The Other NFB: Canada’s “official” portrait
Unknown photographer, Veronica Foster, an employee of John Inglis Co. Ltd. and known as “The Bren Gun Girl” posing with a finished Bren gun in the John Inglis Co. Ltd. Bren gun plant, Toronto (May 10, 1941), contemporary print from vintage negative. National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque / Library and Archives Canada e000760453
Her real name was Veronica Foster, but she was better known as “Ronnie, the Bren Gun Girl,” Canada’s Second World War sweetheart.
Ronnie worked the assembly line at the John Inglis Co. in Toronto, making Bren machine guns. She was also a key figure in a government campaign to produce favourable images of Canada, including women aiding the war effort, said Carol Payne — co-curator of The Other NFB: The National Film Board of Canada’s Still Photography Division, 1941–1971 — in an interview with NGC Magazine. The exhibition of 89 photographs plus archival material is on view at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa to May 1, 2016, and was co-curated by Sandra Dyck, Director of the Carleton University Art Gallery.
“People think about the National Film Board and they think about filmmaking,” says Payne, who has also authored a book about the NFB entitled, The Official Picture. “But the NFB also ran this still photography division for decades, and was the official photographer of the country.”
In 1941, a parliamentary Order in Council mandated that federal government departments needing promotional images had to use shots taken by photographers from the NFB stills division, “or they would get their hands slapped,” says Payne.
Harry Rowed, Women munitions workers enjoy a lunch-time walk with friends at the Dominion Arsenals Ltd. Plant, Quebec City (From left to right: Hélène Perry, Celine Perry, Roberte Perry, Alphonsine Roy, Laurette Maurice), 24 August 1942, contemporary print from vintage negative. National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque / Library and Archives Canada e000760791
Payne says the images collected — roughly 250,000 — were blatant propaganda used to promote the government, but they are nonetheless, “strikingly beautiful.”
Ronnie, for example, was snapped working on the production line of the munitions factory, “but half of the shoot shows her whooping it up at a country club with friends,” Payne says. “The whole shoot is made to show how glamorous it could be to work in a factory — that this could be an adventure for young women.”
“Factory work was dirty . . . but showing that wasn’t going to get the young girls in there,” Linda Jansma, senior curator of the Robert McLaughlin Art Gallery, told NGC Magazine. “But if we show this glamour girl looking pretty hot beside a gun and dancing afterwards, that’s a different story.”
Jansma also notes that these photos and “stories” weren’t just used by government departments. They were also widely distributed to, and carried by, Canadian newspapers. “The [stills division] also created these wonderful storyboards, and most of them went into newspapers,” she says. “The assumption was that the newspaper was gathering and editing these images and information. But they weren’t. The NFB was writing the material and supplying them to newspapers — the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star — and making it look like editorial content.”
Chris Lund, Mrs. E. Marr, physiotherapist, with Gifford, 2 1/2 years old, at the walking bars in the polio clinic at the Sudbury General Hospital (March 1953), contemporary print from vintage negative. National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque / Library and Archives Canada PA-111579
“It was fun shooting with the Film Board, because all of your assignments were different,” photographer Chris Lund said in an interview with Carol Payne before his death in 1983. Lund started out as an NFB lab technician, but went on to capture numerous iconic images of Canada from the 1940s to the 1970s, including the shot of a little girl struggling to walk after being afflicted with polio.
“I photographed it just as it happened,” Lund said of the photo, Sudbury Polio Clinic: Mrs. E. Marr, Physio-therapist, with Dorothy Gifford, 2 1/2 at the Walking Bars in the Polio Clinic, Sudbury General Hospital, Sudbury, Ontario (March 1953). “The converging lines of the bars, the walking bars . . . your eye widens and it goes right down to the child and the nurse helping that child, helping her reach her goal.” That photograph is one of numerous works by Lund in the national collection.
“These were the best photographers of the day,” Payne says. “They really knew how to draw you in, sway you. The photographers, writers and editors of the images were all really topnotch.”
Gar Lunney, Governor General’s Northern Tour. Three Inuit men with their Brownie cameras await the arrival of the Governor General, Vincent Massey, at Resolute Bay, Northwest Territories (Qausuittuq, Nunavut) (March 1956), contemporary print from vintage negative. National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque / Library and Archives Canada e002265651
The National Gallery has loaned 15 works from its permanent collection to the exhibition, including: Hutterites, 1962, by Colin Low; Young Jewish Orthodox Boy Looking out of his Window, Montreal, Quebec, May 1963 by Pierre Gaudard; Teenager at the Canadian National Exhibition, Toronto, Ontario, 1963 by Michael Semak; and, Coal Miner Surrounded by his Children as He Returns Home from his Shift at the DOSCO Coal Mine in New Waterford, Nova Scotia 1964 by Bob Brooks.
Payne says the photographs capture “an important moment in telling a history of Canada.”
“I love the picture the exhibition gives of Canada,” she says. “Not because it’s an accurate picture of exactly what Canada was like during those years — because, in fact, they are promotional images. They gloss over the hardships of life. Nonetheless, they give us this portrait of how the government imagined Canada. They also give us a moment for looking back at history and maybe re-engaging and re-imagining it.”
The Other NFB: The National Film Board of Canada’s Still Photography Division, 1941–1971 is on view at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa to May 1, 2016. The exhibition will then be on view the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen's University, Kingston from August 27 to December 4, 2016, and at the Carleton University Art Gallery in the winter of 2017.
In a similar vein, aficionados of photojournalism won’t want to miss the first Canadian Photography Institute exhibition, Cutline: The Photography Archives of the Globe and Mail, on view in Toronto from April 30 to June 26, 2016, followed by a presentation at the National Gallery in the fall. Stay tuned to NGC Magazine for more on this exciting new show.