Interactive feature: From past to pixels

The Reach Gallery Museum’s archives put the a century of history at Abbotsford residents' fingertips

This photo

This photo

On a sunny day more than 37 years after an astronaut and a mayor opened the 16th Abbotsford Airshow, Tricia Taylor leans toward a photo on her computer monitor to learn why the politician is clutching a pair of crutches.

The moment (see photo, at right) once warranted a coveted spot in the front section of that week’s Abbotsford News. But if journalism is the first draft of history, it often shares the same unglamorous fate as first drafts in the literary arts: to be relegated to a filing cabinet, discarded in a trash bin, or forgotten as memories and ideas pile up and decompose under their own weight.

But the photographs and moments that once catalogued the day-to-day life and existence of Abbotsford’s citizens are now reappearing – not on yellowing newsprint but online, in pixels and computer code, thanks to an ambitious project at the Reach Gallery Museum’s archives.

Eventually, Taylor’s boss, Reach collections manager Kris Foulds, will click her mouse and the moment now on the screen will again become as accessible to the family of the astronaut or mayor as it is to The Reach staff.

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Several years ago, the News donated its collection of photographs — including 35 file boxes full of negatives – to the Reach. The pictures give a first-hand look at more than nine decades of history as seen through the eyes of photographers whose job it was to capture a community’s day-to-day life.

But actually cataloguing the massive donation presented its own challenge. As anybody who has used a scanner to digitize a single photo knows, the process is laborious. Imagine doing so tens of thousands of times, and attaching information to each file to ensure the picture can later be searched for and found.

That was the task faced by Foulds and company.

“These photographs are just a phenomenal resource for this community to have, especially with the context that goes along with them,” she says. “But if there’s no way that they can easily find it, then it serves no purpose.”

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For the last two summers, University of the Fraser Valley history student David Seymour was assigned the unglamorous work of scanning the images.

Seymour did more than that though, taking on many of the same tasks a photo editor would have done in the era.

Photographers – even those who snapped shutters before 16-gigabyte memory cards and 10-frame-per-second digital drives – have always taken more pictures than appear in your newspaper. It’s Seymour’s job to choose a negative roll’s best pictures (for reasons of space and newsworthiness, they’re not always the one that appear in the paper). After digitizing a photo using a high-end scanner, he turns to a computer to adjust the lighting and contrast of the picture, recreating the darkrooms of the 20th century.

“For some it’s quite a monotonous job, it is quite repetitive, but it does exact a high amount of concentration,” he said. “There are a lot of déjà vu moments.”

From Seymour, the photos move on to Taylor, a UFV history grad who files the pictures and attaches any pertinent information.

By the time she’s done with the photo of the astronaut and the mayor, Taylor will learn that Matsqui mayor Harry DeJong had injured his ankle at a community picnic prior to the event, while the astronaut, James Irwin, had become the eighth person to set foot on the moon six years prior.

Both Taylor and Seymour are self-confessed history nuts who say the monotony of digging through thousands of photographs is countered by the thrill of discovery that comes with a close reading of history.

There are names that come up again and again and intersect in interesting ways, they say.

“You realize how many different families are related – distant, but related,” Taylor said.

And the multicultural growth of Abbotsford also comes to the surface as faces and names from different countries and cultures appear in photos and the accompanying information.

“I just like learning about people, different cultures and why things are the way they are and the reasons behind them.”

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Today, more than 22,000 photographs are searchable online by a variety of categories. Many include information from the newspaper or from people who have been able to add their first-hand knowledge to the public record.

All this work though, takes time and money.

For five years, The Reach has received funds from the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre’s BC History Digitization Program. That, along with funding from the Canada Job Grant, has helped employ students and part-time workers to bring long-lost photographs into the digital world.

Foulds knows how a forgotten photograph can become something more.

In the 1990s, when she was working at MSA Museum, Foulds purchased a print of a particularly distinctive 1947 photograph of a large group of schoolchildren protesting a rise in chocolate bar prices.

(Easing of wartime price controls led to an overnight increase from five to eight cents for a bar. Protesters held signs with slogans like “Don’t Buy 8¢ Bars” and “HECK with 8¢ BARS.”)

One day, her visiting mother-in-law asked her about the picture.

“Do you recognize anybody?” she asked.

Foulds didn’t, of course. She just liked the picture.

“Well, that one right there,” her mother-in-law said, pointing to a small girl, “That’s me.”

That led to a first-hand account that the schoolchildren’s protest was broken up by a police officer who called the kids “anarchists,” sent them home and threatened to call their parents.

This was many years ago, before the Internet revolutionized the way we collect, share and organize music, words and photographs.

With the digitization of thousands of photographs, Foulds says that sense of rediscovery has become vastly more accessible to the general public. Now, genealogists, family members and historians from around the world can access the trove of photos day and night.

An that only helps increase the information available online and Abbotsford’s awareness and understanding of its own rich heritage.

Family members in particular, Foulds says, are a valuable resource.

“They are really delighted to have those photos there and quite often they have an experience or knowledge about that photo that isn’t available through any other resource.”

That second draft of history awaits.

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Use the scroller on the photos below for past-and-present photos comparing pictures from The Reach’s archives to how parts of Abbotsford looks today. To access the Reach Gallery Museum’s online archives, visit www.thereach.ca/archives.