From the Archives: Capturing the photographer

Jenny Seeman

The archives at Royal Roads University is fortunate to have many historical photographs, and even more fortunate that many of these photos are labeled. This metadata helps to give context to the photographs and provides descriptive details such as dates, people, and events. Without these details, the viewer is often left with nothing but the picture itself to fill in the descriptive blanks. You can see an example of this challenge in a previous crossroads post.

Very occasionally, we have an abundance of detail in the photo collections. Some events were so significant that we have multiple angles on the same moment, giving us a meta-referential view that not only heightens awareness of the event but also of the media itself, as in the following two examples.

The first is the celebration for the winners of the Royal Roads tabloid sports challenge on September 11, 1964. The military college began each year with a gruelling recruit term for the incoming juniors. One of the events during the recruit term was a track and field competition among the various flights and in 1964, the winners were the recruits of Thompson flight. As tradition dictated, the winning team were given an enormous cake to share before taking their sugar-fuelled celebration to the tea house in the Japanese garden. There are many pictures of this ‘tradition’ in the military college collection and it was not unusual for one of the team members to be fêted by being thrown into the pond! 

On the left hand side of the group photo, there is a man stood on the railing with camera poised. Moments later the second snap was captured as the unlucky cadet hit the water. The third image from the first photographer shows the same recruit hauling himself out of the pond. This series of photos creates a mini story-board that plays out the celebration in the tea house. Any one of these pictures gives a literal snapshot of the activity but putting them all together provides a broader perspective on the event.

From a meta-referential point of view, look at the photographer and his camera. He is in full naval uniform and is using a Graflex speed graphic camera. This type of camera was considered the best camera for press and sports photographers until the mid-1960s when 35mm cameras became more standard. Realising that at least one professional photographer was there changes the candour of the images captured. Were the cadets spontaneously throwing their friend into the pond, or were they being directed?                                 

The second scene is the February, 1965 flag raising ceremony. Here we have two photos taken at almost the exact moment that the Canadian flag is raised for the first time at Royal Roads Military College. The first is taken from the top floor of Grant block and the second from the castle. If you look carefully in both images, you can see the photographer taking the other picture.

Both are equally reasonable viewpoints to capture this momentous occasion, but viewing them side by side and having the opposing view from what each photographer intended is like stretching the media of the time beyond its capabilities. Today, it is possible to create full 360 degree images of moments like this, where the viewer can later pan around and zoom in on features and angles of interest, but to have this similar opportunity at an event from more than 50 years ago is quite unusual.

Historical photographs are interesting for a variety of reasons. In these examples, it is fascinating to see the photographer at the moment of capturing an image. It can make the moment feel more immersive, like you are seeing a view that was never intended, or at least it can make you realise the length photographers often go to in order to get the perfect angle!

For more images in the collection, have a look at the archives’ online database or contact Jenny Seeman at ext. 4122.