On Display: Imaging History

ND [1860]. Stó:lō canoes pulled ashore at a Fraser River 
settlement.  BC Archives C-09286
2013.  View of the Maple Ridge Museum and Fraserview 
area from the Fraser River.  P13156

Presently on display at the Maple Ridge Public Library, “Imaging History: Photography” surveys the importance of photography to the community archives, and tells the story of photography’s development as a recreation and profession through images and artefacts taken from archives. 

Modern photography is based on the principles of the camera obscura, which was used in ancient China and Greece to project images.  A camera obscura uses a pinhole to project an image upside-down onto the rear wall of a dark space, and could be small boxes or the size of entire rooms.  They were purely projection machines, lacking the photochemistry required to record and preserve the images they captured.  The first example of a chemical process capable of recording light was developed in the 1820s and 1830s by Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Daguerre in France.  They coated metal plates in light-sensitive chemicals and added them to simple box cameras to capture the first true photographs.  In 1840, Briton Henry Fox Talbot invented the first photographic process that produced translucent paper negatives from which “positives” could rapidly be printed.   What we would recognize as film was developed by George Eastman, American, in the 1880s at his Eastman-Kodak Company.
1951.  Aerial view of dyke construction in Pitt Polder.  P00057
Early cameras, using “wet” plates, were large and unwieldy.  The adoption of “dry” plates and later film would make photography much more convenient and cameras more portable.  Box cameras are essentially camerae obscurae, with simple lenses incapable of adjusting the camera’s focus.  Folding cameras were compact bellows cameras, which, when extended, produced the correct focal length for their lens.  Early in the 20th century, as incomes rose and photography became an important pastime and profession, it became important to produce cameras that could adjust focus.  “Rangefinder” cameras allowed novices to set the appropriate focal length by introducing built-in viewfinders.  The concept was improved with single-lens reflex cameras (SLRs), which used interior mirrors to provide a direct view through the lens on the subject, which could then be focused with greater accuracy.
Digital cameras did not replace focusing technologies, and today’s digital SLRs appear similar to earlier film versions.  However, instead of recording the image chemically on film, light which enters the lens of a digital camera is captured by an electronic sensor which fills in an array of pixels with different values associated with discrete wavelengths of light.
ND.  Resident of Allco Infirmary.
William Saunders, photographer.
ND.  Orderly at Allco Infirmary.
William Saunders, photographer.

The images in the Museum’s collections are typically commercial or recreational in nature.  Commercial photographs were the product of a paid exchange between the photographer and their client.  These include studio portraits of people and families, hired aerial photography, some images of businesses and facilities, and photographs taken by local media for publication.  These kinds of images are valuable because of their consistent quality and high level of documentation.  Recreational photographs were made for personal purposes.  While professional photographers make many “recreational” images, many more are made by amateurs.  Amateur photographers can be highly skilled and have contributed stunning images to the collection.  This kind of photography may also focus on topics that, having no commercial basis, would go unnoticed.

In the collections of the Community Archives, all kinds of photographers are represented.  William (Norton) Saunders was a highly skilled amateur who took many portraits of the town’s social life.  W.B. Piers donated many of his family pictures along with images he made of Maple Ridge businesses.  Len McGregor made his living professionally making photographs of industry, people in studio, and public figures, and later taught the art.  Jo Ann Kronquist took photographs of local events before receiving her B.F.A. and becoming a professional artist.  These are only a few of the many people represented in the Community Archives.
1932-33.  Water tower at Hammond
Cedar mill covered in ice.  W.B. Piers,
photographer.  P12570
Most images in the archives have no identified photographer.  The remainder were taken by a handful of people whose collections have been donated to the museum.  From time to time, we receive the same printed photos from separate donors – this can help us to locate the origin of the images if each source arrived with partial information.  Other times, comparing conflicting information can point the way to an error in our interpretation of the historical record.  While we may not always know to whom an image belonged originally, even images with scant documentation can be powerful visually and tell invaluable stories.
Photographs are an important secondary source of historical information, and in many cases “recall” an event, person, or place more clearly than would a person in the retelling.  Although photos do contain bias, in the context of community history an amateur photographer’s bias can suggest community values.  Regrettably, few photos in the collection concern non-white minorities and Aboriginal communities, and very few of our identified photographers are women or minorities.
The Museum welcomes images of cultural significance to Maple Ridge.  Please contact mrmuseum@gmail.com.  “Imaging History: Photography” can be viewed at the Maple Ridge Public Library until the end of August.
ND [1920-25].  Myrtle (L), Vera, and Birdie
Anderson out for a walk; Birdie holds a
folding camera.  P03298