Transcript of podcast episode 35
An operator may possess a correct taste, a trained eye, a perfect control of his light, but if he has not a perfect command of himself, he will never rise above medium work
The William James Topley photographic collection is one of the most important visual records of Canada. The photographs produced by the Topley Studio provide a vivid documentation of the political, social, cultural, economic, technological and architectural changes during the first fifty years of Canada after Confederation. The collection documents life in the Ottawa area-as well as people and events in other regions of the country-between 1868 and 1923.
In this episode, Geneviève Morin speaks with Library and Archives Canada (LAC) Archivist, Emma Hamilton-Hobbs, about the Topley collection, which is one of the most widely consulted sources of late 19th and early 20th century photographs held at LAC.
Geneviève Morin (GM): Hi Emma, welcome to the podcast.
Emma Hamilton-Hobbs (EHH): Hi Geneviève.
GM: How did Topley first get started in photography?
EHH: Well that’s a very interesting story. It was actually recounted in an interview that was published in the Edmonton Journal just years before Topley’s death. Topley was the son of John and Anna [Delia] Topley; he was born in Montreal in 1845 but was raised in Aylmer, which used to be East Canada. Apparently, it was his mother who introduced him to the medium of photography, which is quite interesting. She travelled back to Montreal to visit some friends in 1858, when her son was just 13 years old, to buy him a melodeon, as he was already quite interested in music. He had already shown an interest in music; he was already playing a few musical instruments at that point and he was also singing in a children’s choir. So her intent was to buy him this musical instrument, instead, for whatever reason, she decided to buy him a camera. So she walked into a few local photographers studios, none of whom could apparently help her, which was, you know, again we don’t really know the full story but eventually she walked into William Notman’s studio. William Notman, of course, was a very well-known Canadian photographer operating in Montreal at that time. William Notman listened to Anna Topley recount her woes and her issues with the other photographers and he agreed to help her out. So he actually gave her a photographic outfit for her son as well as 17 lessons, that she could teach him upon her return, which apparently she did and Topley apparently immediately took a liking to the medium. His father even set up a studio in their home for him to work in and he started off taking tintypes. He apparently travelled to four towns taking these images, these tintypes, essentially these positive images made cheaply on tin sheets of steel and that was how it all started.
GM: Emma tells us more about what happened next for William.
EHH: His family moved to Montreal shortly after his father died in 1863. At that point, both him, William Topley and his brother, John were employed as apprentices at the William Notman’s studio. At that point, Notman had employed many, many young men as apprentices; he had many, many employees working for him at that time. It’s interesting to note that Topley must have impressed him quite a bit because when he opened his first branch studio in Ottawa in 1868, a year after Confederation, he put Topley in charge of that studio, which was situated conveniently right across from the Parliament buildings. So Notman recognized that Ottawa was changing significantly at that time. I mean the Parliament Buildings had just been built so there were all these young politicians who were coming in to the city who, of course, wanted to have their portrait done as this was seen as kind of a sign of wealth and prestige, if you could afford to have your portrait done at that time. So it was a very strategic placement of the studio. And of course, photography at that time was still a relatively new medium. It was still very much for the middle and upper classes at that point so at that time, sitters were primarily, you know, politicians and their family. So that includes anyone from, well, he photographed Sir John A. Macdonald and his family, he photographed all of the members of Parliament, all the senators at that time, in addition to other citizens of Ottawa who could afford to have that done.
GM: He also did the governors general and one of my favourite series of photographs from Topley is the costume balls where we have all of these crème de la crème of Ottawa society dressed up in full silliness.
EHH: That’s right, yeah.
GM: Which is also like an interesting portion of his work. He was photographing the Ottawa society at work but also at play.
EHH: That’s right, so yeah, what you’re referencing is Topley’s composite photograph of the Grand Fancy Ball that the Dufferins hosted on February 23rd of 1876. It’s pretty interesting in that when that ball was first announced, Topley jumped on that opportunity right away. He offered to photograph all of the guests and of course the host, the Dufferin family, to photograph them in their costumes before the ball itself and in the days following the ball as well. So what he did was photograph them all individually or in pairs at times. Him and his staff, presumably, as he had many people working for him at that time, they painstakingly cut each individual person, he cut, you know, he cut out their portrait essentially and pasted them on to a painted background, which was then rephotographed to create this image. Obviously, a very fictitious constructed image of the ball, of what the ball may have looked like at that time. So it’s fascinating, there was a lot of anticipation before the composite was even displayed. We have a diary in our collection of a young woman who, after the ball, would walk pass his studio daily to see if the composite had been completed and eventually, when she saw it, she was amazed. It was, I mean, this composite was almost four feet in length; it’s quite large. Obviously, a lot of details, you could see each individual person, he photographed each individual person so that even if they were standing at the very back of the image, you could actually still see quite a bit of details.
