Tuesday, 31 May 2011

A dignified history

HNAUSA -- People didn't smile in those old black-and-white studio photos a century ago because they had to sit still for so long due to slower camera exposures.
Or so people believe.
Or people will say, "My, those must have been hard times. Look... the people in those old photographs can't even smile."
We've misunderstood the people in those photos for too long, said Nelson Gerrard, a collector of archival photographs of early Icelandic immigrants.
Those aren't the reasons. The camera exposures were longer in the 1850s but not in the period 1880-1910 when waves of immigrants settled in Manitoba, said Gerrard.
What people fail to see is the importance our ancestors attached to the notion of dignity.
"In the Victorian era, the concept of a portrait was one of portraying dignity, a concept not easily understood today," said Gerrard.
Smiling in photos wasn't the fashion. The people in the photos tended to be the working poor and "wanted to appear like they had respect, self-respect, some kind of pride, self-worth, self-reliance," Gerrard said. "It was a British Victorian kind of society where respectability looked a certain way."
Gerrard has amassed the largest collection of early photographs of Icelandic immigrants to North America. (Icelanders didn't just settle in Gimli but in places like Riverton, Lake Manitoba Narrows, Baldur-Glenboro, Swan River, Piney, Libau in Manitoba; in towns like Cavalier, Mountain, Edinburgh in North Dakota, and Roseau, Minnesota; and in larger cities like Winnipeg, Chicago, Seattle, Milwaukee, and Helena, Montana.)
"A lot of photos that would have ended up in burning barrels and landfill ended up on my doorstep," said Gerrard.
In the process, he has turned into a kind of sleuth for identifying people in those images. He amazes others with his ability to track down the identities of subjects in old photos and put them into a historical context. "Nelson has helped many people find out about their families," Almar Grimson, president of the Icelandic National League in Iceland, said during a visit to Manitoba.
Facebook is also coming in handy. Gerrard will post unidentified photos on Facebook hoping someone can provide a clue.
One thing he has discovered is that Icelandic immigrants had a penchant for being photographed. "I've never come across a body of work of one group that's as extensive as that of Icelandic people," he said.
Why did so many of those Icelandic families spend their meager savings on something so seemingly frivolous as studio portraits? Some families would pose for portraits every few years.



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