When more than 9,000 academics gather this week in Vancouver for the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, everything from gender roles to the sociological significance of first names will be on the agenda. In a week-long series, the National Post showcases some of the most interesting research. Today, the way Canada sees itself, in photos and museums.
When Tracy Whalen asked her university students to name iconic Canadian images, many were stumped, so she showed them a photograph of National Hockey League player Paul Henderson’s winning goal against the Russians in 1972.
The hockey triumph itself was an iconic moment in the mind of Prof. Whalen, who teaches rhetoric and communication at the University of Winnipeg; the photograph of that moment, with Mr. Henderson’s animated limbs and the Russian goalie’s defeated body on the ice, is also aesthetically beautiful, a factor Prof. Whalen says only increases its iconic potential.
But save for a few nods from the “young men at the back of the room,” Prof. Whalen’s students — too young to have experienced the gripping finale of the Summit Series — did not recognize the photo.
That such a powerful image did not have a resonance deep enough to reach across gender and age lines suggested to Prof. Whalen that Canadians do not remember and celebrate their history the same way Americans do, and she sought to find out why.
In a new paper to be presented at a massive gathering of academics this week in Vancouver, Prof. Whalen argues that unlike Americans, Canadians have no truly iconic photographs because we are a younger country with a less fully formed collective memory, a nation that identifies predominantly with its diverse immigrants and has traditionally been more discreet about its flourishes of nationalism.
Prof. Whalen says that for decades, Americans have revered nationalistic photographs such as Joe Rosenthal’s Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima and the 1986 Challenger explosion.
Others are John Paul Filo’s 1970 image of the Kent State shooting, the Times Square Kiss captured by Life photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt in 1945, three-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s coffin in 1963, and Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, a portrait of a hungry woman and her children on a migratory farm in California, which became one of the enduring images of the Great Depression.
“I can mention all of those photos and everyone says, ‘Oh yes.’ I have yet to reach that unambivalent ‘Oh yes’ moment with a Canadian photograph,” says Prof. Whalen, who argues her controversial point in a presentation called, “At a Loss for Photos: The Canadian Iconic Image and Civic Discourse.”
“I would not say entirely that Canada does not have important salient images, but I think that in Canada, we don’t have as much resolution about what we can say is the representative Canadian picture,” she said in an interview.
Her research stems from the work of American theorists such as Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites, who say, “An iconic picture has to be that pinnacle that is compositionally beautiful, that highlights a historic moment, that has tremendous circulation in the country and internationally. It’s easily recognized, it’s venerated and it’s transcendent,” and should also be widely reproduced across different mediums, be it print, screen or T-shirt.
This is the definition Prof. Whalen used when she showed her class various Canadian photographs. Many, she argued, are memorable and important, but fall short of iconic because they do not possess all of the above characteristics.
Think of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau pirouetting behind Queen Elizabeth’s back at Buckingham Palace. For many Canadians of a certain age, Prof. Whalen says, that pirouette stood for Mr. Trudeau’s democratic derision of aristocratic pomp. Yet it is unlikely to be an image ever reproduced on T-shirts the country over, or even recognized by all Canadians for its significance many years afterwards, she argues.
Or former prime minister Jean Chretien throttling an anti-poverty protester, an attack later dubbed the Shawinigan Handshake. Many of Prof. Whalen’s students remembered the chokehold, but the image does not resonate emotionally. Nor does it represent an ideal that would instill a sense of national pride, the way most of the U.S. iconic photos do.
One of the few Canadian photos that comes close to being iconic is an image from the 1990 Oka Crisis that shows Private Patrick Cloutier facing off against Mohawk Warrior Brad Larocque.
Prof. Whalen says that “some have called it Canada’s most famous image,” but what she finds interest- ing is that viewers who look at the photo can identify with either of the men, or take a third viewpoint, a quintessentially Canadian one that she calls “the idealized Canadian citizen as mediator.”
Most of all, Prof. Whalen says, Canadian images generally do not transcend years after they were snapped the way many of the iconic American ones do.
She points to Canadian Press photographer Doug Ball’s shot of former Conservative leader Robert Stanfield clumsily fumbling a football, an image so powerful some say it cost him the 1974 federal election. Prof. Whalen’s students snickered at the image of the gangly politician squinting his eyes and clasping his bony fingers, but many did not know who he was, or that it became a pivotal moment on the campaign trail.
In the case of the Flag Raising at Iwo Jima, Prof. Whalen says viewers do not need to know which battle it was, or that the picture was taken on Mount Suribachi in 1945, because the image transcends the moment and speaks to a nationalistic sentiment.
Similar comments have been made about the Migrant Mother, she argues. “You don’t need to know that that was the American Depression. That woman represents musing and reflection and profound sadness and all these other maternal things that are larger than the moment. You can have a memorable moment like the Stanfield fumble, but does that transcend that moment?”
Why do Canadians not have the same shared library of iconic photography as Americans? Prof. Whalen says there are several reasons.
First is the fact that Canada is so much younger than its southern cousin. It is also a more regional nation: Whereas images from the 1919 general strike resonate with Winnipegers, they do not register with Atlantic Canadians. Prof. Whalen adds that Canada is less militant than the United States, meaning Canadians have fewer dramatic photographs of intense, violent struggles.
There are also pragmatic causes: While Americans had prestigious photojournalism publications like Life and Time, there are no Canadian equivalents.
“These realities can’t help but affect the circulation and production of these images,” Prof. Whalen says.
Another pragmatic consideration is the demographic makeup of the country. Ultimately, she says, iconic images that bind the nation may not be as possible, nor as crucial in a country of new immigrants such as Canada. “Some people don’t necessarily need to identify as Canadian for this country to work.”
Canadian image: Paul Henderson scores the winning goal against the Russians in the 1972 Summit Series.
U.S. image: Famous Second World War photo shows U.S. Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima.