Irene Fay: Cataloguing the Collection
Preparing the boxes that arrived full of photographs from the Estate of Irene Fay required the special attention of an archivist. Melissa Bessie worked carefully and diligently to catalogue, digitally scan, and draft condition reports for each of the prints we are offering via FFOTO. It was the focus of her internship with us over the summer of 2021.
Melissa is a masters candidate in Ryerson University's esteemed Film & Photography Preservation and Collections Management program. The Irene Fay project benefited from Melissa's eye for detail and respect for these prints as objects. As part of cataloguing these photographs, Melissa wrote about the process, and I am pleased to share her observations.
Craig D'Arville, FFOTO Co-founder
Cataloguing the Collection, by Melissa Bessie
They arrived in a large crate – six boxes containing 160 of Irene Fay’s photographs, packed carefully by her family. In the middle of a global pandemic, they made it across the border from Boston, Massachusetts to FFOTO’s Toronto home base. I was lucky enough to be tasked with the intimate project of imaging and cataloguing Irene’s work – work that had been sitting tucked away for years following her death, waiting to get the renewed recognition it deserves.
Irene was born in Russia on the eve of the first World War, and after being gifted a Rolleiflex camera after her secondary school graduation she spent the rest of her life photographing the world around her. As I unpacked these boxes, it was clear that Irene must have carried her camera with her everywhere she went. She created intimate photographs of family, friends, things she saw on vacation, and of course food (which she later included in a book called Daybook from a Kitchen Drawer). Whether she knew it or not, Irene created a scrapbook of her life with her camera – a photographic autobiography.
While looking through Irene’s work, I noticed that a large portion of her photographs were small, even pocket-sized in some instances. I recall one particular print from c. 1967 titled “Untitled (Deer in snow)” that came mounted to paper inside a letter-sized envelope. The paper had been cut precisely to fit inside the envelope, as if it were ready to be addressed and mailed at any moment. It felt so personal, and intentional, as most of Irene’s decisions surrounding her work seemed. Tightly cropped compositions and small prints were often mounted to board much larger than the prints themselves, suggesting the delicacy of the tiny photographs and importance that Irene must have assigned to them. She once said, “Perhaps it is my dream to possess a perfectly arranged miniature world of my own, always at my command” – and I think she did just that.
Among the most striking consistencies across Irene’s work can be found in her prints, which make it clear that she was a master in the darkroom. Often dodging and burning her images to create bold contrast between the blacks and whites, Irene placed as much importance on her compositions as she did with her finished prints. Her 1979 print titled “On the Line - The Night” (FF-IFE-0050C) is a beautiful example of her darkroom technique – a white nightgown draped over a clothesline is given a ghostly aura, glowing in the darkness. Irene created several photographs for her “On The Line” series, each of which radiate a similar ethereal atmosphere. From the same year, “Emilie's Hair, Naples, Florida” (FF-IFE-0086C) is a portrait of a woman - her chic, white bob in strong contrast to the darkness around her. Perhaps Irene’s work can be interpreted as finding glimpses of light in the darkness of the world, or perhaps she just had a keen compositional eye. Whichever way you look at it, it’s clear that Irene’s work had intention behind it from the moment she snapped the shutter, to the moment she hung her prints to dry.
One thing I can say for certain, as I was cataloguing Irene’s photographs alone in the quiet basement of the gallery, is that I felt Irene’s presence in all her work, as if she was right there with me. Her handwritten notes on the front and back of her work (sometimes with a date scratched out and corrected), her guiding pencil marks, just barely visible, indicating where to mount the print, and even some uneven cuts that suggest she did most of her mounting herself. These little quirks humanized Irene for me – someone who I had never met, yet I felt as if I was flipping through her family album right alongside her.
Her work not only tells a story (sometimes quite literally, through the notes she left behind on the back of her prints), but it also resonates with universal, collective memories that many of us share. Her photographs of the Yorkshire Moors remind me of trips I would take with my parents each summer as a kid, exploring the landscape of Northern Ontario. Images from her “On The Line” series sparked memories of visiting my grandparents’ trailer in Muskoka as a young child – throwing my wet swimsuit on the line to dry after a swim in the lake.
I hope that when you see Irene’s work, her photographs resonate with you as they did with me - whether that means sparking memories of your own, or a more formal admiration of her compositional eye and darkroom techniques. It’s been a privilege being part of the process of reintroducing Irene’s photography to collectors, and I look forward to seeing these pieces find a renewed life in new homes among collectors and photography enthusiasts everywhere.
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