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ARCHIVED - Framing Canada:
A Photographic Memory

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Photographic Collections


Photographs from Private Collections

The National Archives made its first acquisition of a major collection from a commercial photographic establishment in 1936, when it acquired the Topley Studio fonds. This Ottawa studio produced portraits of public political figures as well as civil servants and residents of the nation's capital between 1868 and 1923. Among the 150,000 negatives and prints are numerous views taken in and around Ottawa. Other major studio collections include those of Paul Horsdal, Jules Alexandre Castonguay, Max and June Sauer, Pierre Gauvin-Évrard, Pierre Gaudard, John Micklethwaite and Robert Ragsdale.

One of the best-known professional photographic collections was acquired from the celebrated Canadian portrait photographer, Yousuf Karsh. The Yousuf Karsh fonds consists of more than 353,000 prints and negatives of prominent personalities, Canadian and international, spanning the years from 1932 to 1992, as well as Karsh's business records.

Mammoth collections have also been assembled by private individuals such as industrialist Andrew Merrilees who, over a period of more than 40 years, collected photographs of steam and electric railways in Canada and the United States. The subjects in the Merrilees fonds include engines, rolling stock and buildings, as well as almost every form of transport in North America. The result is approximately 340,000 photographs documenting transportation between the years 1850 and 1979.

The growing accessibility of photographic technology to non-professional users also had a powerful impact on visual documentation by the late 19th century. The introduction of the small, hand-held Kodak camera by George Eastman in 1888 boasted the slogan "You press the button, we do the rest." Collections of personal photographs are particularly significant to social historians, who find value in subjects less commonly and formally depicted. For example, the snapshot albums of Robert Reford, one of the first Canadians to own a Kodak, show a variety of scenes from recreational activities in Montréal during the 1890s to Aboriginal people working in British Columbia canneries. Henry J. Woodside produced views of prospectors during the Klondike Gold Rush. As a result of a special research program, the Photography Acquisition and Research section of LAC secured some 60,000 examples of amateur photography, dating from 1880 to 1940. These collections are documented in a volume published by the National Archives in 1984 entitled Private Realms of Light.

LAC also holds significant collections from leading pictorialists Sidney Carter and John Vanderpant, which include portraits of prominent Canadians and international figures in this more artistic mode of photography popular at the turn of the 20th century. In another experimental moment, perhaps the first use of colour photography in northern Canada was by amateur photographer and clergyman Donald Benjamin Marsh, who first used Kodachrome film soon after it was introduced in 1936. Marsh's collection of over 300 colour slides, taken under the extreme climatic conditions of the Arctic, is a unique record of Inuit life at a time when the outside world was changing the Far North forever. The Roloff Beny fonds contains almost 160,000 items from this internationally renowned Canadian photographer and publisher of books on world architecture and monuments.

Newspaper publishers became among the most prolific creators in photography by the 1940s, thanks to the advent and development of photomechanical reproduction in the third quarter of the 19th century. LAC holds more than eight million negatives from important Canadian newspapers and magazines, including the Montréal Gazette, the Montreal Star, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Daily Star, and Weekend Magazine, among others. Such collections constitute a valuable resource for contemporary history, from the phenomenal rise in popularity of Montréal hockey legend Maurice "Rocket" Richard to the growing homeless population of the 1980s.

LAC has also acquired selections of photographs as well as entire collections from the most talented photojournalists who worked as staff or freelance photographers for Canadian periodicals. Extensive collections of work by Ronny and Louis Jacques, Michel Lambeth, Kryn Taconis, Walter Curtin, Duncan Cameron, Ken Bell and Ted Grant, to cite only a few examples, provide a range of perspectives on Canadian life.

In addition, work by more than 200 living photographers has been acquired by LAC and represents a wide range of contemporary concerns as viewed by leading figures in current Canadian documentary photography. Individuals such as Harry Palmer, Geoffrey James, Clara Gutsche, Hans-Ludwig Blohm, Barbara Woodley, Vincenzo Pietropaolo, Jeff Thomas, Pamela Harris, Judith Eglington, Orest Semchishen and others ensure that a continuing visual record of Canadian culture as it develops in time and place is available for future generations.