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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

A history mystery

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Over a year ago, the Nova Scotia Archives began a pretty standard scanning project. We have close to 100,000 images on our website and every year we add thousands more… that amounts to many, many hours spent scanning.

The photos in question were nitrate negatives, not prints. Nitrate refers to a type of film base. It was one of the first transparent bases made available commercially, way back in the 1880s. Photos developed from nitrate negatives are gorgeous, but there is a bit of a problem with the base—it is extremely flammable and has been known to auto-ignite. It was used as a motion picture film base, too, and its flammable qualities have been immortalized in Cinema Paradiso and Inglourious Basterds.

So, with great caution, we set about digitizing a collection of negatives from half a dozen or so photographers dating back to the 1890s.

The photographer that we hired to work with the negatives worked for weeks to digitize the collections. When she was done, she brought a few of us together for a “slideshow” of what she felt were the best items in the collection. That’s when we realized two things:

1. These photos were exceptional. You could also call them beautiful, awe-inspiring, moving, brilliant, amazing, and many other terms. They are stunning pieces of history and most of them hadn’t been seen by anyone in almost a century.

2. Many of the photos were taken outside of Nova Scotia and were missing titles, captions, dates, locations, and so forth.

It was clear that we wanted to share these amazing photos with the world, but a traditional exhibit didn’t seem to do them justice. We decided to involve the public in tracing the history of these photos through a crowdsourcing project on the photo-sharing website Flickr.

By adding a tag or a comment on Flickr you can help the archives deduce where and when these photos were taken… and who is in them. This collection is largely focused on two things: striking scenery and groups of people. The people in the frame are what makes these photos different—they are laughing, jumping, touching, grinning, and moving. They give an emotive quality to these photos that you don’t often get with older prints. They make this collection very special indeed.

So, have a look and leave a comment if you want to add your voice to the group of researchers already lending a hand in tracing the history of these photos. Or just browse through them and enjoy their distinctive beauty. It’s up to you.


One comment

  1. Wow, those photos really are hauntingly beautiful, especially the abandoned buildings. Thanks for sharing and good luck with identification