National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 16, 1970

Annual Index
Author & Subject

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Photographs by Tom Thomson

by Dennis Reid, Curator of Post-Confederation Art

Résumé en français

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Tom Thomson was a man with a message. He might have been a musician, a poet or a dramatist. What he had to say had to be said. Circumstances of environment turned him towards form and color. Thomson was not a man with a medium seeking adequate objects for his brush. He was a man with the theme innate within him, groping about for seven-eighths of his life for a medium. (1)

What he achieved with paint in that one-eighth of his life has remained remarkable to us. Those few works from the three and one-half years of his artistic maturity have led us, almost desperately at times, to try to find significance in the activities of his first thirty-five years. But as each new document or artifact concerning his pre-Algonquin years is discovered, it becomes more and more clear that Thomson's capacity to live creatively was fully realized only when, after 1912, he had decided to live as much as possible in the north.

That decision obviously drew upon, and in turn nurtured, perceptions of great importance. And it is those perceptions - manifest in his paintings - that will continue to attract us with the clarity and beauty of their significance. His paintings are his greatest, virtually his only, expression of his place in being. As A. Y. Jackson has told us, "He never spoke in public nor wrote more than short notes." (2) But there does exist another body of material which reflects his relationship to the things about him, and which also carries some small part of his "message." Amazingly enough, this group of forty photographs, taken during the last seven years of his life, lay undisturbed for fifty years! Mrs. F. E. Fisk - whose mother, Mrs. T. J. Harkness, was Tom's oldest sister and, with Mr. Harkness, the executor of his estate-discovered the small bundle of negatives among Thomson's still carefully preserved belongings in 1967. She had them printed, and began to show them to people who had an interest in her uncle Tom. (3) Ottelyn Addison published two of these photographs, both unfortunately cropped, in her recent book on Thomson. (4) This is the first time that any have been published in their full image. For the sake of completeness, all forty of the photographs are reproduced here.

Do these photographs have anything to do with art? Certain attitudes in the use of a camera have been considered as serious artistic expression for some time now, and on a popular level photographs have always had an important place in everyday life. But it is only recently that those who are interested in photography as conscious expression have shown a growing awareness of the special quality common to all photographs. Photography is an act of the moment above all else. More easily than any other form, it records what is seen - and I  mean "seen" in both the literal and the "insight" sense. The photographic record maintains an emphatic reality. What this means is that all photographs are engaging; old photographs are engaging to a degree that surpasses the charm of mediocre old paintings; and photographs taken by artists always express to a notable degree what and how the artist sees, no matter how unskilled he is in operating the camera machine. If the artist's usual form of expression is dependent upon the presentation of a moment of experience, as was Thomson's, then the pertinence of even casual photographs is obvious. If only Monet could have left an album of his favourite coloured snapshots! Did Thomson take these snapshots as seriously as I do believe that he did. In fact he only once wrote of himself taking photographs. (5) But he must have been intimately familiar with the commercial photographic techniques used around the advertising studios in which he was employed. (6) Many of his friends also took photographs regularly, (7) and at least one friend, Maud Varley, developed and printed her own snapshots. (8) A simple box camera and casually taken snapshots would have been a natural part of Thomson's daily life. (9) But there would have been no question of such snapshots having anything to do with art. That activity, for Thomson, was conducted exclusively in paint. (10)

What, then, have these photographs to do with Thomson's painting? Their main interest, apart from the stunning beauty of some of the images, lies in the fact that they represent a largely-unconscious parallel expression of the concerns Thomson displays in his paintings. Thus they not only confirm Blodwen Davies's contention that Thomson was "a man with the theme innate within him," they in fact clarify that theme. This involves not only what Thomson recorded, but how he recorded it. Examining some of his paintings along with his photographs, we see that he often strove to bring the "what" is seen and the "how" it is seen together into a perfectly fused experience, just as happens in a snapshot. His most successful sketches, such as Parry Sound Harbour of 1914, (11) excite us primarily because of this unity of conception and execution. The image is full of the vital presence of the artist, yet retains an almost dispassionate fidelity to the place itself. This kind of effect seems also to be inherent in such snapshots as photograph 3. (12)

Thomson's actual sketching technique, which he shared with most of the painters who later became the Group of Seven, at times appears to emulate the activity of the camera. He strove for the emphatic reality of the moment. The consequent note of urgency, although evident in the finished work, is, in his better sketches, saved from appearing sloppy by the intense rigour of their reality (see fig. I) .The open-sided horizontal composition so prevalent in Group of Seven sketches is also a normal characteristic of the snapshot. A sketch like Grey Day, Giant's Tomb (fig. I) could, in black-and-white reproduction, almost pass as a photograph. His most intensely involving canvases, such as Petawawa Gorges of 1916, (13) also display this affinity with the photograph. Although in my opinion his greatest work, this painting is not the one most widely admired. As in all art that makes the "how" a part of the "what" the meaning of the picture arises from the actual experience of the viewer in looking, rather than from the viewer's successful recognition of the image depicted. In Petawawa Gorges, or in the earlier Lake in Algonquin Park (fig. 2), Thomson has made little concession to anecdotal interest. The seeming simplicity of such works permits us to compare not only the attitude involved in their making to that involved in the taking of snap-shots, but also even the This apparent simplicity, found command of experience they display.

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