A Souvenir of Niagara Falls
A prime destination for vacationers and newlyweds, Niagara Falls has long been recognized for the spectacular beauty of its landscape. The commercial streets lining the site on the Canadian side abound in souvenir shops, snack bars, haunted houses and wax museums, all aimed at attracting tourists.
Within this eclectic environment, there is a small, old-fashioned photography studio where you can have your picture taken against a backdrop, with costumes and accessories provided. The experience recalls the era in which tourists began to flock here in large numbers to admire the falls, making it one of North America’s first major tourist destinations by the mid-19th century.
Beginning in 1853, Platt D. Babbitt began to photograph tourists in Niagara Falls as a money-making activity. The daguerreotype Niagara Falls from Prospect Point (c. 1855) depicts visitors in front of the falls: four men and three women, two of whom carry parasols.
Babbitt set up his camera on the American side at a highly popular site called Prospect Point, and kept the camera trained on Horseshoe Falls. From this spot, he photographed visitors who walked in front of his camera — often unaware they had done so. He then produced daguerreotypes onsite, offering them for sale before the group departed.
He gained and maintained a monopoly on pictures taken from the American side, by keenly protecting his territory. One story suggests that, when a competitor arrived at the same spot with a camera, Babbitt placed himself between his competitor and the landscape, blocking the view with umbrellas.
He later decided to set up a permanent kiosk on the site to house his equipment and advertise his services. He produced thousands of images — primarily daguerreotypes and stereoscopic views (using a wet-collodion process), for more than twenty years (1853–1879).
Reflections on the Landscape
This story reveals a key aspect of Niagara Falls as a place where "wild" nature collides with tourism. This interaction predates current conversations on the administration of Canada’s national parks and historic sites, and important considerations regarding colonial and environmental history.
When Platt D. Babbitt set up his commercial enterprise at Niagara Falls, photography had begun to play an increasing role in the development of natural resources and the promotion of tourism in Canada. Realizing that images had the potential to encourage a taste for travel, railway companies hired photographers to produce landscape views.
These views served, as did those brought home by tourists, to define the country and its features, while helping to develop a sense of national identity.
Niagara Falls 2.0
Access to portable silver-nitrate cameras at the beginning of the 20th century, followed by digital cameras and smartphones during the 21st, democratized photography and allowed tourists to produce their own travel souvenirs.
Today, amateur photographers can even consult websites and blogs offering advice on taking better pictures of Niagara Falls from every angle. The hashtags #NiagaraFalls and #chutesduniagara are widely used on social media to share photographs of the site, thus creating collections of images online.