I spent much of the 1970s haunting the Manitoba Archives Photo Collection. As a filmmaker I rarely finish a film without an historical sequence, so through the years I looked at every snap in the drawers, most more than once. Then one day, the photos started haunting me. Specifically, one group of photos and of that one particular image, but I’ll get to that.
When the Foote Collection first showed up it was breathtaking, and not just for the obvious reasons. What made it really special was the quality of the prints. Foote used 8x10 glass negatives for much of his career and the archivists, bless their hearts, made contact 8x10 prints from them, several for each, which were put into the folders for purchase by any passing researcher. Their clarity and immediacy were and are stunning. I couldn’t resist several of these and I still have them. One of my favourites is “Fred Ferguson and his son – 1928.” Father and son stand beside a little Aeronca monoplane and the boy’s proud glee evokes so much of my own plane-crazy childhood, he makes me laugh.
The one that haunts me, however, I haven’t seen for 35 years and more. I found it among Foote’s photos for the coroner, a sad and sordid record of violent and accidental deaths through the decades. Several made me curious about the stories behind them, but one group wouldn’t leave me alone. I think they were from 1930 or 31 and perhaps taken in April, but it could have been late fall. They record a multiple murder-suicide in a poverty-shack farmhouse on a patch of bald prairie...somewhere. The farmer has shot his family and himself. All the images are terribly disturbing but one stands out. It is the thinly clothed body of an unidentifiable woman huddled on the ground many yards from the house. Whether he chased her and killed her there or she crawled out and died of wounds or exposure is unclear but several things about the photo make it unforgettable.
First there is the spot itself. What a lonely, cheerless, exposed spot to spend her last minutes - maybe hours. Hard dry stubble, freezing ground, no shelter from icy wind or stalking brute. Did she lie out here listening to her family die one by one? Or was it all over then but her own slow demise? How awful were her memories if what they led toward was this? What guilt did she feel for her children’s fate? Did she hope and pray for help or had all reason to live left her?
And then there is one more detail in the picture, an element that gives the scene a whole other dimension: in the background of that shot is a car that I remember as a Ford Model A. No other cars or people, just a depression-era sedan stopped in the middle of nowhere.
There is no hint of living presence in any of the photos except this. Suddenly you are aware of another layer of bleak activity taking place. Foote’s assistant, police, coroner’s men, perhaps a neighbour, all digesting this horror first hand out on the chilly, silent prairie, each in his own way aware that this could be his life, his family - or strenuously holding such awareness at bay. And Foote, fastidiously recording every detail on another glass plate.
After about the third time I had reason to be in that collection and found myself riveted, I decided I should have that photo. Along with several others (I seem to recall a group of Tribune delivery boys going to a movie) I put it in my car while I did some downtown shopping. When I came back they were gone. I’ve forgotten the rest after all these years, but I’ve never forgotten that one.
Unless I made the whole thing up.
- Bob Lower
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Bob Lower has been writing, editing and directing films in Winnipeg since 1971, and as such is a walking history of the Winnipeg film community. Drama, documentary, commercials - you name it, he’s got the scars. He is currently working on a film about the National Film Board during the Second World War.