Was it Really Such a Fun Picture?

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This post introduces Elizabeth Anne Cavaliere’s recently published Environmental History article, “Sliding Down the Timber Chute: Photographing Erasure during the 1901 British Royal Tour of Canada.”

“Photographs are not peripheral to the past.”

Elizabeth Anne Cavaliere

This last sentence of my essay published in the Gallery section of the July 2021 issue of Environmental History takes on more urgency now than when I began this research several years ago. Given that statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II were splashed in red and toppled to the ground at the Manitoba legislature in Winnipeg that very month—on July 1st to be specific, a federal holiday in celebration of Canadian Confederation—I want to take this opportunity to extend my assertion to visual objects broadly: visual objects are not peripheral to the past.

Statues and monuments are perhaps more transparent in the way they celebrate particular histories while obfuscating others. Their large size, prominent public placement, descriptive textual epigraph, and figurative verisimilitude work together to glorify and commemorate in an overt and unmistakable way. A statue of Queen Elizabeth II, any of the many that dot the country (not to mention the small-scale reliefs we find in our pockets and between couch cushions) is not just a ubiquitous reminder of Canada’s colonial history and present, but an acclamation of it.

It should go without stating: this is a problem. It’s not just a problem in light of the violence, oppression, displacement, and genocide that has occurred in that history. It’s not just a problem in light of recent and ongoing findings of mass graves of children at residential schools across Canada (though the numerous reports of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have been pointing to this for nearly a decade and knowledge of these atrocities existed long before that). It’s also a problem in the ways that visual history is complicit, but often overlooked. Visual works and documents — photographs, paintings, sculptures, monuments — are not peripheral.

“What stories get visualized? How does the visual include and exclude certain stories?”

What stories get visualized? How does the visual include and exclude certain stories?

I came to the topic of my Environmental History essay amused by an archival find. It was a photograph of the Duke of York, soon to be King George V and his party perched atop the cow-catcher of a locomotive. What a fun picture! – I thought to myself – I need to do something with it. Over the next four years, I went through all of the steps: researching context, the photographer, the archival series, workshopping it at conferences, writing a post for NiCHE, digging deeper, getting words on paper, going through peer review, digging some more, and finally publication. What brought me to the photograph initially, the face value of a quirky and playful image, became troubling. Was it really such a fun picture?

The photograph, the series of photographs from which it is drawn, and its circulations in early 20th century publications would have us believe that it was. The 1901 Royal Tour was touted as a celebration of British imperialism and as a coming of age for the burgeoning nation of Canada. The photographs in content and in use reflect this, as does the range of visual ephemera produced including film footage (above) and publications like the one below. The images of are parades, festivals, ceremonies, and accomplishments. The jovial and jingoistic nature of the tour and the photographs of it have—as with so many historical documents visual or otherwise—gone unchecked.

It is more often than not that scholars outside the fields of art history and visual culture studies use the visual as illustrations. In environmental history, for example, a photograph of a lumber mill might be used as a descriptive aspect to a resource history of a small lumber town or to illustrate ecological change over time. “Sliding Down the Timber Chute,” by contrast, demonstrates the use of visual objects to take the colonial history in which we are entrenched to task. I encourage all scholars, particularly settler-Canadian scholars, to do the same. We must exercise the same incisive criticism that we bring to policy, document, and text to the visual components of our research practices.

“Sliding Down the Timber Chute,” by contrast, demonstrates the use of visual objects to take the colonial history in which we are entrenched to task. I encourage all scholars, particularly settler-Canadian scholars, to do the same.

Visual objects carry histories. They carry them at face value. But, they also carry with them insidiously and clandestinely the erasures and violence of history too.

Feature Image: William James Topley, Royal Tour Group Seated on Front of Engine of Royal Train, Glacier, BC, September 29 and October 4, 1901; black and white glass plate negative, 25.4 x 20.3 centimeters. Credit: Royal Tour graphic material, R639-147-2-E, PA-011848, Library and Archives Canada.
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Elizabeth Anne Cavaliere (settler-Canadian and granddaughter of Italian immigrants, residing in Toronto/Tkaronto the traditional territory of many nations including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat) is currently a SSHRC Post Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Art History and Art Conservation at Queen's University. You can find more of her writing in Canadian Studies; Histoire Sociale/Social History; Imaginations: Journal of Cross-Cultural Image Studies; RACAR: Revue d’art Canadienne/Canadian Art Review; and in the Journal of Canadian Art History. She has won awards for her research from the National Gallery of Canada and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

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