Did you always know you wanted to become a visual researcher?
This is a great question. Although I never targeted “visual researcher” as a career per se, once I began doing the work, it felt like the natural culmination of all my past interests and jobs. From an undergraduate degree in film studies, to working and writing behind the scenes in American public TV and radio and, finally, doing a fashion-history Masters at NYU and teaching, it was as though I was finally able to throw myself into a world that celebrated all these elements. Although a focused approach to researching visual materials is critical, it’s wonderful when some seemingly arcane factoid – be it historical, related to pop culture or current events – sparks an idea that lends added depth and creativity to how I pursue my work. If I hit a roadblock in unearthing some important content, I find myself wondering, “What other angle can I view this from? What other archival sources will this lead me to if I put the subject into a wider context?” All to say, having a strong grasp on a wide range of topics as opposed to expertise in just one or two has come in very handy.
As a frequent lecturer, what do you think is the best way to pass on archival research know-how?
My lecture topics are always related to fashion history, not archival research, but when it comes to effectively imparting any kind of knowledge or experience, I think it’s key to understand who your audience is. Giving an individual or an audience too much information is doing them a disservice. I am a huge believer in putting information into context, because not only does it make concepts simpler to grasp, it also renders topics that many would have initially shied away from interesting. One of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received came after I’d delivered a lecture on 1940s fashion. A man who I assume had been dragged there by his wife said, “You made a topic I never thought I would find interesting, interesting!”
You are a member of the Visual Researchers’ Society of Canada. How does being part of this organization help you in your work?
Being part of the Visual Researchers’ Society has been terrific for me in that it makes what can be a very solitary profession much less isolating. I especially like being able to reach out to fellow members with a question, glean insight from their expertise and knowledge, and also help others when and where I can. I’m currently serving on a jury for a FOCAL International award, something I likely wouldn’t be doing if I hadn’t joined the VRSC. I’m watching these films in a more critical way and I find myself inspired by the quality and creativity of the archives used within them.
Can you give us a peak into a Canadian archival source we shouldn’t miss?
Calgary’s Glenbow Museum has superb archival and library databases related mostly to Western Canada. The photo archives alone boast over 100,000 items and the collection is still in the process of being digitized! I’m also a fan of Montreal’s McCord Museum of Canadian History’s online archives. The William Notman photo collection alone is wonderful.
Since you have worked on 150th Anniversary of Canada to only cite one example, is there a specific area you like to cover?
All topics that are history related are right up my alley. I love illustrating the connections between the fashions of any given period with aspects of the wider culture of the times such as music, politics, technology or architecture. The BBC has a knack for presenting programming that shows historical subject matter in a really engaging way. That’s exactly how I like to approach it.
What have been your favourite projects to work on?
The Opium Wars project was a short project but fascinating. I’d have loved to delve much deeper into the subject matter. I worked on a series about unique freight trains and I was surprised how much I enjoyed learning about them and their history. Schnabel cars are fascinating – really! I got to take on so many tasks while working on that series, and although it was overwhelming at times, it was a great experience.
We’re curious to know what kind of project you’re working on right now?
It’s quiet on the work front right now – too quiet! I’m looking hard for my next contract, something familiar to most freelancers, I imagine. I am also working on my own proposal related to the History of costume design. It’s a first for me and I’m learning as I go. It’s a challenging process, but the subject matter is fascinating.