Canada’s Documentary Photography Scene

Highlights from History

28 mins read

“Documentary? That’s a very sophisticated and misleading word. And not very clear. The term should be documentary style…You see, a document has use, whereas art is really useless.”
—Walker Evans (1903-1975)

When the Canadian confederation was proclaimed, photography had been in existence for only 28 years. Announced in Paris in 1839, the invention was embraced quickly around the world. By the time of Lovell’s 1865 Canadian Directory, more than 360 “photographists,” as they were sometimes then known, were listed. The new medium would play a seminal role in fostering national identity through the next hundred years.

As early as 1854, Jules-Isaïe Livernois (1830-1865) opened a photography studio in Quebec City, and with his wife, Elise L’Heureux, embarked on a vast documentation of residents and landscapes of Quebec that was continued after their deaths by their successors. La Maison Livernois would leave a visual imprint on the province well into the 20th century. In English Canada, a popular pastime for the well-to-do was to be photographed in front of Niagara Falls, where itinerant photographers enticed visitors with irresistible temptations of immortality. The Falls became an icon of the emerging nation-state.

The daguerreotype, a positive image embedded on a silver-plated copper base that could not be duplicated, became a cherished play toy of the upper classes—a one-of-a-kind objet d’art. By the late 1850s, collodion or “wet-plate” photographs all but replaced daguerreotypes; multiple paper copies of the same image could now be made from a glass negative. Inexpensively produced, pocket-sized portraits known as cartes de visite became the rage, as citizens collected pictures of royalty, famous persons and family members, and the Victorian family photo album came into being for the middle classes.

Stereoscopic photographs also became vastly popular—two small, almost identical images that were taken within moments of each other, with the camera repositioned a few inches apart for the second shot, consistent with the distance between a human’s eyes. When viewed through a stereoscope, the two images blended into one three-dimensional image. The effect was sensational, and millions of views were made and sold: landscapes, construction projects, expeditions, group portraits, cityscapes—all documentary photographs that were within the reach of the emerging middle class. Writing in 1967, historians J. Russell Harper and Stanley Triggs stated, “stereography was to the world of Victorians what television is to the world of today—namely an entertainment and educational medium of remarkably widespread popularity.”

The public was mesmerised by photography, and it was in this context that the City of Toronto decided to use photographs for political objectives. In 1857 Toronto made a bid to the Secretary of State for the Colonies to proclaim it as “the permanent Seat of Government for the Province of Canada.” To support its argument, the city included a set of 25 exceptional photographs that portrayed the fledgling metropolis of fewer than 50,000 people as a sophisticated urban centre of intensive commercial and residential buildings on wide streets that boasted sidewalks. The photographs were made by one of Toronto’s earliest photo studios, Armstrong, Beere and Hime (ABH). When combined together, 13 of the images provide an historically unique 360-degree panoramic view of the city from the rooftop of its tallest building, the five-storey Rossin House Hotel. Photographs of individual streets, such as King Street East, south side looking west, are accomplished and expressive works. The photographers creatively interpreted the subject through composition, perspective and angle of view, contextualising key buildings. ABH’s brilliant achievement was that, through the documentary form, they conveyed an unmitigated sense of the sophistication of the “present” with the promise of greater things to come in the future.

But at the time photography was hardly considered an art form, and the notion of “documentary” as a genre of the medium was not on the cultural radar. Photography was still a tool for gathering factual evidence. Historian Ralph Greenhill notes that Samuel McLaughlin (1826-1914) was commissioned in 1863 by the Macdonald-Cartier government to provide “visible proof” of the construction progress of the Parliament Buildings to satisfy Opposition demands. Upon seeing the photographs, Macdonald was so taken that he “is said to have exclaimed, ‘Grits are hard to convince, but these ought to shut them up.’”

Canadian cities were being photographed in earnest. We owe early views of Ottawa to William J. Topley (1845-1930), who set up the first studio in the city and would later photograph immigrants arriving at train stations, including the iconic German immigrants, Quebec, (c. 1911). D. J. Smith left a legacy of street views of Halifax in the 1850s. But it was in Montreal, the country’s largest city, where photography truly flourished in the 19th century.

The Funeral Procession of the Hon. D’Arcy McGee, 13 April, 1868, by James Inglis (1835-1904) documents the thousands of people who followed the elaborate catafalque bearing the coffin of the assassinated politician. The photograph is a remarkable achievement, considering the constraints of the “wet” plate system in freezing temperatures—a sheet of glass had to be sensitised chemically, exposed in the camera and developed on site before the chemicals dried out. Inglis’ photograph ranks as a pioneering image of Canadian photojournalism, for it proved that photography was also capable of documenting real-life news events. The state funeral that followed Canada’s first political assassination was the most dramatic event of the newly created country, and the camera was there as a witness to history.

