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What Photographs Say

Take a look at this photograph. What do you see?

When Chris Miner — my co-curator for the Facing the Street exhibition — first encountered it, it took him to the history of art — specifically Renaissance painting. You may know those images: the Virgin Mary with toddlers Jesus and John the Baptist at either hand, or mythological figures flanked by acolytes or antagonists. Arranging people in a triangle is a time-honoured way of staging relationships in art. It’s striking that while our photographer in Kingston didn’t move the mop, leaving some happenstance in the homey setting, she or he did arrange the people deliberately. It’s a perfect triangle. The eye is drawn to the woman in white in the middle, standing up. Despite the brightness of her figure, her face is in shadow. Hand hidden in the pocket of her house dress, she’s frowning, looking down, uncomfortable or unhappy. The two women on either side are very different from her in dress and attitude. They are dressed in suits, with poses to match. One stares down the camera, with a smirk almost, relaxed, legs crossed. The other doesn’t even deign to look at the camera, hand on hip. But she’s the only one really smiling. And then there is the girl, awkward, sitting on the step, eyes closed. The angle of her face, her hair, her white dress, her discomfort: they all echo the qualities of the woman standing in the doorway beside her.

One intriguing thing about talking with Chris as we prepared the photos for Facing the Street is that he didn’t know any of the oral history or other research I had done, so he looked at the images “cold.” Sometimes this made for strange misreadings or mistakes from a historical perspective. But not infrequently, what he saw or what we noticed together on close examination of the photos matched up with what I knew or gleaned about the context.

Here are the facts of the photo. It comes from Marc Shaw’s personal collection. It features Louise (Henry) MacLean, in the middle, and her daughter Rose (Marc’s mother). They are posed on the back porch of 144 James Street, near Patrick, with their visitors, Louise’s sisters-in-law from Montreal, Peggy and Sally MacLean. The photo was taken in 1944.

Now here’s the background. Louise was married to Art (John Arthur) MacLean. They lived in Montreal. Here’s a photo of them together.

But Art was in the navy, and he died at sea in 1942 on the HMCS Spikenard, torpedoed during the Battle of the Atlantic.

After Art died, Louise, left with a little girl of eight, pretty much had to move back to Kingston, to live with her widowed mother Emma in the house her father David Henry had built. Marc recalls that his grandmother Louise “always had an air of sadness… she was a war widow and she wore that mantle, and that’s how she referred to herself.” Back in Kingston, she kept house, looked after her mother, raised her daughter, worked at Bennett’s, and then at Sullivan’s Construction. She never remarried. Rose told her son Marc that “she would be told by her aunts, don’t ask about your father. Don’t talk about this, don’t mention that.” Marc recalls that “because she never really talked about it, she couldn’t remember what her father looked like. And she would say, I think I can hear him, but maybe I’m remembering somebody telling me about that.”

Without naming names, the photo actually shows us all of this. We have Louise, leaning on the door jamb of a house she doesn’t want to be living in, bereaved, having difficulty with the experience of having her photo taken (it is a dramatic contrast to how she meets the camera in the photo with Art). The mop, the ladder, the washtub: here she is, two years a widow, in a domestic space characterized by labour, not love. Her dress is a bit wrinkled, very much every day — it seems akin to the domestic tools beside her. Her sisters-in-law are visiting to cheer her up no doubt, but maybe they are doing the opposite, representing as they do what she has lost: they wear chic Montreal clothing, and they look confident, sexy, urbane. Meanwhile, young Rose looks confused, caught in this fraught triangle of relationships. Maybe she’s clutching a toy her aunts brought her, and in a way she’s clutching herself, her posture inward-turned, protective.

It’s notable that a photo that reveals so much about its subjects was not taken in front of the public face of the house, with its front porch and brick facade, but at the back porch. The location was probably the photographer’s practical decision: the back of the house is the south side, where the sun shines. But while Peggy looks boldly straight into the sun and Sally strikes a sideways pose to put herself in its best light, Louise and Rose seem assaulted by it. Yes, anybody can be caught in a blink, but the entire body language of mother and daughter conveys a resistance to the sun, the camera —maybe the whole situation.

As Chris and I pursued our conversations about this photo, the shoes became our final focus.

Peggy, on the left, is wearing incredibly fancy shoes. Movie star shoes. They look new. Peek-a-boo toes, big black bows. She crosses her legs to show them off, a pose she seems to find very comfortable and familiar. Louise on the other hand has old slippers on, and she keeps her weight on her right leg, poised to retreat into the shadows of the porch. The girl: school shoes, black socks. Pigeon-toed, knock-kneed, Rose sits both open and closed to the world. And to the right, you see Sally’s pumps — not fancy and not brand new, but if you look closely there’s a slight wrinkle on the leg: this woman is wearing nylons. In 1944, during rationing! She thrusts her right foot forward, posing, full of confidence. The feet and shoes seem to say it all about where each of these women found themselves in life.

It has been immensely interesting to spend time with the family photographs people shared during our oral history project and particularly with the high-quality enlargements Chris Miner produced. The combination of historical and visual data brings people truly to life. Watch for some future work developing from Facing the Street — whatever medium or venue suits in the end, I definitely look forward to continuing conversations between word and image.

— Laura Murray


  1. Art McLean

    Interesting commentary and insight. My mom, Peggy McLean, was always consciously aware of her external image but was also very frugal so I am a little surprised by the shoes. At the time of the picture I believe Sally and she were living together in Montreal with their children, my two older siblings and Sally’s son. My dad was in the navy and at that point Sally may have already been estranged from her husband. Sharing housing on Fourth Avenue in Verdun may well have allowed my mom to afford a new pair of shoes.
    I do have two questions. Who possibly could have been the photographer? And where would my 2 siblings, then 5 and 7 years old, have been?
    Thanks so much.

    • Laura Murray

      The plot thickens! Thanks so much for the background. We can’t always mistake appearance of prosperity and positivity for actual experience of the same 🙂 — but I guess it’s all relative. Maybe Marc can hazard a guess at your very good questions. I have a question too: all the military documents spell the name MacLean. But you spell it McLean?

  2. Art McLean

    Ha…you’ve re-awakened a debate among my father and his brothers! My dad’s military documents came back as McLean so he insisted that his was the correct spelling, partially I think out of perversity as all his brothers’ showed the longer version. But his marriage certificate from 1935 shows the shorter one, as well. In the early 70’s during a trip to Baddeck Nova Scotia, my father’s and his siblings’ birth place, I encountered both spellings. And I have copies of the 1901 Canadian census showing the family name spelt as McLean. Part of my dad’s explanation was that the spelling of names in our country was, at least partially, at the mercy of the prejudices and literacy of immigration officers, census takers, priests and ministers. And I rather like that understanding of the past.

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