Picturing the past: How an American photographer captured 1970s NB

Picturing the past: How an American photographer captured 1970s NB

This is the story of a young American photographer who spent a summer in a tiny fishing village and ended up capturing a New Brunswick on the cusp of change. She rediscovered those long-lost photos 50 years later.

In 1972, Melinda Blauvelt had just completed her first year at Yale University, studying for a master’s degree in photography. She was heavily influenced by the rural photography of Walker Evans, her mentor and a photographer known for his black and white photos taken during the Great Depression.

Looking for a rural community where she could explore her passion and hone her skills, she wound up in Brantville, between Neguac and what is now the municipality of Tracadie, on the Acadian Peninsula in northeastern NB

She found the village through the Quebec-Labrador Mission Foundation, which was looking for students to organize and run day camps for children in coastal villages in Canada, she said.

A black and white photograph of a woman standing in front of a house holding a young child, while two other children stand close to her.  There is a large wooden swinging bench on a platform between them and the house.
In the photo of Jeannette and her Children, Thibodeau stands with three of her children in front of their house in Brantville in the early 1970s. (Melinda Blauvelt)

Blauvelt, in her early 20s at the time, jumped at the chance, she said, and was billeted with a host family along with a few others.

Her host family, Ulysse and Jeannette Thibodeau and their children, became family to her and they have stayed in touch over the years.

“Our first impression of our family when we went to the house was just how welcoming and warm they were,” said Blauvelt, who added that they were also a little nervous. Blauvelt and the other volunteers only spoke a little French, and the Thibodeaus a little English.

“The first morning we were awakened by Jeannette with a large tub that she put on the end of my bed filled with lobsters, and for breakfast that morning we had two lobsters each. And then just before we left to go off to run the day camp, they handed us each a lunch with fried egg sandwiches, as she did every day.”

WATCH | Exhibition shows the beauty of everyday life in the Acadian Peninsula:

A 1970s fishing village in NB’s Acadian Peninsula is the subject of a new photo exhibit

The Melinda Blauvelt Brantville Exhibition features the American photographer’s summers spent in the fishing village in the early 70s. The exhibit is staged at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton.

Blauvelt said when she wasn’t helping to run the day camps, or at a family event with the Thibodeaus, she would get to take photos. Her camera was often set up by the house, which was next to a large field.

She used a 4 x 5 view camera, with a wooden box on top and a heavy metal tripod.

“You’ve seen photographs of old-fashioned cameras where the photographer puts the dark cloth – I had a black velvet cloth that went over my head.”

Using the view camera is a deliberate slow process, he said, that requires collaboration with the subject because they have to be willing to be there and be patient, sometimes holding still for minutes at a time.

black and white photo of young woman in night gown standing in 1970s kitchen
Breakfast is part of the exhibit of Melinda Blauvelt’s photography at Fredericton’s Beaverbrook Art Gallery. (Melinda Blauvelt)

“It’s hard to put into words what you’re actually looking for because you don’t necessarily know as a photographer,” said Blauvelt.

“I was looking or anticipating when there might be an expression or a gesture that would be a tension, maybe, or a relationship that would be special and that’s what I was hoping I would be able to show. The people are so generous, so open, the adults, as well as the children.”

Blauvelt took many photos that summer. She also returned several times, including after her graduation from Yale in 1974.

And then the photos were forgotten, as her life and career moved on, until the pandemic struck and she started looking through her archives.

close up photo of middle aged woman smiling with gray hair
Melinda Blauvelt said she contacted a number of people from Brantville about this exhibition and was thrilled to see so many turns up for the opening. (Radio-Canada)

“I pulled out my Brantville work and I’ve always liked it a lot,” she said.

“And then I started going through my negatives and printing some that I’ve never seen before, and got really excited about working with that project. It was a way for me, during the pandemic, where I didn’t see anybody for such a long time, to feel connected and so it was important at all different levels.”

According to John Leroux, manager of collections and exhibitions at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, that is when Blauvelt, who lives in Rhode Island, decided to reach out to see whether there was interest in an exhibit.

black and white photo of young children playing outside unfinished homes in dirt
Children Playing was taken by Blauvelt in 1974 during one of her return trips to Brantville. (Melinda Blauvelt)

Leroux said these photos were taken at a time of change for poorer communities in rural New Brunswick that had been given a boost by the equal opportunity program, introduced by former premier Louis J. Robichaud in the late 1960s.

“Speaking to Melinda, it was less about framing these as individuals who were dealing with poverty,” said Leroux. “But it was more about the sensibility of individuals within a really strong, tightly knit community and a sense of love and support within them.”

Leroux said Brantville looks very different today, but he was struck by how the photos bear clear markers of the time period while remaining almost timeless.

A man with short dark hair looks seriously at the camera.  He is wearing a collared dress shirt with a blue and white pattern, and standing in front of a white gallery wall with art works hung on it.
John Leroux, manager of collections and exhibitions at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, said the gallery quickly made space when he heard about Blauvelt’s photos, which had never been displayed in their entirety before. (Joe MacDonald/CBC)

“It’s half a century ago,” he said. “Some of these feel really immediate and they actually feel like they’re classical as well. It’s that strange sort of tension between photographs that feel very immediate but very distant.”

Blauvelt said he wanted to do the exhibition in part as a belated 80th birthday present to Jeannette Thibodeau. And her reaction?

“She was just over the moon.”

Melinda Blauvelt: Brantville is on display until May 28 at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton.

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