William Notman (1826-1891), a Scottish immigrant, saw the rise of photography as an untapped business opportunity in the prosperous city of Montreal and photographed the city’s elite. Appointed as photographer to the Queen, he opened studios in collaboration with other photographers in Ottawa, Toronto, Halifax, St. John, Boston and other places. The Notman family’s representation of Canada dominated popular visual conceptions of the country. Their photographs of First Nations in Alberta (Blackfoot and Cree) are among the earliest of Indigenous people in western Canada. Their views of the Rocky Mountains and the great trestle railway bridges in British Columbia were very popular in the cartes de visite and stereographs produced for consumption by the masses in eastern cities. Lesser known are his photographs of child workers (girls) sorting ore at the Huntington Copper mine in Bolton, Quebec in 1867, which are among the earliest labour pictures in Canada.

Numerous studios were credited with the Notman name but the photographs were not necessarily by him or his sons; many photographers first employed by the firm eventually became independent and well known in their own right. Among these was Frederick Steele, who opened a photographic studio (with a partner) in Winnipeg in 1887. Working for the Canadian Pacific Railway he travelled and photographed throughout western Canada, and like his former employer he opened several branch studios in the prairies, including Saskatoon, where he finally settled. Together with his photographs of pioneer life in the late 19th century, Steele’s most important legacy may be his exhaustive documentation of Saskatoon from its earliest days to the late 1920s, such as his dramatic Fire in the Drinkle Block, 1925.

Starting in 1889, with the advent of factory- prepared “dry” plates and the mass marketing of roll film by Kodak, handheld cameras became popular. Powdered magnesium was soon perfected as a means of artificial light and, for the first time, photography became possible in the pitch black of night or in dark interiors. Mattie Gunterman (1872-1945) utilised this innovation in 1902 to document female kitchen workers and male miners underground in the Nettie-L mine in Lardeau country (Kootenay Lake). Also working in British Columbia was Hannah Maynard (1834 1918), the first independent professional woman photographer in Canada, who opened her own studio in Victoria in 1862 and ran it for 50 years.

Arthur S. Goss (1881-1940), from the City of Toronto’s engineering department, photographed workers digging tunnels with hand shovels. His iconic Sewer Construction, Garrison Creek – Strachan Avenue documents four men standing atop a pile of freshly dug mud, shovels in their hands, dirt encrusted on their bodies; it is a fitting homage to apparently invisible workers toiling in the bowels of the earth like human rats. As official photographer of the city, Goss photographed the slum conditions of Toronto at the request of the Medical Officer of Health, who used the images to promote social and health reforms. Goss documented the impossibly dark interiors of rooming houses, portraying the residents with dignity and respect and making the invisible visible. His powerful documentation of urban poverty gave Canadian photography credibility as a tool for social change, and his work is reminiscent of Jacob Riis’s rooming houses of New York in the 1880s.

Following in the footsteps of William Notman, Eugene M. Finn (1880-1959) documented the construction of the Quebec Bridge, the largest cantilever bridge in North America, completed in 1919. Finn’s dramatic photographs of steel beams suspended over the St. Lawrence River, with ironworkers perched casually on top, recall Lewis Hine’s well-known pictures of similar workers on the Empire State Building in the late 1920s—except that Finn’s pictures were made about 15 years earlier. Lamentably, Canadian photographs have rarely been considered “iconic” internationally, yet the works of dedicated documentarians like Arthur Goss or Eugene Finn arguably rank among the best within the canon of photography.

When the National Film Board’s Still Photography Division was set up in 1941, its mandate was clear: “to interpret Canada to Canadians and to other nations.” The hint of propaganda in this message became a reality through the 1950s as stories produced by the NFB emphasised the sense of heroism of citizens living in a prosperous country of infinite natural beauty, taming the untamed land through exploitation of natural resources and agricultural progress. Respected photographers like George Hunter (1921-2013), Chris Lund (1923-1983) and Richard Harrington (1911-2005) crisscrossed the country and sent back to the Ottawa headquarters thousands of negatives on “human interest” stories; these were edited and assembled into photo stories, and disseminated to the over-100 print media outlets across the country every week.

The resulting photo stories were often parochial and condescending. Even though the photographer may have taken the picture with dignity and respect—as is certainly the case with Harrington’s moving documentation of the Inuit—by the time the photographs came out of the agency’s editing process, they had been turned into pictures of propaganda. One story, “Canada’s Northern Citizens,” featured a series of portraits of anonymous Inuit individuals, with no photo credit, but with a cutline that read, “faces of the north reflect the childlike, yet rugged, simplicity of the Eskimo.”

