Gordon Webber – Rare Film Reels

One of the largest special collections under the stewardship of Rare Books and Special Collections is the architectural collection named after its founder, the John Bland Canadian Architecture Collection (CAC). This collection attracts attention from a wide array of scholars, students, architects, heritage artisans and urban planners who are interested in consulting architectural plans, or photographic prints, (many times the single remaining copies) or the original sketches and presentation watercolours dealing with architectural subjects in Montreal, mostly dating around the first half of the 20th century.

The CAC continues to astound us for the surprises that turn up in any one of the 100 archival fonds and which do not fit into the usual categories of materials mentioned above. One recent example are the four film reels created by artist-photographer Gordon Webber (1909-1965), a former Professor at the McGill School of Architecture. These reels were discovered in the Webber fonds by an Arts Curator, Stébastien Hudon, while he was preparing for an exhibit on Quebec avant-garde photographers of the 1940s. As it turns out, one of these reels is a hand-painted 35mm film, described as being one of the oldest examples of experimental film-making in Canada, and it comes with exceptional provenance, being that of Norman McLaren (1914-1987), who possibly gave the film stock to Webber.  This item became the focus of attention in RBSC for its potential as an outstanding historical artefact, and the perfect context for inter-institutional collaboration and exchange of expertise. Soon, Jean Gagnon, Director of the Cinémathèque Québécoise (CQ) in Montreal, became an enthousiastic partner in an endeavour to review the contents of the fragile reel, evaluate its importance and restore it to its original form. Only the CQ had the expertise, equipment and facilities to restore this kind of film. The McGill University Library is grateful to all those involved for their efforts in making this project a success. In fact, the CQ, represented by Marco de Blois, had the occasion to celebrate this restoration in April 2012 in Beijing, China, at the International Federation of Film Archives Conference. Today for the first time, a “low-resolution” copy reformatted onto DVD is available for consultation at the CAC, while the “high-resolution version is viewable by appointment at the CQ.

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