I recently had the opportunity to visit the Canadian Forces Operational and Technical Imagery Centre (OPTIC) located at building M-23 on the NRC Campus off Montreal Rd. in Ottawa. I had previously been out to M-23 back in 2006 when, as an acting Archivist at Library & Archives Canada (LAC), I happened across an article in The Citizen entitled, “It’s a Race Against Time: The Fight to Save Canada’s Military Treasures” written by Lee Berthiaume (ironically, during the tour I would spot that same Citizen article on a noticeboard).
At the time, one of my duties as an Archivist, was to work on collections within LAC and, to address requests from the general public on donations of potential value to our nation’s history. However, in this case, with my background as a Film Conservator, I became instantly concerned when the author of the article, Lee Berthiaume wrote, “Inside the nondescript National Research Council building M-23, a chunk of Canada’s proud military history is in danger of being lost.”
Curious to see the conditions of the film vaults firsthand, I contacted the Citizen and was put in touch with the author of the article, Mr. Berthiaume, who provided me with contact info for Sgt. Serge Tremblay, Officer Commanding A Squadron, Canadian Forces Joint Imagery Centre (CFJIC), National Research Council, building M-23. With this, I was able to book an appointment through Sgt. Serge Tremblay to visit the facility on the afternoon of June7th, 2006.
At the time, CFJIC was home to the Department of National Defence’s (DND) complete collection of photographic still images, dating back to the early 1920’s. Along with the scores of negatives, were the tens of thousands of caption cards, which contained a short descriptive text of the matching photographic negatives.
Of real concern was a fridge in the vault area that held still images exhibiting vinegar syndrome (For more information on this topic, click HERE) At the time, these images were being restored according to their importance. Stored in the basement were the audio-visual vaults containing an extensive collection of motion picture films, video and audio material. The Citizen article cited 45,000 film ‘reels’.
In need of immediate attention were the 3/4” videotapes. I was told that a ‘substantial amount’ is deteriorating, and in need of being transferred to new more accessible and stable video formats. But, that was then, and much has happened since I last visited building M-23 in 2006.
Today, fourteen years later, the many thousands of negatives and films are mostly gone, having been transferred to Library & Archives Canada for long term preservation. Eager to reconnect and see what has changed since my last visit, I reached out to an old contact at DND, who connected me with Chief Petty Officer 1st Class (CPO 1) Shawn M. Kent. CPO 1 Shawn M. Kent is currently the Senior Image Tech in the Canadian Armed Forces and works as the Public Affairs Branch CWO. Chief PO Shawn Kent also sits on the MILFOTO board for retired and serving Military Photographers and Videographers. Also joining us during my walking tour of the facility was, Warrant Officer Jean-François Lauzé.
Standing in the lobby, one can’t help but notice the portraits of many of the Combat Photographers lined up the staircase to the second floor. There is also a fascinating display case of all of the different types of cameras that have been used by the Canadian Forces over the years. Proudly displayed in the foyer along the staircase is an award/memorial dedicated to Master Corporal Darrell Priede;
“Master Corporal Darrell Jason Priede, a military image technician serving with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Regional Command (South) headquartered at Kandahar Airfield, was killed when the Chinook helicopter he was a passenger in crashed in Kajaki, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, on May 30, 2007…In honour of Master Corporal Priede, the Canadian Armed Forces have instituted the Master Corporal Darrell J. Priede Top Candidate Award for the seven-week Army News Course which began in the fall of 2007.” Credit: Veteran Affairs Canada. For more details click HERE
Moving through the building, I couldn’t happen but notice how much history there is behind the Unit’s beginnings. As I took a picture of both CPO 1 Shawn M. Kent and Warrant Officer Jean-François Lauzé, I noticed they were posed on each side of a historical diorama, entitled “75 Years Proud”. Here is what it read;
“75 Years Proud
The Unit’s beginnings originated in 1921 with the establishment of a photo section under the Air Board. This first photo section worked out of the Elgin Cottage on Albert Street. It provided camera operators and processing facilities in support of the federal mapping and survey program.
