A Photographic Ramble Across Canada


Unknown photographer, Couple posing in front of Niagara Falls (1858), ambrotype. Library and Archives Canada, e011154362_s2

We have often wondered why more of the venturesome spirits amongst our transatlantic friends do not tear themselves away, even for a few months, from London fogs, to visit our distant but more forward clime. How is it that so few, comparatively speaking, come to enjoy the bracing air and bright summer skies of Canada? With what zest could the enterprising or eccentric among them undertake a ramble, with rod and gun in hand, from Niagara to Labrador, over the Laurentian chain of mountains . . . 

— Henry Beaumont Small

It is with this alluring invitation to would-be travellers that British-born naturalist and civil servant Henry Beaumont Small began his 1866 Canadian Handbook and Tourist’s Guide, its opening page featuring a photograph of Quebec’s dramatic Montmorency Falls. The handbook is part of a small exhibition of historical travel photographs now on at the National Gallery, in the Canadian galleries.

For the Record: Early Canadian Travel Photography showcases some 50 works from the collection of Library and Archives Canada (LAC), including framed black-and-white photographs, stereographs seen through a special viewer, and a monitor with digital images. It offers visitors an opportunity to travel back in time to the days of gold prospectors, bushwhackers, and picnickers in Victorian dress. It also conveys the giddy excitement these travellers must have felt standing amidst the most sensational of this country’s natural wonders, including Hopewell Rocks, Niagara Falls, the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific rainforest. 

Underwood & Underwood, Bow River Valley, Banff, Alberta (1900), stereograph. Library and Archives Canada, e011093678


Many of the images play up the grandeur, with humans appearing dwarfed by the landscape. A pristine, snow-covered mound dominates the frame in Alexander Henderson’s Ice Cone, Montmorency Falls, Quebec (1876), while three tiny figures descending on skis seem like insects. One of the images by well-known Montreal photographer William Notman features the Rocky Mountains with two hikers almost centred in the picture, but barely visible against the expanse of the massive Asulkan Glacier. 

One of the most striking works in the exhibition is George Barker’s large-scale Cave of the Winds (1891), taken from the American side of Niagara Falls. With soft, billowy clouds of foaming water and mist against darkened areas of rock, it is a lush, romantic image, reminiscent of the sublime paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and artists of the Hudson River School, especially Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church. It also recalls Japanese woodblock prints, with a precarious-looking footbridge bisecting the frame.

George Barker, Cave of the Winds (1891), silver gelatin print. Library and Archives Canada, e011154359

Several other views of the falls, some showing them as a dramatic backdrop for a studio portrait, suggest how wildly popular the site was with travellers in the Victorian age. Indeed, Niagara Falls was the first major tourist destination in North America and was, in the 19th century, as it remains today, a contrasting scene of untamed nature and rampant commercialism.

In the 19th century, tourism was in fact a burgeoning industry across the country, as improved modes of transportation facilitated leisure travel, offering people the chance to view some of the nation’s greatest marvels and engineering achievements. Railway companies saw photographs as an ideal medium for promoting destinations, and hired professional photographers to produce images of majestic scenery. Later, especially with the invention of the Kodak Brownie camera in 1900, amateur picture-takers could create their own holiday mementos. The images of Canadian scenery created at the time helped to characterize the country and establish a sense of national identity.

Alexander Henderson, Victoria Bridge, Grand Trunk Railway, Montreal, Quebec (1878), albumen print. Library and Archives Canada, e008444126

Ambitious, large-scale bridges feature in several of the photographs. Henderson’s Victoria Bridge, Grand Trunk Railway, Montreal, Quebec (1878) captures the first bridge to span the St. Lawrence River, hailed at the time as the Eighth Wonder of the World. William England’s Suspension Bridge over Niagara Falls, Ontario (1859) might be familiar to visitors who saw the National Gallery’s print in its 2011 exhibition of 19th-century British photographs. England captures the bridge from a distance, appearing almost insignificant against the vastness of the scenery. This was the world’s first working railway suspension bridge, built on two levels: the upper for locomotives, and the lower for pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages.

Remarkably, some of the sites displayed here remain relatively unchanged over a century later. Notman’s 1897 photograph of a woman standing in the hollow of the great cedar tree in Stanley Park, Vancouver, is just one of many famous images of that same tree. All manner of objects and beasts have been photographed in its belly, including a horse-drawn cart, an early automobile, and an elephant. Although the hollow tree was slated for removal in 2006, after being badly damaged by a severe windstorm, a group of concerned citizens raised funds to stabilize it. The great cedar still stands today.

Notman Studio, Great Cedar Tree, Stanley Park, Vancouver, British Columbia (1897), albumen print. Library and Archives Canada, e011154357

LAC Curator Jennifer Roger, who organized the exhibition, has selected photographs from almost every region of Canada, including the nation’s capital. Samuel McLaughlin’s Northeast view from roof of West Block, Ottawa, Ontario (c.1880) is an extraordinary image, showing the intricate architectural detailing of the Parliament Buildings. McLaughlin, appointed in 1861 as the first official photographer for the Province of Canada, extensively documented construction of the Parliament Buildings and other public projects.

This series of exhibitions of photographs from LAC is fascinating. While the National Gallery has its own rich collection of photographs, ranging from high art to documentary, these LAC images are primarily historical documents, adding an extra layer to the visual experience. Previous installations have focused on early photographs of Newfoundland, expeditions, the Arctic, and growing cities. The series provides a new opportunity to undertake a rewarding photographic ramble through 19th-century Canada.

For the Record: Early Canadian Travel Photography is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until August 30.

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