Woman drinking from a bottle
England, ca. 1914-1919
“Marriage of Elisabeth Schaffer and Benjamin Dick, 1907. Showing Russian-German Dress.”
While a caption may draw one’s attention to the particular historical context of an image, it may also raise questions of authorship and authority. In this instance, an archivist originally added the phrase “showing Russian-German dress” to the portrait; why? In doing so, what cultural assumptions are made about the photograph’s intended audience?
Marriage of Elisabeth Schäffer and Benjamin Dick
Unknown location, 1907
Amateur photographers have been leaders in the development of Canadian photography; we are indebted to them for a number of pioneering innovations, including snapshots, colour photographs, photographic art and miniature cameras. But what is “amateur” photography? It is, essentially, work created as a “labour of love,” and not intended for commercial use. For most amateurs, photography was a hobby, not a tool.
The subjects of amateur photography in Canada date from a time when immigrants and certain educated travellers had learned early photographic techniques, to a more recent era when thousands of amateurs, armed with automatic cameras and rolls of film, chased down their images. The camera can be seen as an instrument of democratization that united Canadians from all social classes, as across the country, ordinary people, doctors, scientists and stockholders — almost all of whom were novices — joined photography clubs. Together, these enthusiasts discussed the theoretical and practical aspects of an art form that allowed them to reproduce everything that caught their eyes, down to the most minute detail. Amateurs spontaneously photographed almost everything they saw, but most of their subjects were drawn from what surrounded them: their families and workplaces, or landscapes such as winter scenes.
It would be difficult to compile an exhaustive list of amateur photographers in Canada, but it is possible to mention the names of some whose work is preserved at Library and Archives Canada. These include the very first amateur in Canada, Pierre Gaspard Gustave Joly de Lotbinière (1798-1865); Alexander Henderson; Francis Claudet; H.J. Cundall; Captain James Peters; Robert Reford; Henry J. Woodside; May and James Ballantyne; A.M. Ross; John Boyd; Sydney Carter; Beresford B. Pinkerton; William Hyde; Mary Gunterman; A.P. Low; Madge Macbeth; A. Van; Brodie Whitelaw; Bruce Metcalfe; John Vanderpant; Clifford M. Johnston; Edith Bethune; John Helders; J.K. Hodges; John Morris; Arthur H. Tweedle; James Crookall; and Leonard Davis.
Whether they depict the rustic intimacy of a Saskatchewan farm, the majestic Rockies as seen by tourists, joyous reunions of friends, an 1880s country fair or labourers on a work break, these amateur photographs revive moments too long ignored and constitute valuable artistic evidence of Canadian history.
Sparrow Lake, Ontario, 1916
Photographer: Albert Van
Unknown location, Northwest Territories (now Nunavut),
Photographer: F.D. Henderson