The Anatomy Of A Disaster
An Analysis of Two 1917 Halifax Explosion Blast Cloud Photographs
by Joel Zemel
Project research by Joel Zemel and Pierre Richard
ISBN #978-0-9684920-7-9 © 2009 SVP Productions
Deconstructing the "McNab's Island" Photo:
By comparison, it was not as difficult to discover the context of the boat photo to Pierre's and my satisfaction as the "McNab's Island" photo. For a time, the search for a camera location and context within the photo had us both in a quandary. Something was throwing us off.
It so happened we were using photocopied images for comparative study ("McNab's Island" from NSARM online and Ferguson's Cove provided as a photocopy also from NSARM). However, the "McNab's Island" image appeared larger; it was tightly cropped and in an 11" x 8.5" format. Not much of the tree line is visible unlike the Ferguson's Cove photo which was in an 8.5" x 11" format which provided us with a wider vista whereby much of the land in the foreground and background is visible. In this image though, the blast cloud naturally looks smaller. Our error was simple, even understandable I suppose - but it led to inaccurate assumptions.
We had assumed, for example, that the McNab's photo had been taken from a closer location than the Ferguson's Cove/York Redoubt photo. However, had this been so, the blast cloud would have appeared much larger in the frame relative to the natural foliage in the foreground. When close attention is paid to this aspect, all is relatively equal in both images.
When it appeared we were just going in circles, I began to suspect this was the problem and subsequently confirmed it after I scanned the Ferguson's Cove photocopy and looked at both photographs side by side on my computer screen. Once the adjustments were made, it was easy to correct our sense of perspective and concentrate more on the conformity between the two photographs.
Despite the resolution of this problem, there was still the matter of perspective relating to the object in the lower right of the McNab's photo compared to the rest of the image.
- Who took the "McNab's Island" photo?
In several of our conversations, Pierre and I had tossed around the idea that the Ferguson's Cove/York Redoubt and the "McNab's Island" photos may have been taken by military personnel. It was even possible that the mysterious Captain Baird, who is on record as having developed the "McNab's Island" photo, might have taken it, as well. Jeanne Howell, librarian at the Cambridge Military Library, offered to help track down Captain Baird by going through The Quarterly Militia List of 1917 with me. However, without any given names, and lacking any clues as to whether his rank denoted his standing in the army, the navy, the merchant service, etc., we could not hope to identify the individual from the cursory search we conducted.
It was rather frustrating not being able to find photographs of anything that resembled a railing/wall that might have been at York Redoubt or any of the other batteries and forts around Halifax. We thought we would go to the Citadel Museum to see if there were any photographs or records of the interior of York Redoubt near the gates in 1917. Before we had a chance to do this, however, I made an interesting discovery.
I had gone to NSARM to take another look at the xeroxed photo record book of the Halifax Explosion. I was surprised by an image I noticed that I had previously missed. It was a postcard photo that bore a close resemblance to the blast cloud in the "McNab's Island" photo and was credited to Halifax photographers, Cox and Cox. I had seen it elsewhere in newspaper clippings but was never able to find it on the internet and didn't know that it had been housed at NSARM for decades. I immediately asked if I could view the original.
The postcard, which was not in very good condition, was glued onto a piece of green cardboard with three other postcard photos depicting the aftermath of the explosion - all by Cox Bros. Co.. Underneath the blast cloud card was written "Looking Northward". Later, upon close examination of both the original "McNab's Island" and Cox Bros. Co. images together, I was able to view both images with much better perspective:
The dual image below left allows for general comparisons. The image to the right is a superimposition showing the convenient placement of the cloud and caption over the railing/vents:
The button below will open a new window so the overlayed images can be flipped back and forth to demonstrate that the photograph and the post card were derived from the same source.
Garry D. Shutlak, Senior Reference Archivist from NSARM, offers the following background on the Cox Bothers:
I don't deny that this turn of events brought with it some measure of disappointment but I can't say it was unexpected. Photographic prints sold as commercial post cards should always be highly suspect. Photographic manipulation and retouching were and still are commonplace. They are simply methods of achieving optimal effect for public consumption. As an example, I've seen many respected brand name guitar catalogues from the 1920's and 30's where the images of the instruments had been highly retouched and an exaggerated far beyond their true appearance.
From an historical point of view, even the slightest hint of alteration or manipulation takes away an image's significance. It would certainly preclude it from being viewed as a truly accurate or factual document even if provenance can be established - there would always be doubt.
This blast cloud image has demonstrated the importance of not taking photographs at face value; what is seen is not always representative of the whole truth whether the images are from 1917-18 or from 2009.
- Did Cox Bros. Co. actually take the photograph of the blast cloud for their post card?
According to information found in "Ground Zero", The postcard (number 29), "THE IMMENSE SMOKE CLOUDS FROM EXPLOSION", was one of several known Halifax Explosion postcards published by Cox Bros. Co.. Figure 4 on page 145, shows a Cox Bros. advertisement which claims that the prints are original. However, the ad makes no claim that any or all of their prints or photographs are taken by photographers employed at Cox Bros. Co.. Their exact phrase is as follows: "We can also supply Original Prints or Mounted Photographs of any of our Post Card Views;". The outside of one of their envelopes in the same Figure 4, states that the Post Cards were "Published by Cox Bros. Co.".
Photo from "Heart Throbs of the Halifax Horror" by Stanley K. Smith (1918)
Image from "A Vision of Regeneration" - NSARM.
It is possible that employees of Cox Bros. Co. photographed all of the material they released as post cards of the aftermath of the Halifax Explosion. However, this can not be said with certainty when it comes to the photograph of the blast cloud. It is unlikely that a Cox Bros. photographer was conveniently on standby at York Redoubt at the exact time of the explosion.
It is well within reason to suppose that Cox Bros. Co., in the course of doing business, would have occasionally purchased negatives and/or photos from independent sources. They would have most likely jumped at the chance to purchase this particular photograph - especially with its graphic depiction of the blast cloud and the historic magnitude of the Halifax Explosion. To make certain the blast cloud was the main focus of interest, the distracting object in the lower right corner was replaced with a large cloud.
There are no other known post cards or photographs published by Cox Bros. & Co. depicting the fire that raged at least twenty minutes before the explosion, the explosion itself or the blast cloud afterward - only this one image.
Regardless of the photographic manipulations, we concluded that Point Pleasant Park was not the camera location due to inconsistencies with the lay of the land and that the photograph was most likely taken in the vicinity of Ferguson's Cove/York Redoubt.
It was doubtful we could ever find an original unaltered negative or photograph from which these two prints were taken. Therefore, we deemed it pointless to pursue the provenance of the "McNab's Island"/Cox and Cox blast cloud image any further.*
*See Page 6, Item 3a for an update: an unexpected find in The Herald appears to be a copy of the original photograph from which the "McNab's Island" and Cox Bros. images were taken.
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Faces of the Halifax Explosion Debunking the 13 Mile Myth
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