More on old photos

Fencer ( commented on one of my posts that made me do a little more thinking about early photography; Suburban life ( commented about an old family photo that I had recently scanned. They got me thinking about the pioneers at the beginning of the 20th Century who immigrated to Canada.

An earlier discussion on this blog concerned the early photographers’ use of the Golden Mean, the Golden Ratio or Divine Proportions, alternative descriptions of a geometrically based compositional method.

As I rummage through and scan family documents to preserve, keep,  and record the family history, I find a mix of professionally taken photographs and then lots of amateurish ones too.

I realized that the advent of photography launched an enormous revolution in the world of imagery. No longer was a middle class or poor family proscribed from having portraits of themselves done. Imagery became affordable for the common person. Previously, a person who wanted to record their family history in imagery had to do it through getting a portrait painted. This was costly (and still is) so most could not afford it. But in the 19th century as photography became more known as a method of recording an image, there were many who found the process fascinating.

Some became professionals, selling their photography from studio shops with props that looked like classical backgrounds for portraits. The sitter had to stay still so long in order to get a sharp picture that their poses looked very formal and dignified. Most photographs were posed with the photographer’s props – a beautiful Gothic styled chair, a rich pelt of wolf or bear; a background of some lovely painted forest. All the sitters took on the aisance and dignity of class that the aspired to (but often as not, could not afford).

As photography improved, people with a penchant for this avant garde method of image making and a modicum of chemical knowledge were able to develop and print their own photography at home in a darkened bathroom or a purpose built room. With the untrained eye, the quality of composition was somewhat haphazard, sometimes good sometimes downright bad. The photos were like our Reality TV programs – what ever was happening in the moment was recorded – but a little less artificially contrived.

The results of this amateur photography are interesting today because they captured a time in our pioneering country’s history with a candidness that had never been available before; and as a result, we have the privilege now, as in no era before us, where we can look back at what our parents and our grandparents were doing, where they were living and capture a fairly explicit feel for their times and their lives.

My grandfather and his brothers came to Canada from Holland in the early days of the 20th Century. They homesteaded in the Interlaken district of Manitoba and then moved to Winnipeg. Although they could provide food sufficient for their needs, cash was rare. Also the distances were great between communities.

I drove up to the homestead with my Mother in 1995. Some of the communities were fifty or sixty miles apart. In the early days, the only thing that connected them was the railroad. Prior to the railroad, people paddled boats or rode horses. The vastness of the country was daunting. There weren’t many maps to guide the way and when you got wherever you stopped, there was no restaurant awaiting you to freshen you up, nor a hotel to sleep overnight in.

Once the homesteaders settled in, they could not go down to the corner store and pick up some milk, flour or sugar if the larder was bare. When communities were established, a trip to the store might take a full day or maybe more, depending on season, the conditions of roads or the distance from the town where the store was located. Merchandise could be ordered by catalog and it came by train or by mail.

So when a young lad out in the wilds of Manitoba became enamoured by a hobby like photography, all the essential chemicals, papers and equipment would have to come from afar. Yet, my father’s generation was fascinated by popular photography and my collection of his photos makes me realize how the addition of photography opened up a whole new world to them (and now us).

I add “and us” because we can now go back and see for ourselves what our ancestors looked like, back as far as our great grandparent’s generation. A century ago, the middle class was only starting to be served by this extraordinary medium.

Note, in this photo just above, that there are several people assisting in the building of this church. I know it’s a church because some kind soul marked it on the back. That leads to another whole discussion of how the pioneers worked so cooperatively because they really had to. If you couldn’t get along with your neighbours, you were in trouble. You never knew when you would need them. And of course, you couldn’t just call in a contractor to build the church. The community was neither large enough nor diversified enough to afford those luxuries. Everybody helped. In our North American cities, much of that spirit has become lost.

And when I see how many formal studio portraits there are in this collection, it makes me wonder what was foregone in their daily living so that they could partake of the photographer’s service to preserve their image in sepia.

Father recounted that, in his family of six children and two adults, there were only seven plates. At dinner time, his mother waited until all had eaten and then she had her dinner. (Remember, there wasn’t a corner store to get another one from and don’t even think about why they didn’t use paper plates!). A plate was less important than an education in our family. Saving for an education was the most important thing. There had been a school teacher in every generation.

