Yorkton, Saskatchewan, July 26, 1903
Photographer: Thomas V. Simpson
At the beginning of Canadian photography, technological limitations and the extremes of climate made documenting the physical environment through the new medium very difficult. The invention of the collodion process and the development of better lenses in the early 1850s made the camera much more useful in recording topography and climate. As early as 1853, British naval officer George Inglefield took photographs in the High Arctic during the search for John Franklin’s expedition, and in 1857, French naval officer Paul-Émile Miot recorded the outports of Newfoundland and Cape Breton. In 1858 Toronto-based Humphrey Lloyd Hime became the first photographer to accompany a Canadian government expedition, a voyage into the northwest. From 1859 onwards, British Royal Engineers used cameras as part of their boundary work in British Columbia. The Geological Survey of Canada began making use of cameras as part of its survey work as early as 1860, taking pictures not just of prominent physical features, but of Aboriginal peoples, trade routes, transportation methods and other evidence of land use and occupation.
As the 19th century advanced, both governments and private enterprise increasingly relied on the camera to document the environment and its transformation in their hands. The construction of roads, railways, canals and shipyards, the lumber and mining industries, agricultural developments and official journeys — all were recorded by photography. By 1889, the federal government had adopted photography for its toponymic and topological survey work as well.
The construction of a transcontinental railroad and the appearance of the mass-produced and accessible Kodak camera created new possibilities. As tourism developed, photographers began to realize the artistic and aesthetic possibilities of the photographic image. Amateur camera clubs encouraged experimentation in landscape photography, while professionals took more and more photographs for sale to tourists. Views of prominent physical features, from Percé Rock to Niagara Falls to the Canadian Rockies, became widely available on a commercial basis. The creation of the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau in 1917, which was transformed into the National Film Board in 1941, and the development of similar organizations by various provincial governments, meant a huge increase in imagery of Canadian environments.
Colour photography has had a huge impact on the recording of Canada’s physical landscape and climate, and of our place within it. The beauty of the North, of autumn colours, or of winter’s subtle blue hues is spectacularly rendered in the work of such photographers as Malak Karsh, John Reeves and Hans Blohm. And today, our sense of the space of Canada continues to grow as aerial and satellite photography bring home to us the enormous extent and variety of the Canadian landscape.