Poetic and Profound: Alexander Henderson’s Photographs
When Thomas Greenshields Henderson inherited his grandfather’s glass negatives around 1953, their immense importance to the history of photography in Canada was sadly misunderstood. Discarded with insignificant garbage in a back alleyway, the negatives were never seen again. Sixty-five years later, they are a missing element in the largely unknown story of photographer Alexander Henderson (1831–1913), whose contributions to the development of the medium are regarded among the most important in Canada today.
Born in Scotland in 1831, Alexander Henderson immigrated to Montreal in 1855. Trained as an accountant and initially employed as a commission merchant, he soon took up photography and committed himself to making it his life’s work. In a new display in the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries at the National Gallery of Canada, ten works on loan from Library and Archives Canada seek to tell a visually compelling story of Henderson’s significant career.
“Alexander Henderson had this incredible ability to frame the world in a certain way and to give beauty to utilitarian subjects,” says Andrea Kunard, Associate Curator of Photography at the Gallery and organizer of the Henderson display. “He understood the documentary value of photography – after all, that’s how you made a living in those days – but he also understood it in a more profound way. To him, photography was a creative form of expression. A way to express not just what we see, but how we think about ourselves and the world.”
Although much of Henderson’s early life and career remains unknown, it is believed that his first work dates to 1857–58. In reference to these early photographs, writer Louise Guay describes Henderson as having a “structured composition, a general familiarity with photographic methods, and a surprising level of perfection for a beginner.” Over the subsequent decades, Henderson honed his craft: he opened up a studio in Montreal, founded a camera club, exhibited and published his work, and won several prizes and awards. Among his most common subjects were scenes of daily life, portraits of individuals, ships in harbours, the architectural details of churches and horse-drawn carriages travelling down picturesque Montreal streets.
Henderson’s aptitude for photography eventually earned him a ticket to travel extensively across the country. As bridges, viaducts and railway lines emerged, several companies hired him to record these developments for both documentary and promotional purposes. In works from this period, Henderson’s passionate interest in nature shines through. His albumen print Intercolonial Railway, Little Métis, Quebec (1875), for example, shows a dramatic waterfall rushing towards the camera itself. Historically, Henderson’s railway photographs document a pivotal moment when provinces from coast-to-coast were suddenly accessible thanks to advancements in engineering and construction. Aesthetically, however, they reveal Henderson’s indisputable talent for capturing the remarkable beauty of Canada’s varied landscapes.
This fondness for water, mountains, trees, snow, bridges, railways, ports and ships would continue to guide Henderson’s practice for many years. In Spring Inundation, St. Lawrence River near Montreal, Quebec (1865), Henderson offers viewers a rare glimpse of human figures – a subject that he did not appear to be as intensely attracted to as the romantic notion of the landscape itself. Although he was known to capture portraits, humans were often included in other photographs “as an insignificant creature, concealed in the landscape, or only good for showing the scale,” writes Guay. In this particular photograph, an adult and two children are a quiet presence among the tranquil water and bare trees.
Another interest of Henderson’s was photographic manipulation, or the blurring of lines between depiction and reality. Although he made a successful living as a documentary photographer, Henderson’s personal work took on a stylistic and visceral tone. He was an award-winning photographic manipulator and re-toucher and became the first North American member of the Stereoscopic Exchange Club. Three of Henderson’s stereographs – side-by-side images admired for their heightened illusion of depth – were on view in the first part of the Gallery display. Here Henderson no longer records reality as it appears, but he crafts an intuitive and emotional response to the scene at hand.
By the late 1890s Henderson retired from photography, literally abandoning the medium. There is no mention of it in his writing from this period, nor were his accomplishments acknowledged in obituaries following his death. This curious anonymity likely contributed to the limited knowledge we have of Henderson today; nonetheless, many writers, researchers, artists and public institutions have since taken an affinity to his work. “I hope visitors to the Gallery will come away with a similar appreciation of his vision,” says Kunard. Certainly, without Henderson’s documentary, experimental and poetic contributions to photography, our own appreciation of 19th-century life and landscape in Canada might be lacking or misunderstood.
The works, on temporary loan from the collection of Library and Archives Canada, are on view in Gallery A104a of the National Gallery of Canada. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.