By Pamela Casey*
Currently on display in the reading room are sixteen photographs from our Underwood & Underwood Press Agency Collection. These sixteen are a selection from about 100 photographs recently included in the exhibition Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Impressionism to Expressionism, 1900-1914 which ran at the Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts from October 2014 to January 2015.
Choosing the sixteen to place on display was difficult, as it was no doubt difficult for the curators from the Museum of Fine Art to make their selection. These are wartime photographs of scenes from European battlefields and civilian life during the First World War. It’s hard to articulate why these particular photographs of trench warfare and bombed-out cathedral towns are so striking. Perhaps it’s that so many of these images feel utterly unfamiliar, like the soldiers sleeping in the streets of Paris, using bales of hay as make-shift shelters, or the German platoon on bicycles. But perhaps it’s that each photograph here seems to tell an elaborate and complicated story, which is only made stranger by the original captions the collection came with, newspaper headline-style, jaunty or grave in tone depending on the scene.
The captions, like the photographs, are unsigned. Underwood & Underwood was founded in Ottawa, Kansas in the early 1880s by two brothers, Elmer and Bert. Initially the business sold stereoscopic views door-to-door, employing an army of college students as their salesmen. By the 1890s, Underwood & Underwood had moved to New York and started producing their own photographs, eventually establishing themselves as a news photography agency. The Underwood & Underwood Collection includes over 420 photographs, arranged by country (Russia, Germany, France, Belgium, Holland, and Great Britain), each with its own caption. The collection will no doubt deliver yet more striking stories with further exploration and research.
*Pamela Casey is studying the RBSC photograph collection for her winter 2015 practicum at the McGill School of Information Studies.