The Mennonite Heritage Village Museum in Steinbach held a special “I Love to Read” Author’s Night Thursday, February 15 where two local authors read from their books. Brad Klassen author of the Junior Bear series, and Marilyn Dueck "Grandma's Garden". As well, two local historians unveiled a book filled with photographs of Mennonite life in the early 1900s.

Professional world-renown wildlife photographer from Kleefeld, Dennis Fast, was particularly interested in the latter for a personal reason. His father’s images can be seen in the book, which has also been turned into a travelling exhibit. "Mennonite Village photography - Views from Manitoba 1890-1940".

Andrea Klassen, Senior Curator at the MHV, together with several others have spent the past 9 years researching, compiling and completing the project which can now be seen in the Gerhard Enns Gallery, at the MHV.

Fast attended the event and responds to seeing the gallery and his father's images on the walls, “You know, it's really quite amazing when you grow up, as I did on the farm, you don't think of him (your dad) as a talented person, right? And in that artistic sense and although he wasn't really an artistic photographer, he was more about documenting what was happening in his life and in the family life. And now, when I look at those pictures, I realized, you know, how much value there is in them.”

“I think he'd be quite amazed to see that his photographs were up on a wall somewhere in an exhibition.”

Fast smirks when he says a large black and white print of his uncle. "This is my uncle Neil here; my dad's half-brother is playing the guitar. I guess it was an early attempt, I guess of a double exposure.”

He notes there were other images in his father’s photography collection that looked experimental. Although often a picture is worth a thousand words, Fast now wishes he would have asked his parents more questions about what life was like growing up, who the people were in the photographs he still has and what they were doing.

As to how his father’s images came to be in the exhibit, Fast says he was asked to submit some. “They just asked me to submit a whole bunch and I did probably submit 100 or whatever, but you know they can't do it all.” Fast says he only submitted negatives. “There was a whole bunch of glass negatives, because originally photographs were shot on glass.” He adds, he also donated his father’s camera and light meter to the exhibit, which can be seen in a display case in the gallery.

Fast says, this is a great way to remember his father and everything he accomplished. He says his dad and brothers also invented machinery. Photographs of some of their pieces are also in the gallery. “They didn't just build this machine (tractor attachment) used to building roads and ditches, but many other machines as well. He was really quite an amazing person.”

During the evening, Conrad Stoesz from the Mennonite Heritage Archives in Winnipeg talked more in-depth about the “Mennonite Village Photography” exhibit.

Stoesz says that the idea for the traveling exhibit and subsequently a book, came about when glass negatives were discovered in a barn in the heritage village of Neubergthal, Manitoba in 2015. Though it took a few years, the negatives were not forgotten, and Susie Fisher of Altona put a group together made up of experts in the fields of history, museums, archives and graphic design.  

Stoesz says the group decided to search for other photographers from the early 1900’s and found four gentlemen, two from East Reserve and two from West Reserve. He says they also decided on the criteria on which images would be used in the exhibit and the book as there were literally hundreds of photos to choose from.

“Usually, we think of photographs that are good quality, that are sharp and focus, but here we did not want to make that our lake criteria. We also want to show process, images of play, of experimentation, of unique subject matter.”

Stoesz says they talked about colorizing them, retouching the imperfections. “We talked about whether to take out the cracks. These are plates are glass, and over time some of them are damaged. There are cracks so do we fix that?”

After much discussion, Stoesz says, “We decided to let the images speak for themselves.” 

Then came the question of how large the images for the exhibit could be printed. “The resolution you get from these large negatives is quite remarkable. In the book, we opted for a large photo photograph as you could tell from the size of the book, and in the exhibit, you'll also see that we opted for large. Some are life-size photos (8ft by 6ft tall) that were able to be produced because of the good quality, large negatives, that were created some of the many decades ago.” 

Senior Curator at the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach, Andrea Klassen talked about the four photographers whose work is being featured in the exhibit.

“Peter H Klippenstein from Altbergthal, Peter G Hamm from Neubergthal, Johann E Funk from Schoenwiese and Heinrich D Fast from Gruenfeld (Kleefeld).

Klassen noted that Dennis Fast's father, Henry D Fast’s took up photography as a young man. “He used a #3A Autographic Kodak Junior camera, which is on display together with his Watkins Bee light meter. The glass and film negatives from which the photographs in the exhibit were printed have been well preserved by his son, Dennis.” 

Klassen goes on remarking about many questions those who look at the images may be curious about.

"We see two little boys with the cutest mischievous grins on their faces as they sit on the stairs, surrounded by quite a mess they've made that's all around them as their father snatched their picture. We also wonder about the curious choices made by some of the subjects in the photograph. Why didn't Johann Funk and his wife choose to pause for a formal portrait holding a tiny toy dog? Why did an unnamed woman choose to have her portrait taken while gazing at her hands, which would appear to be severely affected by arthritis? What about the hunting party posing in boulder hats in full formal suits? These questions leave us curious, but in the end, they go unanswered, since much like we do when we take photos today, the photographers didn't leave records about every photo to tell us why they made the choices they did in the photographs. After getting this privilege to look into lives of people from the past, this exhibit leaves us wondering which perhaps isn't such a bad thing either.”

"Mennonite Village Photography - Views from Manitoba 1890 - 1940" will be on display at the Mennonite Heritage Village Museum in Steinbach for the summer, and all authors books will be for sale in the MHV bookstore for purchase.