In 1927, with an increase commitment to air surveys resulting in an need to expand processing facilities, the section moved to the 8th floor of the Jackson building, on Bank Street.
In 1936, under the relief programs of the thirties, the government built a new facility in Rockcliffe to permanently house the photo section. Officially known as Building # 2 , this new structure was affectionately dubbed “The White House.” Throughout the years the unit was known as No.1 Photographic Establishment, RCAF Photographic Establishment and the Canadian Forces Photographic Unit.
In 1995, the unit moved to its present location at the National Research Council Campus. Today, the Unit carries out conventional photographic work and digital imagery in support of operations. The CF Photographic Unit is strongly committed to digital technology. It remains in the forefront of the latest technological advances and has already proved its expertise in various operational situations.”
Given the nondescript facade of building M-23 from the outside, I was taken with the many components that make up the OPTIC imagery centre. Of special note was the Supply Section. Protected behind a caged wall, were some of the modern equipment utilized by Imagery Technicians in the field. I was also pleased to see that OPTIC also stays on top of the latest gear and photographic equipment, devoting personnel whose job it is to review and test many of the new technologies, in order to keep our Canadian Image Techs equipped with the latest hardware and software in order to perform their duties at optimum proficiency.
Another section of note at OPTIC is the National Defence Imagery Library. Archivists are on hand to help clients in locating imagery and historical video products held in their library. Even though many, if not all, of the imagery has been transferred to Library & Archives Canada, OPTIC continues the tradition of serving the Forces and general public in locating relevant imagery as needed.
At one point in the tour I had to stop when I noticed a portrait hanging along the hallway; I saw a large mounted print of Private Mathew Heath shot by the late combat cameraman, Captain Paul J. Tomelin. Hanging in the halls of OPTIC was one of Capt. Tomelin’s most famous shots, titled The Face of War, depicting the young and bloodied face of Private Heath Mathews, C. Company, of the Royal Canadian Regiment. Shot during the summer of 1952, during the Korean War, I was able to discuss this photo with Mr. Tomelin in 2014, and wrote a post about it HERE;
On our way to tour the vaults, we came across an odd wall display and I had to stop and ask about it. Displayed behind a glass enclosed frame on the wall, was a couple of old rolls of Kodak branded photographic film. A small card within captioned the contents. It was yet another example of the long and fascinating history of the Canadian Forces Photographic Unit;
“Film & Data sheets found 25 July 55 among the rafters near the roof of #12 Hanger. Evidently this films was left by the R.F.C. or R.A.F. on departure from Camp Borden in 1918.”
Moving our way down into the basement, we came across some of the climate controlled film and video vaults. Surprising me was a shelf of historical motion picture film cans dating back to WWII. Taped to the lid of one of them were the dates, and sortie numbers for what must be the related images inside the can. It was all I could do to not ask to open the can to see what lay within!
As the tour wrapped up, I was extremely warmed and pleased to see that all of the walls within OPTIC were adorned with countless examples of the work of the many imagery technicians deployed around the world and across Canada.
As the tour comes to its end, I am struck by the words displayed on one of the many displays featured along the hallways;
“2005-Present – As A Sqn moves into the future, the unit is required to continually embrace new technology and determine how to best utilize it to meet the needs of the CF. The images in this montage represent the diversity of the Image Tech today be it operations overseas or domestic. This poses enormous challenges in terms of cost and training. The Image Tech of today must be computer savvy and adaptable, with an emphasis on self development. He or she must be highly skilled, able to easily adapt to adverse conditions and work on their own. Today A Sqn is operationally ready and yearly deploys Image techs in support of Intelligence operations in Afghanistan. The Image Techs of A Sqn have fully embraced digital technology in all facets of their work and continue to prepare for the future. The three sections of A Sqn, the Libraries, Ops Support/ Training and Test and Evaluation, and finally Production/Customer Service all work in unison to meet the mandate of the unit and enhance their proud heritage of the past.”