The BlogTO interview, unedited: “I read on the website that this is part of your Master’s research. Can you tell me a little bit about its academic underpinnings?”


[Fifth in a series. Questions by BlogTO editor Derek Flack for “The Kodachrome Toronto archive” story, published 25 March 2011. Prior instalments: part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.]

I read on the website that this is part of your Master’s research. Can you tell me a little bit about its academic underpinnings?

Yorkville, ca. 1968
[photo: F. Ellis Wiley, City of Toronto Archives,
Fonds 124, File 1, Item 115]


Yes. When I pitched the idea to my supervisor, I prefaced how it had little to do with my urban design specialization (on which I’d started to give up due to structural issues within the school). He was actually quite enthusiastic. We discussed its relationship to how we see cities today, without having much hindsight on what the past was really like to the eyes of someone who was living back then.

Even if some of us might remember how the 1980s looked, we also know that buildings which were present back then don’t look the same today. We lose perspective due to our selective memory. It is seldom unbiased the way a photo made at the same time the memory was created might be. So Kodachrome can be useful to see how people used a public space in the past relative to
now. Nathan Phillips Square, ca. 1966, comes to mind. We can hear from our elders about descriptions of the old Yorkville, but we can’t really see through their eyes — try as we might.

While there are plenty of photos of Toronto dating to the 1850s and a slowly increasing stack of movies being digitized, these are typically either black and white, non-Kodachrome colour, or digital. This isn’t a good way to assure comparative consistency over time. A random film used in 1975 that was no longer made in 1981, would make it impossible now to use the same film for comparative purposes. While its processing chemistry was slightly changed twice, Kodachrome remained basically the same film and colour palette in 1939 as it was in 2010.

1939:

2010

What I am basically doing with this masters SRP — supervised research project — is setting up a Kodachrome archives directory-registry for the city. We presently lack a way to know where Kodachrome media of Toronto is tucked away, and this is really an untapped resource for researchers. To have a solid time-line documented in Kodachrome is to have a far better impression of Toronto’s evolution during its second century. My role here is not so much to analyze or present a critical theory analysis, but rather to index known archives so that other scholars will use for their own specialized topics of concern.

That said, one could draw a direct economic relationship between the Junction area and Kodachrome, in that Kodak Canada’s operations in Mount Dennis was a principal Kodachrome lab for mailed-in rolls from across Canada. Along with everything else Kodak manufactured there, Kodak’s presence, much built from the reputation of Kodachrome, undoubtedly had a positive impact on local economies. The might be a subject worth exploring separately.

What’s key here is having known collections indexed in one place — namely, a searchable directory with basic details about each collection, its availability for viewing, whether it is public or privately owned, and a basic overview for the contents of that collection. Details like individual items may not be included, but it should be clear enough for a researcher to know what to expect if they choose to contact its owner or archives curator for a viewing. If a researcher wants to know more, she or he could get in touch and go from there.

How does this impact scholarly research? Aside from physical subjects like public spaces, architecture, and infrastructure, interdisciplinary fields in urban studies also benefit from this colour record of place, event, or a particular Zeitgeist which swept through Toronto. For example, urban economists and labour historians may examine changes to how the city went from a manufacturing metropolis to the way that service and data economies began to creep in. Sociologists and cultural studies scholars may analyze how people articulated their identity through colour, motion, and deportment, as well as how social interactions have changed over time. For urban growth scholars, the growth and evolution of Toronto’s post-WWII suburbs may be especially intriguing when seen with Kodachrome, given the sense that Kodachrome can look like it was shot last summer — rather than 50 summers ago.

Toronto went from a clamped-down, Orange Order city in 1935 — one highly segregated along class, creed, sex, and colour lines — to an incredibly diverse place we know now. How did these incremental changes appear over time? How did, for instance, Kensington Market reflect that? With Kodachrome, the element of nostalgia, the abstraction of black-and-white, and the anomie of a faded photograph can be set aside for qualitative and solid comparative research.

Kensington Market, ca. 1962
[photo: F. Ellis Wiley, City of Toronto Archives,
Fonds 124, File 7, Item 4]

More to follow.

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