By Samantha Shields
Brodie Macpherson, born Archibald Brodie Macpherson, nicknamed “Handlebars” (presumably for mustache-related reasons), was a notable figure in Canada for his role in the photographic community during the rise of colour printing.
Born in Toronto, Ontario, on November 26, 1909, to University Professor Walter Ernest and Elsie Margaret Macpherson, Brodie was the eldest of three children and the first to attend the University of Toronto. He enrolled in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering in 1927 and graduated in 1931. He would go on to serve as a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force in the Second World War before returning home to start his photography business in early 1946. Macpherson’s engineering background, in conjunction with his subsequent years of experience working in the lithography business, would serve him well in the colour printing trade.
The rise of colour photography
Colour photography began to gain momentum in the mid-1930s with the advancement of colour transparencies. Colour prints were also possible at this time, but they were far less popular with photographers than black-and-white prints. The process of making and printing separation negatives was too expensive and complicated for most hobbyists, and the finished prints were rarely worth all the effort for professional photographers. Portrait and scenic photographers were certainly not interested in spending a small fortune to produce prints that critics would frequently describe as garish, vulgar, and unnatural.
Despite its many shortcomings, colour truly excelled in the realm of advertising. While bright and clashing colours can be visually jarring, they are also excellent for attracting attention. During this era, colourful photographs increasingly adorned the pages of magazines, billboards, and sales tools.
Advertising was ideally suited for colour, since much of it involved bulk orders, where repetition and quantity could distribute the high cost and complexity of making an initial print over multiple copies.
Brodie Macpherson – the business
In February 1946, rather than resume his pre-war employment with Harris Lithography, Macpherson, embarked on making and selling quantities of colour photographs using modified versions of Eastman Kodak’s Wash-off Relief and Dye Transfer processes. Given the operational similarities, a background as a lithographic camera operator proved particularly useful in this work.
Macpherson’s business approach was simple: provide the best possible product for the lowest reasonable price. This goal was achieved by
- limiting sales to colour prints, thereby reducing the need to stock equipment and materials to process black-and-white prints, and promoting a specialization in colour.
- selling prints in bulk only, thereby maximizing the life of the chemicals and lowering costs overall. As chemicals would begin to expire rapidly when poured into trays, it was not economical to let materials spoil between small orders.
- experimenting and mixing his own chemicals. Macpherson was able to further streamline his printing process, maintain a consistent quality, and avoid some of the higher costs associated with purchasing prepared chemicals. These cost savings were passed on to the consumer.
- building and customizing tools, from production equipment (e.g., cameras and lights) to printing (e.g., lightbulbs and tray rockers). Macpherson was continually designing, experimenting, and tweaking to improve and perfect the process.
- communicating and collaborating with suppliers, manufacturers (including Kodak), fellow photographers, and printing labs, and continually sharing research, information, and resources to help improve the production of colour photography.
From the outset, clients considered the quality of Macpherson’s colour prints to be strong, and his prices—while still more expensive than those of black-and-white or hand-colour photographs—reasonable. His price lists were consistently lower than those of other colour-printers in the area, and remained unchanged for the duration of the business. Over the next 18 years, Macpherson would go on to fill orders for clients from all over Canada and from the United States.
The colour studio, located at 172 Walmer Road, in Toronto, in the basement of his family home, operated officially until Macpherson’s retirement in 1964.
The Toronto Camera Club (TCC) – Colour Print Group
According to the President of the Toronto Camera Club, Frank E. Hessin, Macpherson was “unquestionably [the] driving force in the [Toronto Camera] Club” for the promotion of colour prints. In 1946, he proposed the creation of—and subsequently chaired—the TCC’s Colour Print Group. Over the next several years, he employed the TCC’s facilities to teach the colour separation process to anyone willing to learn.
Everett Roseborough, a fellow TCC member, writes the following characterization of Macpherson, which echoes throughout the correspondence and articles in the Brodie Macpherson fonds (R791).
“Opinionated [and found] seated in the back row at photographic society meetings, stroking his moustache, he could be counted on to object to something. Following a concerted groan by those present, frequently he would be proven correct.” (Photographic Historical Society of Canada, 1994)
Ever the son of a university professor and librarian
Undeniably clever, Macpherson would readily share information and freely offer his opinion and advice. He was an invaluable resource, as photographers active during this era considered Macpherson to be the best colour photographer / printer in the city.
Over the years, as colour-photography technology continued to improve in speed and accuracy, Macpherson’s skills in this area and his knowledge of colour-print specifications continued to be recognized. He regularly shared his research findings and encouraged discussion through various photography publications, private letters, photography clubs, public lectures, and evenings in his studio accompanied by records and top-shelf scotch.
Already spending most of the winter months in Barbados, Macpherson semi-retired from the printing business in 1964, at the age of 55. While he was no longer accepting any new business, during his time in Toronto, he would still fill orders of reprints from existing negatives for previous clients.
By the late 1960s, the photographic processes used by Macpherson had largely been replaced by Kodak’s new—and simpler—Ektacolor material. As a result, it became increasingly difficult to obtain the necessary supplies in Canada, and the reprinting stopped altogether.
A recluse by nature, Macpherson quietly closed up his home and studio sometime in the 1970s, reportedly moving to Florida without a trace (Roseborough, 1994). Subsequent efforts to locate Macpherson in Toronto, Florida, and Bermuda post-1970 were unsuccessful.
Macpherson’s successful career in colour photography, particularly during a period of rapid technological development, is a true testament to his entrepreneurial spirit, his dedication, and his mastery of the craft.
Samantha Shields is a Photo Archivist in the Social Life and Culture Division at Library and Archives Canada.