog – and in potential research – later on.

Anyway, before I began attending Carleton University this year, I studied history at the University of Alberta. There, I did an undergraduate thesis on the subject of the history of American Civil War medicine. I can literally talk your ear off for over an hour about early uses and perceptions of anaesthesia, miasma theory, germ theory, and so on. Just try me. More on that in a later post.

However, while I find the history of medicine one of the most fascinating things ever, I wanted to do a more Canadian topic for my Master’s, especially as I would be working with some awesome Canadianists at the heart of our nation’s capital.

Over the course of my undergraduate degree, I became fascinated by photography. I’ve always focused my research upon the “Long Nineteenth Century” (ranging from the French Revolution to the first First World War, because centuries are arbitrary dates and I don’t like putting things in abstract or arbitrary boxes), and now the 1920s have grown on me. (Being paid to drive in motorcars from the late 1920s for a chunk of the summer will do that to you – photographs to come.)


(Automotive tourists in Banff, shown in a personalized postcard from 1922, courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.)

Thus, while Civil War amputations may have little to do with early tourism in the Rockies over a generation later, I think that one of the elements that draws these two topics together is the visual culture of both. I will likely later post images from the Civil War – early medical imaging whose poses are based off of portrait photography! – but for the moment, I will be focussing on postcards.

For the purposes of my OGS and SSHRC proposals, which require very specific research goals, I will be examining representations of First Nations people on these postcards, especially in the light of the comments made by the senders. The neat thing about postcards is that sometimes we have a literal written interpretation of the viewer/purchaser/sender written right on it, which can tell us plenty of things about how tourists saw the region and the people therein.

The following postcard really epitomizes this kind of practice, though of course I have other examples. The following doesn’t come from Peel’s Prairie Provinces like the one above. (Though they have 14,000+ postcards recently digitized in this free online database!) In fact, it belongs to the family of one of my classmates who eagerly told me about it when we were discussing our potential research topics. She recently scanned these images for me, and I am forever in her debt.

On the front of the postcard we can see some “Blood Indians on Horse Back”. Some wear plains-style war bonnets, which (later?) become associated with “Indian” stereotypes even in Eastern tribes where there was no such tradition. You can also see some native riders in more “European” style clothing on the right, with their hats clearly visible. This image was copyrighted in 1910, so we know that this photo can’t have been taken after that date.


So far, very little distinguishes this postcard to me from any other dozen images of similar subjects from this time period. First Nations people in “traditional regalia”, preparing for “war parties”, etc., were very popular images in photography in the final decades of the 19th century onward. What I find most fascinating is the message on the reverse, sent to my friend’s great-grandmother in 1912:Image“These are a few of the people we have to associate with out here. J.W.S.”

I interpreted this message humorously, and I find it and many other such postcards very fascinating. Did the purchaser of this card ever actually meet any “Blood Indians”, or was the extent of their contact the viewing and sending of this postcard? Are they playing into the expectations of their friends and family back home, because of course one can still regularly expect to see such people riding across the Western plains?

I will be examining these types of questions, among many others. In the meantime, you’ll probably find me waist-deep in primary and secondary literature. It’s a good thing I’ve recently stocked up my freezer, because aside from trips to the University for class and the occasional social event, and trips to the national archive, how frequently will I pop my head up above my pile of books?