Portraits on Metal: Tintypes from Library and Archives Canada – an exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada

By Jennifer Roger

The tintype process was introduced in 1855 and quickly became one of the most popular ways for people to access and experience photography.

Tintypes are direct positive images, meaning they have no negatives. Created on a thin sheet of iron that is coated in a dark lacquer or enamel and layered with a collodion emulsion, tintypes are one of the most durable photographic processes. Prevalent in both museum and personal collections, they are compelling records of 19th-century life.

Much more affordable than a daguerreotype, tintypes became the medium of choice for people seeking to have their portrait made. Portrait studios offered tintypes for mere pennies. Their ease of processing created more portability, allowing mobile studios to flourish and expand their services to outdoor fairs or tourist destinations. Tintypes were used to record many outdoor scenes and events. The new medium offered the public an accessible option for capturing likenesses, and it became a catalyst in the acceptance of photography into popular culture.

A hand-tinted, black-and-white portrait of a seated woman.

Portrait of a woman, possibly a member of the Boivin family, mid 19th century (MIKAN 3262334)

Because of their affordability and ease of production, tintypes were appealing to the middle and working classes. The move from the controlled environment of the studio to the outdoors led to a proliferation of never-before photographed scenes of 19th-century life, including people at work, street scenes, buildings and structures, and even battle scenes.

A black-and-white photograph of five men assembling wooden boxes inside a mill.

Interior of a mill, showing men assembling cheese boxes, Maberly, Ontario, mid 19th century (MIKAN 3316695)

A new exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada features a selection of these intriguing objects. Drawn from the collection of Library and Archives Canada, these tintype portraits were created both inside and outside the studio and offer glimpses of life in 19th-century Canada.

The exhibition features several studio portraits, such as one of an unidentified woman posing in front of a Niagara Falls backdrop. Backdrops and studio props were widely used in 19th-century portrait studios, not only for aesthetic reasons but also as a method of self-expression.

Niagara Falls was one of the most desirable tourist destinations in the 19th century, so when used as a backdrop, it could have served as an expression of prestige or of personal interest in the attraction. If one could not personally travel to the site, a backdrop could be the next best thing. Backdrops can also provide clues as to the identity of the photographic studio.

A black-and-white studio portrait of an unidentified woman standing next to a fence with a scene of Niagara Falls in the background.

A studio portrait of an unidentified woman standing next to a fence with a scene of Niagara Falls as the backdrop, mid 19th century (MIKAN 3210905)

People often posed with personal items that were of sentimental value or professional significance, as a way to convey who they were or express what was important to them. Sitters chose items that they felt characterized them, such as tools of their trade, musical instruments and photography equipment. Known as “occupational” portraits, these images are revealing and intimate records of past identities.

A black-and-white portrait of two young men seated. One is holding a violin and the other is holding a cello.

Two young men seated, one is holding a violin and the other is holding a cello, mid 19th century (MIKAN 3262290)

For more examples of these intriguing tintype portraits, visit Portraits on Metal: Tintypes from Library and Archives Canada on display within the Canadian Indigenous Galleries at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa from December 12, 2017 to July 6, 2018.

Jennifer Roger is a Curator in the Exhibition and Loans section at Library and Archives Canada.

“A Very Desolate Place”: The Lord Dufferin Letters

By Kelly Ferguson 

“I have always wanted to breathe the atmosphere of the New World,” writes Lord Dufferin, the third Governor General of Canada, to his close friends Mr. and Mrs. Sturgis. It was 1872 and Dufferin was preparing for his move to Canada, where he would spend the majority of the next six years.

When most of us think of the early governors general we may imagine stuffy noblemen coming to Canada as part of their duty to the monarchy. Sometimes it is hard to think of them as real people at all. These twelve letters, purchased by LAC at an auction in the summer of 2016, offer Canadians a glimpse into the motives and experiences of one of these aristocrats.

Yellow and brown composite photograph. Five people—Lord and Lady Dufferin and three of their children—are shown, each in their own individual shot. They are either sitting or standing for the portraits, dressed in costumes from the era of King James V of Scotland.

Lord and Lady Dufferin, and their children, dressed as the Court of King James V of Scotland in Ottawa, 1876 (MIKAN 3819711)

Lord Dufferin, although initially excited about the adventure of the “New World”, soon had to face the reality of what it meant to live in Canada in the 1870s. He was rather unimpressed with the living situation in Ottawa, complaining that the Governor General’s residence did not have enough space to entertain, that the roads were “strips of mud” and that the city was unfinished. He complained of the cold and the lack of things to do and soon realized that his time here would not be the exciting adventure for which he had hoped.

A yellow and brown image on albumen photographic paper of a winter scene in Ottawa, including several buildings, a road, and trees.

View from top of Dufferin’s tobogganing slide at Rideau Hall. Ottawa, 1878. (MIKAN 3819407)

While the living situation was not always up to his standards, Lord Dufferin took his position seriously. His letters discuss his efforts to bring “prestige” back to the job of Governor General. He also wrote about his opinions and actions as a neutral observer of one of the biggest political scandals of the time. The Pacific scandal saw the resignation of John A. Macdonald and the rise to power of Alexander Mackenzie and the Liberal party. Lord Dufferin’s letters discuss the scandal, expressing both sympathy for Macdonald and hope that the Opposition’s rise to power would be of benefit to Canada. From his letters, it is clear that he liked and respected both leaders.

A black and white photograph of a middle-aged man wearing a suit and standing for a portrait, with his right hand on a table and a chair next to him on the other side.