The period of “harmonious” representation came to an end in the 1960s under the leadership of Lorraine Monk, who as head of the Still Photography Division was one of a handful of women in positions of power at the NFB. The naiveté of the photograph in the 1950s gave way to the photograph as a powerful document of personal expression by photographers. As the documentary form gained new acceptance in international exhibitions like the Museum of Modern Art’s “New Documents” in 1967, so it did in Canada. In the same year, the National Gallery of Canada formed its own Photographs Collection, finally conferring on photography the status of art. Initially, the NFB continued to promote Canada as a land of natural wonder through a landmark book in colour, Canada: A Year of the Land, published in 1967 to celebrate Canada’s Centennial. Photographs of everyday life were also published in black and white, in a cinema verité style designed to foster identification with contemporary Canada, in titles such as Call Them Canadians and Ces visages qui sont un pays, both 1968.

But in a radical departure, in the 1960s the Division began to publish Image, a series of small, soft-cover books featuring the work of new documentary photographers who self-identified as socially engaged. Among them were Lutz Dille (1922-2008), a recent German immigrant, known for the compassionate qualities of his work; Michel Lambeth (1923-1977), who referred to his images of street life in Toronto as “documentary humanism”; John Max (1937-2011), whose unsettling portraits have been compared to Robert Frank’s work; and Pierre Gaudard (1927-2010), a French immigrant who created influential essays on workers (Les Ouvriers, 1969-71) and prisons (Les Prisons, 1975).

By the mid-1970s documentary photography entered a golden age in Canada, as numerous community-based galleries and collectives began to appear. The Baldwin Street Gallery of Photography, Canada’s first independent gallery of photography was founded in 1969 by Laura Jones and John Phillips (1945-2010), two American photographers who moved to Toronto during the Vietnam War era. The pioneering gallery, located in the living room of their house, was the place where a new generation of photographers saw actual documentary photographs for the first time (especially topical American photographs of the anti-war and civil rights movements).

Photo co-ops exhibited photographs in non-traditional spaces, encouraging the use of photography for social activism. Among the more influential organizations were the Photographer’s Gallery in Saskatoon, Gallery 44 in Toronto, and Toronto Photographers’ Workshop. In Quebec the use of photography in political activism was more conscious and deliberate, as many photographers supported the nationalist movement borne out of the Quiet Revolution. Montreal’s Groupe d’action photographique (GAP) included Claire Beaugrande-Champagne, Michel Campeau, Roger Charbonneau and Gabor Szilasi, who went on to become one of the most distinguished documentary photographers in Canada. Other Quebec groups included Photo Cell, founded by Clara Gutsche and David Miller, and Groupe des photographes populaires.

In 1985 The Native Indian/Inuit Photographers Association was founded after a national conference on Indigenous photographers was held in Hamilton. Jeff Thomas and Greg Staats, two of the most respected First Nations photographers, have inspired a new generation of Indigenous camera artists who use the medium to “take back” their own history.

The 1970s also saw the birth of small magazines passionately dedicated to photography: Black Flash (Saskatoon); Le Magazine OVO (Montreal); BC Photographer (Vancouver); ImpressionsImage Nation, and Photo Communiqué (all three from Toronto); later in the 1980s The Photo Pipeline (Hamilton) appeared. Alternative cultural magazines were also highly influential, like This Magazine, which regularly published the work of socially committed photographers including Ursula Heller, whose Village Portraits (1981) captured rural communities through the 1970s, and Pamela Harris, who would later publish the influential Faces of Feminism (1992). A true photography community had emerged, and these magazines provided a platform for an unprecedented discourse on Canadian photography through interviews, articles and the publication of portfolios. Documentary photographers who became well known in the 1980s and 1990s often saw their first published works in the pages of these magazines.

Foreign critics began to notice the Canadian photography scene. Afterimage, an influential journal of media arts and cultural criticism ran articles on Canadian photographers, including a lengthy critical piece on Karl Beveridge and Carole Condé, photo-based artists who champion political issues. Photo Communiqué, founded by Gail Fisher-Taylor, provided an indispensible national forum for exchange of information and photo criticism. Jorge Guerra and Denyse Gérin- Lajoie (1929-2012) transformed Le Magazine OVO into a socially engaged photo publication with separate editions in French and English. Focusing on themes such as immigration, the automobile and prisons, the work of numerous photographers was incorporated into 60-page photo essays elevating the disparate photographs into a unified activist political dimension. This unprecedented approach caught the attention of critics like A. D. Coleman in New York, and others in Milan.

