The Panoramic View From Here


Armstrong, Beere & Hime, A view from the Rossin House Hotel, Toronto, Ontario (detail), 1856, salted paper prints. Library and Archives Canada, e004155566. Acquired with the assistance of a grant from the Minister of Communications under the terms of the Cultural Property Export and Import Act

It’s hard to believe that Toronto has changed so much. These days, King Street west of Yonge is walled in by towering steel and glass, streaming with nervous drivers. Back in 1856, however, it was a quiet, unhurried street, lined with two-storey brick buildings and church spires.

Or so it appears in the earliest known photographs of Toronto, made 150 years ago by a photographer working for the firm Armstrong, Beere and Hime. Taken from the roof of the Rossin House Hotel, at the corner of King and York Streets, twelve of the images, when put together, form an almost 360-degree panoramic, bird’s-eye view of the district. The growing metropolis features shops, brick row houses, the Law Society’s newly completed Osgoode Hall, the Province of Canada parliament buildings, horses and carts, an early passenger train, and even a paddlewheeler in the harbour.

These historical photographs of Toronto are on view until March 2015 at the National Gallery, alongside images from across the country, in an exhibition titled Taking It All In: The Photographic Panorama and Canadian Cities. The third in a series of exhibitions that draw on the collection of Library and Archives Canada (LAC), this new installation tells a compelling story about burgeoning communities in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Canada. Taking It All In is organized by LAC Archivist Jill Delaney.

Panoramic photographs have been around since soon after the invention of the medium in 1839. In those early days, photographers assembled multiple prints of slightly varying viewpoints to create a single, wide image that could capture vast landscapes and cityscapes. In Canada, panoramic photographs were used to demonstrate the success of the colonies, to promote towns and cities abroad, to attract investment, and to encourage further development. They were included in souvenir albums, exhibitions and publications, and were often reproduced as lithographs.


Unknown photographer, Compiled by Thomas E. Blackwell, Quebec from Point Lévis (c. 1858–65). From the Blackwell Album, page 21. Albumen print. Library and Archives Canada, e011092613

The photographs of Toronto produced by the firm Armstrong, Beere and Hime were commissioned by the city of Toronto for its campaign to become the capital city of Canada. William Armstrong, Daniel Manders Beere and Humphrey Lloyd Hime would go on to win acclaim for their work; a number of Hime’s images from a later expedition to Manitoba and Saskatchewan are in the National Gallery’s collection, as are watercolours by Armstrong.

For Canadian photographic historian Joan Schwartz, who discovered the Toronto photographs back in 1979 in London, England, while doing research for the Public Archives of Canada (now LAC), the context in which they were made shows how photography was starting to take on an important role in society. “I see these photographs as active agents in helping to shape political decision-making at the highest level. They demonstrate how photography, beginning in the mid-1800s, became an integral part of how we communicate.” 

Other images in the exhibition come from souvenir albums created by businessmen and military officers. A two-part panoramic view of Quebec City, taken from Lévis, is part of the “Reminiscences of North America” album compiled by Thomas Evans Blackwell, Vice-President of the Grand Trunk Railway from 1857 to 1863. It is a bucolic scene. In the distance, the cliffs of Quebec City rise above the St. Lawrence River, which is scattered with numerous sailing ships, while the docks of Lévis and harbourfront buildings are nestled on the near shore. In the foreground, a group of figures in Victorian dress poses on a hillside. This picturesque view recalls the early topographic drawings of Upper and Lower Canada done by artists such as James Pattison Cockburn, a number of which are in the Gallery collection.


Unknown photographer, Panorama of Victoria, British Columbia (c. 1880s), albumen print. Library and Archives Canada, e011092618-21

The exhibition also includes some fascinating images of Western Canada, including views of Victoria, B.C. from the 1880s, and a panorama of Medicine Hat, Alberta, made in the early 1900s after natural gas was discovered there. The Medicine Hat panorama is a single, two-metre-long print showing a broad landscape, framed by hills — the characteristic coulees — and the winding South Saskatchewan River, and dotted with industrial buildings. White ink annotations mark points of interest, such as Ogilvie Flour Mills, Big Gas Well, Canada Cement Co’s Site, Post Office, and Modern School.

This photograph was made by the Edmonton-based photographic studio Voldeng and Bolton, as a promotional tool to help attract investment and settlement to an area that demonstrably had both commercial potential and community infrastructure. The photographers used a circuit camera: a technology invented in Canada in 1887, which allowed a continuous near 360-degree view. The camera sat on a rotating turntable, while a waxed-paper negative advanced between two rollers, past an aperture. Two other panoramas on display — one of Niagara Falls and one of Fergus, Ontario — were also made with circuit cameras. The Fergus photograph is even displayed alongside its paper negative: a rare find that Jill Delaney happened upon in her research.

Taking It All In is a reminder that the panoramic photograph was not invented with the smart phone. “We’ve come a long way,” said Joan Schwartz, “but, in fact, the end product is not very different from the panoramas that were made in the mid-19th century.”

Taking It All In: The Photographic Panorama and Canadian Cities is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until March 1, 2015.

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