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Banner: Framing Canada: A Photographic Memory

The Weird and Wacky: Humour in Archival Photographs

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Photograph of a man lying on the ground wrestling with a trained black bear, circa 1902Larger image

Man wrestling a trained bear
Unknown location, ca. 1902
Photographer: R.H. Trueman
C-014070 (source)

It is generally assumed that Library and Archives Canada (LAC) acquires photographs that make a serious contribution to documenting our nation's history. It is true that photographs are invaluable archival sources, but you may be surprised by how many funny photographs there are in LAC's holdings: it seems that Canadians have always had a sense of humour.

Even before Kodak created the snapshot camera, amateurs and hobbyists entertained themselves by photographing their everyday lives. Pet photography is not a new phenomenon, for example, though you probably see fewer portraits of chickens and pigs nowadays. Photographs taken in private spheres, such as those of family or social circles, can also reveal the humour of both photo subject and taker. Someone thumbing their nose at conventional behaviour was a fairly common scene in photos never meant for public viewing, such as that of the well-dressed lady taking a big swig from a liquor bottle.

Changes in social practices and tastes make many photographs in archival collections strikingly funny in hindsight. The sophistication of the modern Canadian palate, for example, can scarcely comprehend unnaturally brightly coloured commercial food photos used in magazines and cookbooks during the last century. And if a photo of a pink jellied veal aspic makes you giggle, what is to be made of the picture of the man wrestling with a trained bear? The practice of keeping bears for amusement -- common in the 19th century -- has thankfully fallen out of fashion, making this image very difficult for contemporary Canadians to relate to. Add to that the apparent disinterest of the bear in his obviously unhappy "wrestling" partner, and you have a very strange image indeed.

The technology of photography is well known for capturing unintentionally funny images: with mouths open or eyes shut, it sometimes takes several frames before a flattering photo can be achieved. Archives generally attempt to acquire whole bodies of photography (the entire roll of film from a shoot, rather than a single print, for example) so that researchers have more information from which to understand the context of the original event. Because of this, however, there are many "outtakes" preserved in photographic archives. LAC holds photographs taken for Weekend Magazine's fashion spread titled "1946 swimsuits," including images that never made it into publication -- such as a poorly lit image that makes the model look like she is wearing a large frilly diaper.

Amusing photographs are rarely sought out and found, but rather stumbled upon by researchers consulting the other photographic records in an archival fonds. Aside from whatever information they might convey, these photos have significance in demonstrating that just as now, life in the past had its quirky moments.

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