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

Bulletin 16, 1970

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Click figure 3 here for an enlarged image

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Click figure 5 here for an enlarged image

Photographs by Tom Thomson

by Dennis Reid, Curator of Post-Confederation Art

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8

The relationship of Thomson's paintings to the camera image can be seen in another way. Dr. MacCallum has reported that Thomson's "one criticism of his own work was 'there is not enough day-light in that'." (14) In his photographs, Thomson often sought light, and its concomitant shadow, with a naïve directness. When shot into the sun or into the brightest part of the sky, his photographs have little modulated tone. Some of these such as photographs 25 and 26, achieve delicately elaborate silhouettes. Number 26, particularly, brings  immediately to mind his great canvas Northern River, with its graceful looping traceries. (15) His less well-known The Silent Lake (fig. 3) exploits this silhouetting device in a way that even seems to stress its similarity to a photograph. The dominant sky becomes an uninhibited celebration of pure daylight.

Photographs are, of course, made with light. Photograph 40 is an eloquent exposition of that fact. Light is filtered through a great variety of leafy screens, bathes a hillside seen through the black relief of a rough fence, and glares off facets of the irregular boulder marking a Canoe Lake grave. We become intensely aware of reading the forms, the masses in space, only as reflected light of differing intensities. In his Northern River, the credibility of the river seen through the black screen of trees is totally dependent upon an ability to give a sense of space-forming day-light. In his later sketches (see fig. 4), he developed this way of seeing light as almost a sculpting device. The birch trees exist only as the intense reflection of light on their white bark, the rocks as various planes revealed by the play of filtered and screened light. The very same eye was looking through the view-finder when photograph 40 was taken.

We have seen that, although Thomson himself appears not to have considered these photographs seriously as art objects, they are, nonetheless, intimately related to his creative vision. One question still remains to be asked. Did Thomson ever use these photographs as an aid in working through the problems raised by his painting? Again there seems to be no evidence that he ever did. No paintings at this time can convincingly be demonstrated to be in any way based on a photograph. We can conjecture that photographs 25 and 26 had some bearing on his treatment of Northern River. But this must remain conjecture. The only snapshots directly related to a known painting are photographs 6 and 7. If they were taken while Thomson was on his canoe trip with W. S. Broadhead in 1912, then the sketch Drowned Lake (fig. 5) was painted on the same trip. A comparison of the sketch with photograph 7, in particular, is not unconvincing.

However, I have not published these photographs in order to search out their historical significance. They are presented here as, in themselves, worthy objects for examination and reflection. As a consequence, the opportunity has arisen to consider their importance in relation to Thomson's other activities, and to argue for their acceptance and preservation as an integral part of his sustaining vision.

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