Monday, January 9, 2012

Montreal Revisited in B&W's (Hmmm sounds like what we've been doing all along)

MONTREAL - 1925: Horse-drawn delivery wagons trundle past Nelson's column in Old Montreal. 1933: Pedestrians stop to look at drainage pipes being installed on Park Ave. (long before it was changed to Parc). 1944: A shopkeeper peers out from the entrance to Warshaw's grocery on the Main. 1951: A nun smiles from the steps of a downtown refuge for destitute women and children. 1958: Drivers slow down for toll booths at the entrance to the Jacques Cartier Bridge. 1963: A young mother mops the floor before being evicted from a tenement in Ste. Marie.

These are just some of the 190 images in Vivre Montréal 1920-1969, a new book of blackand-white photographs culled from the extensive archives of the city of Montreal. For anyone who grew up here, each picture evokes a memory: an outdoor clothesline weighed down with washing, the first Expos baseball game at Jarry Park, a shot of women sunning themselves with aluminum reflectors on a winter's day on Mount Royal. And for those new to the city, it offers a miniature history lesson on every page.

"It's important to show what Montreal used to be like; it's also important for people who love Montreal," said the city's chief archivist, Mario Robert, who co-authored the book with his archives colleagues Julie Fontaine and Mireille Lebeau. Together, they plowed through 6,000 miniature images on contact sheets before making a rough cut of 500; from those, they chose the 190 for the book. It was a formidable task, and only skimmed the surface of the archive's collection of 1.5 million photos dating back to the hiring of the city's first photographer in 1920.

"This book is a popular history of Montreal - you learn so much about the city," said Robert, who has worked at the municipal archives for two decades. "For instance, there's a picture of Eleanor Roosevelt visiting Montreal city hall in 1960, two years before she died. What an extraordinary woman, and to think that she improvised a speech on democracy, in French, when she was 76 - imagine how special that was for the time, when people were already considered old at 60."

There are other historic moments: the first Stanley Cup parade in 1956, Jackie Robinson signing the city registry in 1958, or, in 1954, newly elected mayor Jean Drapeau being scrummed by none other than René Lévesque, who was a Radio-Canada reporter at the time. Other scenes show history being made in music: the Beach Boys deliriously applauded by screaming fans at Maurice Richard Arena in 1965, or, the same year, a young René Angélil singing with Les Baronets in front of St. Michel city hall.

Some images showcase things uniquely Québécois: May West cakes trundling down the conveyor at the Stuart industrial bakery in 1952, an army jeep pulling the lead float in the 1947 St. Jean Baptiste parade, Kik Cola being advertised as "the king of soft drinks," Ben Finkelstein's store on St. Urbain St., a downtown newspaper kiosk in 1966 advertising La Presse and Le Devoir and whose elderly hawker wears a Montreal Star money bag around his waist.

The collection also has a Gazette connection: there's a series of 17 photos taken by a young photographer named Gordon Beck who worked at Expo 67 and was the city of Montreal's chief photographer at Man and His World in 1968 and 1969. Beck went on to work at the Star and, much later, from the late 1980s to his retirement, this newspaper, during which he continued indulging his passion for history by chronicling changes in Montreal's architecture and landscape.

Among Beck's images in the book are several portraits of young people: a lovely candid shot of Man and His World hostesses taking a sun break, giddy children riding the roller-coaster at La Ronde, hippies listening eyes-closed to a Frank Zappa concert at dusk, a bare-armed blonde in a miniskirt whose pattern is a blown-up photo of Pierre Trudeau, a little girl asleep atop her father's shoulders during a celebration for the national day of Lebanon.

"What was great about Man and His World was I was able to look at what was happening, who was visiting, what entertainment there was - I had carte blanche to enjoy myself and document things at the same time," Beck recalled in an interview. "I was like a kid locked in a Toys 'R' Us for 24 hours." He now lives in Merrickville, Ont. with his wife, Eva, and is working on a book about ghost towns of Saskatchewan with author and journalist Alan Hustak, who worked as a reporter at The Gazette for many years.

Printed in 4,000 copies, Vivre Montréal stops in 1969, the year the city's photo department switched to shooting in colour. For aesthetic reasons and to limit the book's scope, the archivists decided to make the book exclusively black-and-white. For now, it's also only available in French, although an English translation might not be far down the road - perhaps as early as next year, when the archives celebrate their 100th anniversary.

"I've spoken to the publishers, and they've never done a book in English, but this would be a perfect book for Montrealers who left in the 1970s," said Robert, who grew up in Longue Pointe, the son of a grocer, and whose family traces its origins back to New France. "It would also be just the thing for people who arrived after the 1970s, who wonder about the Montreal that was."

Either way, it's like the old motto says: Je me souviens.

Vivre Montréal 1920-1969 is published in French by Les Publications du Québec. It's the 20th volume in its series of photography books called Aux limites de la mémoire, and retails for $32.95. To see an online sample of 14 illustrated pages from the book, go to

Well we have been finding & sharing photos here on this Verdun Connections site for many years now,well I can't wait to see this book,and see what other old pics they have for us.....but from the sounds of some described in the article,we have seen most of those..but I'm sure there will be others for us to spark our memory banks....
                        ...Cheers HF&RV.............................. - Les

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