For the Record: Early Canadian Travel Photography – an exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada

In the early 19th century, tourism in Canada was an emerging concept. Improved modes of transportation, such as new railways and passenger steamships, finally allowed Canadians and visitors alike the chance to witness some of the nation’s greatest sights and scenery.

Contrasting interests dictated what the most popular tourist attractions were, with pristine, untouched nature (waterfalls and mountains) as well as industrial, modern achievements (bridges and railways) being the biggest draws.

A new exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa showcases some of these fascinating images. Drawn from the collection of Library and Archives Canada, these photographs show us how visitors saw the country, often for the very first time. They demonstrate the wonder travellers felt with the natural world, and with the new impressive infrastructure that was developing all around them.

Black-and-white photograph of a woman standing in front of a large, hollowed-out tree.

Great Cedar Tree, Stanley Park, Vancouver, British Columbia, 1897 (MIKAN 3192504)

Almost immediately, capturing and recording these experiences became a popular and lucrative endeavour. Photography was the ideal medium with which to attract potential tourists, and it was quickly utilized by professional photographers who produced images for promotional material as well as traveller souvenirs. Later, as amateur photography became easier and more affordable, the personal snapshot rivalled these commercial images.

Black-and-white photograph of Montréal’s Victoria Bridge, with a young man seated on a rock in the foreground.

Victoria Bridge, Grand Trunk Railway, Montréal, Quebec, 1878 (MIKAN 3323336)

Niagara Falls was the first major tourist destination in North America, and was a bustling scene of commercialism even in the 19th century. Having your picture taken in front of the Falls was a prestigious event, but if you couldn’t make it there in person, you could always have Niagara as a painted backdrop in your studio portrait.

Black-and-white tintype photograph of a woman standing in front of a wooden fence with a painted backdrop of Niagara Falls behind her.

Studio portrait with Niagara Falls backdrop, ca. 1870 (MIKAN 3210905)

Vital components of both the burgeoning tourist industry and of the growing interest in amateur photography, the travel and tourism photographs produced during this period helped to define the country. By creating a familiarity with popular scenery, these images introduced the viewer to what are now recognized icons of the Canadian landscape.

Black-and-white stereograph of two men (one with binoculars) standing on a bluff overlooking Alberta’s Bow River.

Bow River Valley, Banff, Alberta, 1900 (MIKAN 3509496)

Black-and-white stereograph of three small children standing on a pathway in Halifax’s Public Gardens.

Public Gardens, Halifax, Nova Scotia, n.d. (MIKAN 3509481)

Visit the exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa, from March 6 to August 30, 2015. Check out our Flickr set to see more 19th-century travel photographs or listen to the podcast – Canada’s photographic memory!

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