I don’t mean to say by this that our family was so dreadfully poor. Rather, the whole generation was cash strapped and they hardly had contact with stores. My father grew up in the Great Depression. Mark Twain’s saying that “We were all poor; but nobody knew it” was one that described the family’s position to a “T”. There was no cash for frivolities. But obviously, someone in the family had a camera.

Later, my father continued to be fascinated by photography. When stereoscopic cameras came out, he had one. Each new development in the manufacture of cameras had him envious of its promises for better photographs. He just had to have the newest thing. I realized eventually that that was his only folly. He was a thrifty, frugal man. Home, family, church, and education continued to be his priorities. Even in his later years, these remained most important. But next priority to tack on the list was Camera, and that too remained at number five on the list all his life.

The nature of photography has changed with the times. Photography is no longer a novelty. Subject matter, though, has changed tremendously. Yes, we still get group photos at school and group family photos; tourist shots, and landscape photos; but the sheer amount of photography we do is staggering. It’s not uncommon to go out in a day and take one hundred photos with our digital camera. Afterall, we don’t have to print them to see what we will get, so it costs nothing to take several similar photos and then to choose amongst them for the best one. Not so long ago, simply the cost of development and printing would have been prohibitive for such abandonment in our picture taking and our method of choosing a shot and ensuring that it would be good was far more careful than our current trend to covering each situation we want to with ten to twenty shots.

This last photo is of my grandfather working on his market garden just outside of Winnipeg in East Kildonan. Long gone are the farming days of this family. When I was in my thirties, my father pointed out that there were twenty-six university degrees held by the descendants of this man. We’re a long way from farming to earn our living; but there are a great number of us still fascinated with photography.


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4 Responses to “More on old photos”

  1. kalem Says:

    Reading your article is a refreshing reminder of the development, growth and significance of photography, especially in what we refer to as ‘modern life.’ (Of course, I’m sure that our ancestors referred to their time as ‘modern life,’ also). I like your photos. However, the stories that you attach to them demonstrates their value. And they’re also a good demonstration of how time can be measured with images.

    Very good article.

  2. suburbanlife Says:

    Kay – the photo of the Church is not f construction but of repair and painting. Those guys certainly did not seem to do the painting systematically – witness one painting at the top and one near the bottom right.
    I never had a camera until I ws 19, when i bought a small Brownie for my trip to Europe. Thinking back on my photos from the trip then, it seems , if memory serves me well, that most of the pictures from my travels involved the angles of light and shadow on urban surfaces, and the contrast of textures and pattern. No sheaves of touristy photos. When I got back afetr an 8 month absence, Mother asked me why I had wasted my scant finances on such pictures, and not on shots of famous landmarks – to prove I had seen them to everyone back home, the photo as trophy idea.
    The recent capacity to photograph an every and all occasions has not led to greater artistry in photography – what it has done is to make it possible for individuals to image what fascinates them simply and directly. The boundaries of the photo as an art product may be a bit blurred with all the amateurization of the process, however there are still the rare individuals whose aesthetic sense is noteworthy, and sensibility as image makers, unique. One recognizes this when one comes upon it. Still as rare as hen’s teeth, in my opinion. G

  3. forestrat Says:


    One of my favorite rainy day things to do as a child was to open up the bottom drawer of the big bureau in the foyer. Here were all the family photos built up over the years. They weren’t organized or in albums. Some were still in the little envelopes from the developers, but most were just loose.

    There were black and white and color, some labeled and some not. I’d wander through them in no particular order. If my mom was handy, I would have her tell me who the people were and the stories behind the pictures. I loved it.

    In one of my really old posts (how time flies in the computer world) I encouraged people to take all those digital image files that are sitting on hard drives invisible to everyone, print them out, and toss them in a drawer. Then they can have some fun on rainy days.


  4. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Forest rat and Kalem, Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. It really adds to the blogging experience.
    FR I really like your idea of printing out photos and collecting them in a drawer for future generations.
    Right now, I’ve my nephew living with me and I try to get him interested in them but I’m not sure I’m making progress. I’ve go so many albums and boxes of photos that I’ve just inherited that it’s a bit daunting to organize them a bit, digitally – as I am trying to get them all into a homemade book that I’m creating on the computer. It’s slow going, but ever so much fun to come across ones that tell something about the family and life in early times.

    Suburban life, I posted a comment in answer to you, but I see it hasn’t appeared. I’ll go looking to see what happened to it.
    The gist of it was that you are perfectly right. The men in the picture are painting the building, not constructing it.

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