A portrait of Lord Dufferin, 1878. (MIKAN 3215134)

The Lord Dufferin letters lift the curtain a bit, offering us a more personal look at one of our early governors general. Lord Dufferin came to Canada to escape his boredom with the London scene and in search of something new. Although he was not always completely happy here, he worked hard to uphold the importance of the position. He was also diplomatic, having his own opinions on the Pacific scandal, but maintaining good working relationships with both leaders. Dufferin was Governor General at a crucial time. Canada had just become a country, the expansion west was just beginning, and Ottawa was a city “in progress”. The Dufferin letters not only humanize the man, they also ground the world in which he lived, breathing life into it and making it tangible for Canadians today.

A yellow and brown image on albumen photographic paper. A large wide frame shot of the crowd. Lord and Lady Dufferin sitting to the left at the head of the room.

A Fancy ball given by Lord Dufferin at Rideau Hall, 1876. (MIKAN 3260601)

Kelly Ferguson is a Master’s student from Carleton University working in the Governance and Political Archives Section at Library and Archives Canada.

Mirrors with Memory: Conserving Daguerreotypes from the Library and Archives Canada Collection – Part II

By Tania Passafiume and Jennifer Roger

Glass Deterioration

Depending on conditions, the rates of deterioration of the materials that make up a daguerreotype package (e.g., copper, silver, paper, brass, leather, velvet, silk and glass) can vary substantially. One of the most common problems found by conservators is glass deterioration.

Glass deterioration often makes the daguerreotype appear dull and hazy. This does not necessarily mean that the plate itself has deteriorated. A number of the daguerreotypes from the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) collection that were prepared and treated for exhibition showed distinct signs of glass deterioration

Glass deterioration can occur as a result of fluctuations in either temperature or humidity. There are a couple of ways in which this type of degradation can manifest itself. One is cracking, which is when tiny hairline cracks appear on the surface of the glass. The other is chemical decomposition, which affects older glass with a higher concentration of sodium oxide, causing the glass to appear hazy or cloudy.

Keeping the original glass of a daguerreotype is always encouraged, and in cases where the glass is in an early stage of deterioration, e.g., it appears hazy or foggy, it can possibly be cleaned and reused. Treating this type of deterioration is relatively straightforward: the glass is removed, cleaned with distilled water and a neutral soap, rinsed with ethanol, then left to air dry. When placed back onto the daguerreotype, the plate will immediately appear brighter and clearer. Continue reading

John Boyd

As Canadians we appreciate discovering stories about our country through the works of our painters and photographers, past and present. Canadian archives hold many collections, and sometimes the collection of a particular artist or photographer may contain literally thousands of images for us to explore. This is the case with photographer John Boyd whose collection at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) boasts 28,959 black-and-white photographs.

John Boyd (1865–1941) was born in Emyvale, Ireland. His family immigrated to Toronto in the late 1860s. He was a railway official as well as a photographer. His work with the railroad gave him ample opportunities to take photographs as he travelled across Ontario.

These photographs represent Boyd’s amateur work from 1898 to 1926. A large collection in itself, it is nonetheless dwarfed by the collections held at the City of Toronto Archives. One collection in particular is that of The Globe and Mail, which contains 140,000 of Boyd’s photographic negatives taken from 1922 to before his death in 1941.

The collections at LAC and the City of Toronto Archives complement each other in their dates of creation and subject matter.

The John Boyd fonds consists of photographs portraying all manner of Canadian life, all worth exploring. There are images of towns and cities, royal visits, military life, modes of transportation, industry and agriculture, social conditions, pastimes, and nature.

During the First World War, Boyd focused mainly on the home front, photographing recruiting campaigns, training exercises, and the manufacture of munitions, airplanes and ships. He also photographed everyday Canadians who contributed to the war effort at home as soldiers fought overseas. The following selection of images provides a glimpse of the activities during that time.

A black-and-white photograph of well-dressed men, women and children looking at and exploring an outdoor exhibit of a reconstructed Canadian military trench.

Visitors to a reconstructed 35th Battalion trench, Canadian National Exhibition, Toronto, Ontario, 1915 (MIKAN 3395547)

A black-and-white photograph of women, soldiers and children gathered outside a train. Other soldiers on the train are leaning out of the windows, presumably saying goodbye to their families.

Personnel of the Cycle Corps leaving Exhibition Camp for overseas service, Toronto, Ontario, May 15, 1915 (MIKAN 3194471)

A black-and-white photograph of two soldiers descending the steps of a train car. They are both looking down at the photographer and one is holding a kitten.

Volunteers for war and cat mascot with the 28th Regiment, Toronto, Ontario, August 22, 1914 (MIKAN 3403478)

A black-and-white photograph of soldiers re-enacting how they move out from their trenches for a crowd of spectators at an exhibition.

Soldiers moving out from their trenches, Exhibition Grounds, Toronto, Ontario, September 11, 1915 (MIKAN 3403554)

A black-and-white photograph of two soldiers stopped on a dirt road. One is taking a compass reading as the other takes notes.

Soldiers taking a compass traverse on the intelligence course at Camp Borden, Ontario, September 26, 1916 (MIKAN 3403628)

A black-and-white photograph of a soldier standing in a field holding a large wrench.

Private Vasili Salivarsky, D Company, 123rd Battalion, Toronto, Ontario, March 30, 1916 (MIKAN 3220871)

You can view a selection of Boyd’s images in this Flickr album. To explore the entire collection, start your exploration in the John Boyd fonds, and select “Lower-level descriptions.”

Happy searching!