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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Negotiating vernacular community : the photographic archive of Métis activist James P. Brady Dickson, Laura


The Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta houses an archive containing over one thousand photographs and over four thousand paper documents from the estate of Métis activist James Patrick Brady. The photographs remain separate from the rest of the documents in the Brady fonds, and are thus prevented from participating in the same kind of work that the thousands of other documents are thought to do. This thesis examines a series of photographs Brady took between 1949 and 1951 of individuals living and working in Cumberland House, Saskatchewan as a case study for considering the potential for vernacular photography to negotiate a type of unofficial citizenship to community on the social and political periphery. In The Inoperative Community, theorist Jean-Luc Nancy points to an inherent contradiction in the prevailing definition of communities as enclosed entities to the exclusion of what is outside; he argues there always remain social and political interactions at the limits of communities. Métis communities have historically been denied inclusion in official political and constitutional legislation by way of their exclusion from officially recognized First Nations and non-Aboriginal groups. But here is where Nancy notes a contradiction: is not an official un- recognition in effect an unofficial recognition? I suggest that the portraits at Cumberland House thus represent and negotiate this unofficial recognition, and constitute an unofficial or vernacular community. Art historian Geoffrey Batchen argues in Each Wild Idea that a vernacular photograph’s “idiosyncratic morphologies refuse to comply with the coherent progression of styles and technical innovations demanded by masters and transcendent aesthetic achievements, and disrupt its smooth Euro-American prejudice.” It is this disruption that Batchen identifies in the nature of vernacular photographs that coincides with the disruption of the “smooth Euro-American” prescription and negation of the identities and rights of Aboriginal and specifically Métis communities that is reflected, negotiated and enacted in and by Brady’s photographs.

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