By Pierre Dessureault
The NFB’s Still Photography Division was created in 1941, as a Canadian government information agency under the direction of John Grierson. By 1985, when the small unit’s production, now a collection of photographs, became the core of the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, the Division had produced some 250,000 images. Part of this rich heritage is examined in the exhibition The Official Picture – The National Film Board of Canada’s Still Photography Division and the Image of Canada, 1941–1971,1 curated by Carol Payne and Sandra Dyck for the Carleton University Art Gallery.2
In making their selection from this huge archive, the curators wanted to explore “how this agency imagined Canada and Canadian identity, what role photographs played in that imagining, and how the NFB’s photographic archive was – and continues to be – used.”3 They distanced the exhibition from an aestheticizing approach, positioning the images in a narrative in which they are social facts that provide examples of cultural practices during an era that was pivotal for the development of Canadian photography.
Grierson had a lasting influence on the output of the Division, the mission of which in the early years was to mobilize public opinion in the war effort by quenching Canadians’ thirst for information and keeping spirits up. Once peace was re-established, the Division was tasked with promoting an industrious nation, both domestically and internationally, and reflecting a sense of common values. In Grierson’s vocabulary, this was the role of propaganda, which was best conveyed by photo features.4
The images produced by the Division’s photographers were the raw material for these composite pieces. The subjects were numerous and typical, and the situations were representative of all regions of the country. The people in the pictures naturally play their proper roles with an agreed-upon theatricality in which each embodies either a particular social type or an exemplary model of citizenship. Even when we know their identity – for example, women working in a weapons plant whose activities we follow step by step – we know almost nothing about them. Props are carefully positioned to increase the veracity of the scene and reduce the portrayal to its simplest expression. The familiarity of the people and the situations make the event accessible to everyone…
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2 The exhibition was also presented at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa from January 23 to May 1, 2016, and at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston from August 27 to December 4, 2016.
3 Exhibition introductory wall panel.
4 John Grierson, “The Challenge of Peace” , in Grierson on Documentary, ed. Forsyth Hardy (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), 328.