Photographs in the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries: An Integral Part of Our National Narrative

In his famous 1864 book, The Camera and the Pencil, American photographer M.A. Root extolled the virtues of photography for preserving images of loved ones after their death or departure for other places: “With these literal transcripts of features and form, we are scarcely more likely to forget, or grow cold to their originals, than we should be in their corporeal presence. How can we exaggerate the value of an art which produces effects like these?”

One can well imagine the sense of marvel first produced by the thirty-four small photographs on view in the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), illustrating, among other subjects, upper-class dandies, babies in christening gowns, and even a horse. Installed in the short passageway between rooms A102 and A103, these cartes de visite and other studio prints demonstrate that there was already an active commercial photography industry in Canada during this period of history.

Andrea Kunard, Associate Curator at the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada, made the selection of works from a sizable collection of nineteenth-century Canadian photographs. “I wanted to show everyday uses of the medium,” she told the Magazine, “and how it was incredibly important, transformative really, that all of a sudden people could have these images of themselves. It also has to do with the great sociological changes that were taking place in the nineteenth century, when people started to move away from their villages and go into the city looking for work.”

James D. Wallis, Portrait of a Woman, c. 1869‑1873, ferrotype, heightened, 5.7 x 4.1 cm oval (sight). National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.


As families dispersed, photography allowed them not only to recall familiar faces, but also to communicate visually over time. “People could send images of themselves to one another,” says Kunard, “to mark important events, like when a baby was born, or when they got married, or even when they bought a new dress. And people still use photography in this way today. We record important events and put them on Facebook.”

The integration of photographs into the renovated Canadian and Indigenous Galleries is part of a new approach that sees works on paper and decorative arts as equally important to sculpture and painting in recounting the story of art in Canada.

Since 2013, the Gallery has collaborated with Library and Archives Canada (LAC) to exhibit historical photographs from its collection. These small installations have introduced visitors to many compelling images of a bygone era, from Paul-Émile Miot’s early views of Newfoundland and the first photographs of the Canadian Arctic to scenes of Toronto’s fledgling financial district.

Alexander Henderson, Tobogganing, c. 1875, albumen print. Library and Archives Canada, e011183600


Two sections in the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries are now dedicated to the LAC collection: one for nineteenth-century photographs and one for mid-twentieth-century works. The first, located off room A104, features regional landscapes and cityscapes from New Brunswick to British Columbia. Views of waterfalls, bridges, snowshoe outings and broken ice shoves by early Canadian photographers, such as Alexander Henderson, William Topley and Samuel McLaughlin, depict a vast and varied landscape, including some of the first images of industrialization.

Next door hang two photographic portraits also on loan from LAC: Harold Mortimer Lamb’s Portrait (1905) and Sidney Carter’s The Sisters (c. 1906). With their muted tones and soft focus, these works are typical of the Pictorialist style, which privileged the expression of mood over detail. According to Andrea Kunard, the Pictorialist movement represented a significant juncture in the history of photography. “At the turn of the twentieth century there was a concerted effort on the part of several American photographers, especially Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, to present photography as an artistic, creative medium. In that room, I chose photographs I felt best picked up on the type of aesthetic concerns prominent at the time in painting, more of a loose, impressionistic handling of paint.”

Harold Mortimer-Lamb, Portrait, 1905, platinum print. Library and Archives Canada, e011074190


One of the most dramatic architectural changes to the new galleries is the opening up of two interior windows overlooking the domed entrances to the museum: one over the main entrance and the other over the group entrance. Here is a room devoted to art made in Canada during the First World War. Two small black and white photographs by the official war artist William Rider-Rider are on view, depicting the muddy, eviscerated landscape of Passchendaele after the famous battle of 1917. Hanging beside David Milne’s mournful watercolour Courcelette from the Cemetery (1919) and Frederick Varley’s Shell-Torn Trees (1919), Rider-Rider’s images remind viewers that Canada had photographers at the front as well as painters. “This is what artists like Varley, Jackson and Milne were seeing,” Kunard says, “this horrible, blasted landscape. But with the photograph, you really get the stark image of that environment. And, of course, the war affected all the artists deeply for their entire lives.”

John Vanderpant, The Blackbird, 1934, gelatin silver print, 24.8 x 19.8 cm; image: 24.8 x 19.8 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.


Further on, sharing a room with well-known portraits by painters Lilias Torrance Newton, Elizabeth Wyn Wood and Paraskeva Clark, is the second LAC space, displaying mid-twentieth-century photographic portraits by Yousuf Karsh, Sidney Carter and John Vanderpant. Based in Vancouver for much of his career, Vanderpant was one of the most important figures in the history of photography in Canada. According to Kunard, “he was a sophisticated photographer who articulated his vision of photography very well. He knew significant photographers in the United States, such as Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston, and would exhibit their work in Vancouver.” Moreover, he contributed to the early programming of photography at the NGC, which sent him on a tour across the country in 1935 to lecture on the medium.  

Several of Vanderpant’s abstracted studies are also on view. The Blackbird (1934) shows a tiny bird perched on a huge industrial building. Untitled (Cabbage Leaf) (1932) is a detail of a ribbed cabbage leaf. “He was interested in photographing architectural subject matter like grain silos and skyscrapers, as well as organic material,” says Kunard, “and he did it in a very Modernist way, with simple shapes and forms.”

John Vanderpant, Untitled (Cabbage Leaf), 1932, gelatin silver print, 25 x 19.6 cm; image: 25 x 19.6 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.


Integrating light-sensitive works on paper into galleries designed for paintings and sculptures has its technical challenges. Photographs require dim lighting and limited exposure. The Gallery’s conservators have therefore ensured that these fragile works are positioned at a distance from the brighter lights illuminating hardier media. The photographs will also be replaced with different works about every six months. This means there will be new photographic discoveries each time visitors return.

A panel at the entrance to the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries reads, “Art has always been an integral part of the Canadian story. In these galleries, we have attempted to explore this legacy more inclusively than we have in the past.” The National Gallery of Canada and Library and Archives Canada each contain a treasure trove of photographic images that are essential to understanding the history and visual culture of this country. The integration of a small selection of photographs into these galleries provides visitors with a welcome introduction to the history of photography in Canada.

The present selection of photographs is on view in the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries at the National Gallery of Canada until mid-December 2017.

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