May 26th, 2024

Eye on the Esplanade: Why is there no photo?

By Philip Pype on February 21, 2020.

Esplanade Archives
Image 0024.0002 This Thomas George Anderton photograph is one of the earliest images of Medicine Hat, capturing the first train to cross the South Saskatchewan River in 1883. Mr. Anderton operated a tent studio in Medicine Hat from 1882 to 1885.

The Esplanade Archives has approximately a million photographs, ranging from daguerreotypes from the earliest days of photography in the 1850s to recent digital images. With so many images, you might think that we would have a photograph of pretty much everyone and everything. Although we are very proud of our rate of success in connecting people with the photographs they need, sometimes we are not successful in finding the picture they want.

The vast majority of our photographs in the Esplanade Archives were donated. Community members offer images for the collection and we work with them to see what has long-lasting historical value in being preserved and accessible. Why aren’t more photos offered? People may not think of the Archives as a place for these records, they may not want to part with their photographs or may not want them to be available for public use. This is their right.

Photographs also disappear over time. Mementos often get lost in the shuffle of major life events, especially when a move from the family home is involved. The memory of a photograph may also fade as people pass away or move away from the community where the photo was taken.

Like any other material, photographs also deteriorate over time. They are made out of papers and plastics, and are created through chemical processes. All of these elements break down over time, especially if exposed to harsh conditions. Images fade in sunlight, basements flood, and houses burn. When people are told to evacuate, the thing most often grabbed are the family photos, but not always.

Often photographs that we expect to be prominent do not exist. A photograph of a person or event may not have been taken at all. Photography used to be a physically difficult, expensive process. In the early days of photography, not many people had a camera, and if they did, they used it sparingly. Many people sat in front of a camera once in their life for a formal portrait, or not at all.

Medicine Hat gained “City” status in 1906. Although we assume this was an auspicious occasion, it garnered almost no attention in the local newspaper. The Archives does not have an image to mark the event, as there really was no event to speak of.

Technology also had its limitations. One key event in Medicine Hat’s history was the opening of Finlay Bridge in 1908. There was a lot of pomp and circumstance, but the Archives does not have a single photograph. Reading the news reports of that day, we discover it was grey and rainy. Two things were required for photography in 1908; lots of light, and if a flash was needed, dry powder.

Photographs are one of the best ways for us to connect to our personal, family, and community’s past. If you want to learn more about the local story of photography, visit Snapshot: The History of Photography, in the Heritage Gallery at the Esplanade until June 20.

Philip Pype is Archivist at the Esplanade.

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