Beyond Commercial Impact: Photographs by Whitelaw, Metcalfe and Sauer
In 2012 the National Gallery of Canada presented the exhibition Margaret Watkins: Domestic Symphonies, works by the renowned photographer entrenched in the world of commercial photography. Born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1884, Watkins created advertising photographs of bars of soap, shower hoses and other unglamorous tools of household routine, including – literally – the kitchen sink. Her photographs made the dull seem exquisite, the familiar seem exotic, as she brought in elements of still life and angular traces of abstraction. Her work was influential, although she largely disappeared from the scene by the end of the 1920s. A special display, Canadian Photography in the Mid-Twentieth Century, currently on view in the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries now offers the next chapter in the story.
In the selection of photographs, on loan from Library and Archives Canada, the medium continues its expansion into the world of advertising and, via that route, into daily life and into museums, where increasingly it has become to be seen as art. The late 1920s is where Canadian Photography in the Mid-Twentieth Century picks up the story, with the photographs of Brodie Whitelaw, Bruce Metcalfe and Max Sauer. While most of the fifteen photos on view are from the 1930s–40s, the first hails from 1927 and the last is from 1950. As with Watkins’ earlier work, all the photos were originally taken for commercial marketing or advertising.
“It’s such an interesting period in photography where you have all of these crossovers in what is happening in the art world, what is happening commercially, what is happening in camera clubs,” says Andrea Kunard, the Associate Curator at the Canadian Photography Institute who selected the images. In Canada in the 1930s, most photography came out of commercial studios or camera clubs. Few galleries were showing photography as art, although in 1934 the National Gallery of Canada under Director Eric Brown initiated the first annual touring salon of work from camera clubs that proved popular across Canada. Bruce Metcalfe, one of the three photographers being shown in the current display, was part of the organizing jury that made the selection that year. He and Whitelaw were members of the Toronto Camera Club (created in 1888), and Whitelaw and Sauer would later become members of the Commercial and Press Photographers' Association of Canada (created in 1946).
Art was changing, as abstraction and expressionism fired the imaginations of artists. Photography was equally influenced. The 1927 photograph by Bruce Metcalfe is a deceptively simple geometric arrangement of a few men’s shirt collars, which seem to spin past the frame with their shadows in reluctant tow. A similar sense of motion fuels Brodie Whitelaw’s 1930s photograph Fast, which stacks a race car, a telephone and two men working the phones. It was probably created for newsrooms, as many of the photographs in the display were marketing material for radio stations. The word “Fast,” in an energetic font, zips across the bottom of the frame, rushing to get the job done in an accelerating modern world.
As these artistic concerns seeped into photography, the advertising world — ever alert for new ways to move product — caught onto the trend and embraced it. It was a way to catch the consumer’s eye with different angles, different perspectives, different lighting, all of which helped to give consumers a different view on the objects being marketed.
The gallery where the display is being shown is “about modernity, and modern ways of living, the new man and the new woman idea,” Kunard says. Nearby are paintings by female artists such as Prudence Heward and others who were “looking for a way of representing modern life as they saw it.” The idea of the “new woman” dominates the display. In frame after frame women are portrayed not as domestic servants chained to the kitchen, but as vibrant, worldly and adventurous, looking forward to a future that had previously been all but unimaginable for the great majority of women.
Whitelaw’s 1940s promotional image for CFRB radio shows a smartly dressed woman recording in the studio, with an unidentifiable man relegated to the dimmed control booth in the background. In Whitelaw’s adjacent image of “two women posing,” the women gaze happily toward a distant, bright horizon, dressed in short pants and trousers (the latter like a flight suit). The trousers are significant, as at that the time pants were considered appropriate for women only when an activity called for them — such as golf, or, perhaps, flying a plane. The wardrobe boundaries were being pushed, in part due to the influence of movie stars such as Marlene Dietrich. Every woman in these photographs is strong, self-confident and unfailingly glamorous.
Simultaneously, it is as if photography itself is finding its strength and independence as more than just a tool for selling things. Montreal-based Max Sauer’s 1940s photograph of a micrometer, a tiny device for measuring tiny distances, lavishes its focus on the head of the device, as if it is an object of great beauty. He also framed an entirely normal enamel pot with nothing but its moody shadow, and turned this ordinary object into something of aesthetic importance and appeal. Who had ever seen a pot cast in such an alluring light?
These photographs have come to be seen differently, no longer exclusively among the ads in a newspaper or a magazine but in the collections of institutions, museums and galleries. After a career in advertising, the photographs have been allowed a distinguished second life as art.
Canadian Photography in the Mid-Twentieth Century, a selection of works from Library and Archives Canada, is currently on view in gallery A109a 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.