Mar 14, 2024

The treasured archive of Aaron T. Francis

The founder of Vintage Black Canada reflects on four essential photographs from his archive

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Roy Francis, Lady at a Wedding, 1975. Image courtesy of Vintage Black Canada

Over the past five years, Vintage Black Canada has become a widely followed online platform and cherished photographic archive. In 2019, its founder, Aaron T. Francis, set out to pay homage to the photography practice of his late grandfather Roy Francis by digitizing and sharing key works from his vast collection on Instagram. Roy’s candid documentation of Black life in the Kitchener-Waterloo region during the mid to late 20th century struck a chord with online audiences, and Vintage Black Canada quickly evolved into a multimedia initiative. Since then, the archive has been featured in gallery exhibitions, works of public art, and most recently, a documentary film.  

If you’ve visited the exhibition Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950 – Now at the AGO, chances are, you’ve encountered photographs and videos from the Vintage Black Canada archive. Hanging on the walls and in photo albums within the show’s immersive centerpiece, Michael McMillan’s The Front Room, photographs created by Roy Francis help bring to life the room’s fictitious owner – Gloria, a Jamaican-Canadian nurse – and her family in 1980s Scarborough. The concept of McMillian’s Front Room resonated deeply with Aaron, whose family is Jamaican, making their collaboration on the project a perfect fit.   

Below, curator, doctoral researcher and founder of Vintage Black Canada Aaron T. Francis reflects on four treasured photographs from his archive. 

Uncle Erroll in the Den (photographed by Roy Francis in 1970) 

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Roy Francis, Uncle Erroll in the Den, 1970. Image courtesy of Vintage Black Canada

As the oldest of his siblings, my Uncle Erroll is prominently featured in the early images of the family. Just a few years after this image was taken, he moved to Toronto, started a band, won a JUNO, and received several other nominations. I love how this image captures pre-glam Erroll, the British schoolboy version of him I never actually got to know growing up. I only knew the rock god!


Lady at a Wedding (photographed by Roy Francis in 1975) (image at top)

This image came to me late into my archival practice but was well worth the wait. As the “go-to” wedding photographer for Black families in the Waterloo region, my grandfather Roy left me hundreds of ceremony images to sort through, but few come as close to Vintage Black Canada as this one.  Certainly, the individual subject is confident and elegantly glamorous, but I’m also drawn to late 1970s visual cues such as the legion hall wood panels and of course the Queen’s portrait. 


Family Portrait at Parkmount (photographed by Roy Francis in 1978) 

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Roy Francis, Family Portrait at Parkmount, 1978. Image courtesy of Vintage Black Canada

Unlike in many of my grandfather’s early photo sets, I can actually recognize this space. It's the former family basement in Waterloo. I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of the Black basement, serving as a gathering space and cultural refuge during tough times, and as in my family’s case, it also served as the portrait studio. While Roy, as photographer, is unfortunately absent, I still love this image for at least capturing my immediate uncles, my grandmother Muriel and my mom, all dressed in their Sunday best. 


Lionbabe part. 1(unknown photographer, unknown year) 

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Unknown photographer, Lionbabe Pt. 1. Image courtesy of Vintage Black Canada

It took me about half a year but once I had thoroughly combed through and digitized my grandfather’s photographic archives, I turned to my mom and was immediately rewarded with this gem.  Taken in a coin-operated booth, likely at the local mall, it instantly recalled the confident Black punk energy she often exudes so well.   

Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art, 1950s–Now is on view on Level 5 of the AGO until April 1. Check out the Vintage Black Canada archive here on Instagram.


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