By the mid-1980s, photography had come into full force in the world of mainstream culture. The collection of the Still Photography Division became the base for a new museum, the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography (CMCP). Canada began to have a significant presence in the international photography stage. Under its founding director, Martha Langford, CMCP embarked on an extensive programme of acquisition and exhibition of documentary photography and for two decades promoted the work of dozens of emerging and established photographic artists, often in extended traveling exhibitions abroad. (The author was one of the beneficiaries, as his series Harvest Pilgrims was acquired and exhibited in Canada, Mexico, Canada, United States and other countries.) In 2009, CMCP was closed and absorbed by the National Gallery of Canada.

At the same time that CMCP was flourishing, Lumiere Press, a small, private publisher of photography, was founded in Toronto by Michael Torosian. Its limited edition books were “composed in lead, hand printed and hand bound,” with photographs dipped in. Along with international masters like Edward Weston and Paul Strand, the press featured Canadian photographers like Rafael Goldchain, whose Nostalgia for an Unknown Land (1989) was critically acclaimed for its innovative use of colour. Dave Heath: A Dialogue with Solitude appeared in 2000, a re-issue of the artist’s original book published 1965 in the United States, which had become one of the most respected books of its time.

Heath, an American immigrant, had been almost completely forgotten; like him, there are many others who worked in relative obscurity. William James (1866-1948), an independent photographer who roamed the streets of Toronto in the 1920s in search of news stories, left a prodigious legacy and has been cited as Canada’s first photojournalist. Similarly, Conrad Poirier (1912-1968) chronicled Montreal in the 1930s and 40s as a freelance writer and photographer. Don Newlands (1927-2011) played a defining role as a photojournalist in the 1950s-60s working for major magazines, while Fred Herzog documented working class life in the Vancouver of the 1950s-80s using Kodachrome colour slide film at a time when black and white images dominated; only recently has the octogenarian gained national prominence. In Winnipeg, John Paskievich documented with great dignity the people of his Ukrainian neighborhood, publishing The North End (2007). John Reeves (1938-2016) produced iconic portraits of arts and cultural celebrities, Inuit artists and international jazz musicians, but did not receive the international recognition that Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002) received as the legendary glamour portraitist of international celebrities. Elaine Brière, an activist photographer based in Vancouver, published the hauntingly beautiful East Timor (2004), about life before and after the brutal invasion of that country by Indonesia, featuring text by Noam Chomsky. George Webber has embarked on a lifelong mission to document the physical and social landscape of Alberta, publishing several books including People of the Blood (2006), a poetic and sensitive portrayal of the Blood First Nations Reserve over a 10-year period. (I leave mention of the contribution of many other notable documentary photographers working in Canada today to a future article.)

Since the turn of the millennium, Canadian documentary photographers have flourished and gained international attention, notably Ed Burtynsky, with his poetic landscapes of industrial and contaminated environments, and Larry Towell, the first Canadian-born member of Magnum Photo Agency. But digital technology in the late 20th century had the effect of accelerating the evolution of photography into many genres of image-based art; the platform is no longer the printed page but relies on internet-based blogs and social media. Documentary photography is recognised as a vital force and has climbed into mainstream prominence. The CONTACT Photo Festival, based in Toronto, grew into the largest annual photo festival in North America, and was re-branded by Scotiabank. Commercial photography galleries have been thriving for years. Public art museums exhibit photography regularly, and the Art Gallery of Ontario sponsors the AIMIA/AGO award, an international prize. The Scotiabank Photography Award is another major prize for contemporary photography, and together these two rival Canadian literary awards in prestige and monetary value. The Ryerson Image Centre at Ryerson University has quickly become an internationally recognised photography research centre and gallery. Toronto recently established a Photographer Laureate position, appointing Geoffrey James, as the city’s first unofficial “ambassador” of photography.

Today documentary photography is being driven, if not redefined, by educational institutions, art museums, private galleries and private and corporate art collectors who have become the “big players” in the photography scene. As a result, will documentary photography lose its traditional role as a witness to history and become a commodity in the market-driven system of photo art? Regardless, the current success of the medium is owed to the struggles and persistence of the community of photographers, small magazines and photo galleries that collectively became a grassroots movement in the 1970s and whose history has yet to be written.


Vincenzo Pietropaolo has published over a dozen books on social justice issues, in which he often combines photographs with his own original writing. Toronto in Photographs: Fifty Years of People, a retrospective journey in words and images, will be released in May 2022 by Cormorant Books. His next project is a collaborative exploration of queer spaces.

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