DIFFICULT HISTORIES: LOOKING BENEATH THE SURFACE
When first encountering the Kodak Canada Corporate Archives at the Ryerson University Special Collections, we, the 2019 F+PPCM students, were all excited to uncover and connect with pieces of local history. We carefully removed items from their archival housings and shared images and objects among ourselves. In the back of everyone’s mind was the question of how we could use these artifacts to develop a unique Canadian narrative. We started to focus on the Kodak Canada workers and how the company’s expansion reshaped the Toronto urban landscape. We narrowed the scope of our inquiry to the first four decades of the company’s development. It quickly became apparent, however, that the only non-white faces depicted among the Kodak Camera employees were painted. These black-face images document white actors in the Kodak Minstrels performing for the camera in costume.
Under the management of the Kodak Athletic Association, the Kodak Minstrels performed a three-day engagement from April 17 to 19 in 1922 at the Crystal Theatre in west Toronto. We found a large matted photograph in the archives that documented the show, which attracted a chain of hushed whispers from one student to the next. In turn, everyone exchanged hesitant glances, pursed lips, and fragmented comments of stupefaction. Nobody felt comfortable speaking about the image displayed in front of them.
Stepping away from the image just for a moment to evaluate the materiality of the photograph, one can begin to allow the object to speak for itself. The photograph was printed in a large format, and matted. Affixed to the verso, a newspaper clipping outlines the individuals involved in the performance, alongside a careful and large annotation in black ink, with information on the group, performance dates, and location. Together, all of these details suggest that this object was, at one time, afforded a high degree of consideration. It was also not the only one of its kind found in the Kodak Canada Corporate Archives.
The minstrel performance images present a challenging (and racist) history of a not so distant past that forced us to reconsider not only the Kodak Canada corporate culture, but our own understanding of Toronto’s growth into a thriving multicultural metropolis. Assaulted by these images, the students were confronted with the ethical dilemma of determining how to handle the record of a difficult local history that they couldn’t dare un-see. Black-face performances were a popular form of entertainment for white audiences in North America in the nineteenth century. While interest declined in the early twentieth century, images such as these were not uncommon. As a group, we felt ill-prepared to display these photographs in a meaningful way that would be both sensitive to the exhibition’s visitors and contribute significantly to a preexisting history of this kind of racist imagery. In the end, we opted to exclude these prints from the exhibition, the publication, and the website.
The overwhelming whiteness of the Kodak Canada employees became increasingly more apparent as we continued to mine the archive. Ethnic diversity in the workforce and in advertising campaigns starts to appear only in the 1960s. Prior to this, non-white bodies were explicitly depicted for their “otherness” and highlighted as such in image annotations found in Kodak publications. The only unassuming photographs demonstrating diversity within the timeframe of our exhibition were found reprinted in the July–August 1931 issue of The Kodak Magazine. In this issue, three images depicting employees in the Chinese and Japanese Kodak offices were accompanied by an article dripping in orientalist axioms. Unfortunately, due to the narrow scope of our exhibition, we have inadvertently reconfirmed a utopian view of a dominating white historical narrative. This essay wishes to disrupt that narrative.
It is important to remember that the images and objects included in this exhibition were culled from the Kodak Canada Corporate Archives. This automatically inserts a biased perspective of the company that inclines toward a positive reading of their artifacts. Additionally, the Kodak Canada company is close to home, perhaps too close. As future photography professionals, we have the responsibility to view these archives with a critical lens and to look beneath the surface to see what is left unseen.