Sharing Canada with Canadians: New Website to Feature Photostories created by the National Film Board of Canada

Chris Lund, Scuba Divers, January 1963, image 63-39 from Photostory #330: Scubadivers Study Submarine Scenics: Canadian Oceanographers in Their Element, February 1963, black and white negative, 12.4 x 9.6 cm. CMCP collection, Canadian Photography Institute, National Gallery of Canada

In celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017, the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) will be launching a website in partnership with Library and Archives Canada. The site will feature photographic and textual material from the fascinating archives of the National Film Board of Canada’s Still Photography Division. Through generous funding from the Virtual Museum of Canada (VMC) and spearheading efforts by Andrea Kunard, Associate Curator of Photography at the NGC, audiences will soon have online access to a valuable slice of Canada’s photographic history.

One of the website’s main characteristics is providing viewers with access to a unique set of historical documents called “Photostories.” Although created by the Stills Division of the National Film Board in various formats, a photostory was essentially a selection of four to twelve photographs arranged in a half- or full-page feature, accompanied by descriptive captions and a title.

From 1955 to 1971 — the period during which their creation was most prevalent — the photostories took the form of ready-to-use mat releases. This made it easy for them to be shared and re-printed in magazines, newspapers, government documents, and other publications.

Roughly 500 photostories were written in English, of which 250 were then translated into French. Another 250 were created in French. The website will feature English and French photostories in this mat-release format, and English photostories that were not created with French versions will be translated for the website.

National Film Board of Canada, photography by Ted Grant, Photostory #410: From the Air: Full-Face Portrait of a Nation, February 1966, typescript with images, 43 x 33 cm. CMCP collection, National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives

In the spirit of true journalism, each photostory was created with a different topic in mind. Themes included cultural, industrial, scientific, and political events, as well as places, institutions, people and objects from across the country. They ranged from highlights of economic progress in the province of Nova Scotia, to a profile of Charles H. Best, co-discoverer of insulin. Other recurring topics include preparations for Expo 67, scientific research at Canada’s leading institutions, and popular industries such as pulp and paper, mining, agriculture, and petroleum. Some of the photostories also focus on international affairs involving Canada, such as marine research in Barbados, Red Cross workers in Morocco, and the Colombo Plan.


National Film Board of Canada, photography by Gar Lunney, Photostory #372: Fair Stands the Breeze for Nova Scotia: Proud Province on the Move, September 1964, typescript with images, 43 x 33 cm. CMCP collection, National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives


The Still Division’s motivation for producing these photostories was a desire to share a range of information about Canada with Canadians through the use of photography. After being designed, the photostories would be sent out, then published in various media across the country. This enabled Canadians to learn about people, places, and events that they might not have otherwise known about or experienced. People living in on the West Coast could learn about oyster fishermen living in Prince Edward Island, for example, while people living in southern Ontario could learn about the artistic production of Inuit artists living in the Northwest Territories.

National Film Board of Canada, photography by Gar Lunney, Photostory #348: Silken Harvest From Sub-Surface Rocks: Asbestos: Canada's Magic Mineral, October 1963, typescript with images, 43 x 33 cm. CMCP collection, National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives

The individual photographs that make up each photostory also provide valuable information. Not only do they speak to the history of photojournalism, but they also stand as wonderful examples of documentary photography in Canada. The website will aim to highlight these photographs and provide biographical information about many of the successful photographers whose work is featured in the photostories, such as Chris Lund, Ted Grant, Michael Semak, and Rosemary Gilliat.

Today, as Andrea Kunard explains, these photostories function as “valuable historical resources that tell important stories about Canada from a specific time — the post-war era — which was a critical period of development and growth for the country.”

At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that some of these stories were created using stereotypes and assumptions in order to present a specific, idealized image of Canada. The photostories can therefore be contextualized within the context of the broader histories of nationalism and nation-building. As Kunard emphasizes, acknowledging the politics involved in the creation of this material “is informative,” as it will allow us to think critically of the way we represented our country in the past and encourage us “to think about where we want to go in the future.”

National Film Board of Canada, photography by André Sima, Photostory #435: Architectural Artistry Creates Pleasing, Practical Subway System: Modern Montreal’s Magnificent Muted Metro, January 1967, typescript with images, 43 x 33 cm. CMCP collection, National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives

One of the website’s objectives is to make this archival material available to a variety of audiences. Teachers will be able to encourage school groups to engage with important periods in Canada’s history while gaining skills in critical thinking. Members of the general public will have access to an extensive archive of photographs to peruse and study at their leisure,and academic audiences will have a wealth of material that can be used for research, reference, and inspiration. In the end, it is only fitting that these photostories — originally created for the purpose of sharing information about Canada — will once again be available for public viewing.

The Photostories website will be launched in Fall 2017. Stay tuned to NGC Magazine for further details later this year.

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