Newspapers are so much more than a means of providing the news of the day.
Through the diligent, dedicated work of its reporters and photographers, newspapers also provide an oral and photographic record of history taking place for posterity. Future generations of journalists, researchers and authors could rely on finding historical perspective through a newspaper’s extensive archives, where written copy, old photos and past issues are available via countless files, bound copies or microfiches.
The Montreal Gazette is no exception.
Since 1778, The Gazette has not only been Montreal’s English-language paper of record of the news of Canada and the rest of the world, but its team of reporters, illustrators and photographers have been a permanent chronicler of the evolution of Montreal as a hub of commerce, an open city, a city of champions and an international city. And those vast quantities of news photos that made such photographers as Aussie Whiting, Tedd Church, Gordon Beck, Michel Dugas and Len Sidaway an integral part of the paper’s newsroom were stored in its vast archives.
When the Gazette’s editorial offices were about to move to its current St. Catherine Street location in the summer of 2019, there was a daunting, uphill task that dealt with selecting which photos in the collection would make the move and which ones would be good for the garbage. And what made it even more difficult was the fact that these tangible photos were shot with the greatest care as if it were being painted on canvas. Its unique photographic aesthetics has richly told the story of Montreal’s history for over a century, and digitizing them would certainly not do them any justice.
That dilemma became the genesis of “History Through Our Eyes”, a daily feature that ran in the pages of The Gazette throughout 2019. Gazette editor-in-chief Lucinda Chodan and editorial page editor Edie Austin teamed up to dig through the voluminous archives to find those photos that defined Montreal’s history and character – and the stories behind them – for this feature, in a day-by-day calendar format.
For those who never missed the daily installments in the paper, or for those who caught it sporadically when leafing through an edition of The Gazette, the 365 entries that made up the “History Through Our Eyes” feature is now available in an impressive soft cover, coffee table book format.
Let me say right off the bat that this book is a fascinating, addictive one. You will be both informed and entertained as you flip through the book to see what event was covered that fell on your birthday, anniversary or any other milestone day.
Chodan and Austin has done the impossible by looking through over a century’s worth of news photos to come up with 365 of the most significant or unusual photos that would make up the feature and the subsequent book. And there is a terrific mix of both.
Of course, the significant events that made up Montreal’s history are spotlighted, such as the Laurier Palace Theatre fire of 1927, Expo 67, the October Crisis, the Ice Storm of 1998, the Flood of 1987, the Montreal Expos’ race for the 1981 National League pennant, the inauguration of the Metro, the Lachine gas explosion of 1965, the 1980 and 1995 referendums, the Richard Riot of 1955, and the many Montreal Canadiens Stanley Cup championships.
And to give the right blend of the lesser known and the light-hearted, there are plenty of entries that represent those two aspects. For example, the “victory parade” that was held for the Montreal Alouettes after they lost to the Edmonton Eskimos in the 1955 Grey Cup game; American comedy duo Cheech and Chong pictured at a Montreal park on a snowy day in 1973, as they recorded their hit album “Los Cochinos” at the Sounds of Quebec studios in the east end; an aerial view of Decarie Boulevard in 1962, just before the construction of the Decarie Expressway commenced; a 1954 portrait of some of the members of the Maple Leaf Pipe Smoking Club exercising the fine art of communal pipe smoking; a young Chuck Connors as one of the star players of the 1948 Montreal Royals baseball club, a decade before he became a Hollywood star in the lead role of the hit TV western series “The Rifleman”; the visit to Montreal of the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII and Duke of Windsor) in 1919; and the Boxing Day tradition of the long line of bargain hunters outside the Sam the Record Man store on St. Catherine Street West.
And every photo in the book is so well complemented with the accompanying texts by Chodan and Austin, which are diligently researched and crisply written, so that the reader gets the full story behind the photos in an informative, yet economic, manner.
If you want a book that is not your run-of-the-mill illustrated history of Montreal, then History Through Our Eyes is that book. It is a wonderful appreciation of the art of news photography as a chronicler, and silent witness, to a great city’s great history. (Vehicule Press, $39.95).