Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Imagining Canada edited by William Morassutti

Some of the things in life I really love include: reading, Canada, and photography. So obviously I was incredibly excited to pick up Imagining Canada, a beautiful and glossy hardcover book that features a century of photographs preserved by The New York Times. The collection was edited by William Morassutti and is divided into nine sections, each featuring an essay by a different person along with matching photos that represent a different aspect of Canadian history. The authors included are National Chief Shawn Atleo, MP Justin Trudeau, historians Charlotte Gray, Peter C. Newman and Tim Cook, sports columnist Stephen Brunt, authors Ian Brown and Lisa Moore, and journalist John Fraser.

One of my favourite sections was Peter C. Newman's, "An Industrious Nation", that is all about the industry that has made Canada what it is today. Not only is it beautifully written, but I found myself especially enamoured with the photos: Newfoundland fisherman and Nova Scotian coal miners, Albertan tar sands and Quebec paper mills. These are the most precious resources of our country, captured here in a way that may never be possible again because of how we have treated them. The photo of the fisherman was taken in 1968, the peak of cod fishing when fishers caught more than eight hundred thousand tons of cod– an industry that collapsed in the 1990s because of overfishing. But the people in these images don't know that yet, which gives a bitter-sweetness to the photographs. In another photo, the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway is being laid. It's a beautiful image and the only unfortunate part is that it appears on the title page, tinted red and overlaid with text.

Imagining Canada isn't the kind of book that only focuses on the happy parts of Canadian history. In "First Nations", Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, calls out the photos for how poorly they represent Native culture– using it as a gimmick for tourists, and stereotyping. In one photo, a miner lies on top of ancient art with a hammer; it is referred to as "crude rock carvings." Atleo encourages the reader to look beyond the images so that we can "be enriched by the incredibly history and enduring legacy of the indigenous world view." His thoughtful text really puts the photos in perspective.

By far the most disappointing section of the book is "A Tough and Beautiful Game" with text by Stephen Brunt, about hockey in Canada. Except not really. It's actually all about the New York Rangers, with only a small nod to the fact that the game originated in Canada. True, some of the hockey players who appear in the accompanying images are Canadian, but that seems to be more of a fluke than an intent. Obviously Canadian hockey teams have players from around the world, but it would still be more Canadian to read about their successes than an American team.

While the photos themselves are from a New York newspaper, it seems unlikely that a major Canadian NHL success wouldn't be featured at some points in history. It actually made me wonder if Brunt, who selected the images and wrote the text, was American but a quick internet search reveals he's a Canadian sports journalist from Ontario. So why no love for his home country? The writing and images are great, but it's not what I was hoping for when I'm picking up a book called Imagining Canada. Emphasize on the Canada. That said, I did find out some incredibly history about the Sutter family, who were from Viking, Alberta and had six (out of seven) brothers playing simultaneously in the NHL during the 1980s. What an amazing Canadian story.

Imagining Canada is an incredible and important collection of photographs. Not only are these amazing images that capture a huge part of Canadian history, but they also offer a glimpse of this beautiful country as seen through the eyes of outsiders. Justin Trudeau, in "The Body Politic", a section dedicated to political photos, points out that there are none of women. But he also writes that this "says more, perhaps, about the choices of The New York Times and its photographers than anything else."

I think that is such an important message to take away from Imagining Canada. We make our own history and we do not need anyone else, not even The New York Times with their beautiful collection of photographs, to validate it and tell us what is important or true about our country. Ultimately, Imagining Canada is a wonderful keepsake, not only for its images, but for its message as well.

Release Date: October 30th 2012  Pages: 240  Format: Hardcover 
Source: Publisher  Publisher: Random House Canada Buy It: Book Depository

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