Submitted by megan on Sun, 05/06/2012 - 14:01
If you've never done a systematic search for archival photos, well. It's a process. I took the training session twice, and still flopped around like a fish out of water doing this.
First you need to search our online database for photos - but only about 3-4% of the photos in the collection have been described individually (archivists say "at the item level"). So if you strike out there - or, in my case, found a couple of what you wanted, but wanted to see if there were more - you go to the paper finding aid for the collection.
Photos at LAC are organized by Accession. So we get a whole whack of photos from the Dept. of National Defence, e.g., and give it a number - in my case, the magic number was 1964-114, or, the 114th collection acquired in 1964.
For this fabled accession, there's a complicated finding aid, FA-22, a box full of ratty handwritten or typewritten or photocopied pages. I wanted the O-series - O for Ordinary, comprised of shots of the troops overseas doing, I suppose, ordinary things.
I suppose that most of what I found was actually reasonably ordinary. One or two photos of the xth battalion, buying oranges from French children. All the Non-Commissioned Officers from the nth battalion, a scarred field their backdrop: so many of them they are interchangeable in the camera's eye, pale skin and dark hats. A few men from another battalion are leaning back against the damp walls of the trenches, steely faced as a superior officer makes a brief visit. Few people mentioned by name.
In all of this, suddenly: Yvonne.
There wasn't another single page of the O-series that had this many ditto-marks. Yvonne, described as "the pretty railway gate keeper" the page before, was, I would say, hot shit for a war photographer at the front. As well as for a few of the other men from whatever unnamed battalions.
I could picture her - a thick rope of dark hair twisted and pinned at the neck. Swept off her face. High cheekbones in a pale oval face. Wide, dark eyes. Leaning on her crossing gate and staring with insouciance into the camera.
If I were interested in writing historical fiction, this would be a gold mine. What was Yvonne like? Was she really that pretty? How many men went to visit her in a day? Did she like the attention? What does a railway crossing gate keeper - pretty or no - do? Is pretty then the same as pretty now? Was she sad when the war was over and the men went home? Was she relieved to hear no more clumsy Canadian accents and choppy French? What was her family like? Did she live with her parents? Did the men compete for her attention, hoping for a few kind words, a bright smile in the midst of death, boredom and filth.