“Vancouver Jobless Smash Post Office Windows”, c. 1938
Silver gelatin print
25.4 x 20.32 cm.
On May 20, 1938, over 600 jobless men occupied Vancouver’s central post office – what is today the Sinclair Centre. The Great Depression had flattened Canada’s economy, and the federal and provincial governments had compounded the desperate plight of the unemployed across the country when they ceased funding relief camps—which had hitherto provided housing and work opportunities—earlier that year. A post office sitdown was organised to protest the governments’ lack of effort. Lasting for a month, it came to an end on June 19 – a day now memorialised as “Bloody Sunday” – when RCMP and city constables, armed with truncheons and tear gas, brutally evicted the protesters. The police mounted their attack early in the morning, hoping to avoid a spectacle. Thankfully, photographers from Vancouver’s newspapers were at the ready. This unique gelatin silver print, captioned and modified for press publication, captured that historic morning.
Rare prints such as this one are not only important historical artefacts; the print’s materiality underscores the necessary ways images have been used, and their role in how histories are written. In this photograph, bold outlines have been inked around the figures’ contours, bolster in the picture’s graphic quality in anticipation of the degraded quality of its reproduction in the next day’s newsprint. There is an uncanny quality to the men cringing in reaction to tear gas, hunched in the frame of a smashed window, their soft features and textures undulating between rigid black lines, as though collaged into the image. Each sensationalist detail is highlighted in a stark reminder that images are mediated for particular ends.
As newspaper archives move to digital formats, the material qualities of photographs as both aesthetic objects and historical documents are rapidly changing. In this milieu, it is no surprise that rare original prints such as these are now sought-after by museums and private collectors: their marked-up surfaces and tears tell a much more subtle, complicated story than what was written in the newspaper column.