GM: They’re quite spectacular pieces. I’ve seen them in person and they are enormous. They do pose quite a conservation nightmare one hundred years later because of all the cutting and pasting but they’re still really amazing pieces to see.
EHH: That’s right, yeah.
GM: Some of Topley’s photographs seems to have been taken with the intent to show the story of the sitters, their humanity. Can you tell us a bit more about where this is most apparent?
EHH: Yes, definitely. We can glean some things about the way that he viewed photography based on the publications that he did for a few photographic journals at that time. We know that he was really interested in capturing not just the exterior of an individual but kind of their soul, I guess. Just, kind of, what is underneath that person? How do we capture their character? How do we go about doing that the best way possible? So I think he really did believe, as he says it, something along the line of just pointing and clicking or just taken the photograph, right, you have to really get to know the sitter, you have to get to know their mannerism, their personality in order to capture them the best way possible.
GM: Was this something that was new for the time, wanting to represent more than just what is being depicted?
EHH: I don’t think so, no. I think other photographers truly viewed it, at that time, as an art form. And just like any kind of portrait painter, they were very interested in depicting more than just the individual on the surface level but rather trying to provide clues as to who this person is on the inside and their soul per se.
GM: Or their story. We see a lot of this I find in his photographs of immigrant families who arrived in Québec City where he stopped the people and he took pictures of the entire groups as they were arriving and getting off the boats. Can you tell us a bit more about that setting, about how that would happen and what the intent was? Who was he taking these photos for?
EHH: Right. So you’re referring to the immigration series, a very interesting series. It’s actually been, you know, reproduced countless times in publications and it’s actually been pretty well discussed in numerous publications as well. Essentially, Topley was commissioned by the Department of the Interior in 1910 to photograph immigrants who were arriving in Quebec at that time, along with fellow photographer John Woodroffe. These photographs were then used; were circulated in Europe in order to kind of promote immigration to Canada. They had very specific ideas or they had a very specific intent in mind when they were commissioning these photographers to do this. And you know, we can never really say for sure kind of what happened leading up to the taking of these photographs, I mean we don’t know what kind of rapport he established with these people.
The one portrait that I’m particularly attached to, among all of these portraits of immigrants is the one of Chadwick Sandles. He was a young English boy, one of the thousands of Home Children sent to Canada during this time.
GM: The Home Children Emma mentions were juvenile migrants sent to Canada from England between 1869 and the late 1930’s. Over 100,000 children were sent. Motivated by social and economic factors, many believed that these children would have a better chance for a healthy, moral life in rural Canada. If you’re interested in learning more about Home Children, check out
episode 6 of
Discover Library and Archives Canada.
EHH: It’s a beautiful portrait. He’s removed the boy from the context of the immigration centre, he’s placed him in a room near a window and the light coming from this window is kind of beautifully illuminating the creases in his jacket and he has such a beautiful facial expression. That, you know, we can’t really read today but it seems as though it’s much more relax; much more trusting than some of his other portraits of the immigrants arriving. And so you do sort of wonder, you know, what kind of rapport he had with this young boy. Topley, as a father of two boys himself, did he form some kind of connection with him? Did he sympathize? Was he feeling compassionate about his situation? It’s hard to read in to that but it is kind of a beautiful portrait. It’s been, you know, reproduced many, many times.
GM: I can only imagine what it must have been to meet these people for the first time, to photograph them. We see these families, what comes to mind is, for me is that portrait of that German family with, I forget how many children, and everyone looks very stoic. If you think about what they’ve just been through, the immense journey, they’ve just crossed the Atlantic, they must be exhausted from watching after the children on the boat and making sure they’re fed and they’re sleeping. The fact that he manages to capture this or even in Chadwick, this rapport, it’s an extremely special sort of document that we have. There’s other series that he’s done, the Carleton County Gaol [Jail] was another one. I’m gonna finish off with my favourite afterwards but can you tell us about the Carleton County Gaol?
EHH: Sure, absolutely. So we know that some time in February 1895, Topley actually visited the Carleton County Gaol, what is now the Ottawa Jail Hostel and he photographed, he took three photographs inside the jail. One of which features kind of two women standing in the women’s corridor just outside of their cells. Another one is an image of the interior of a jail cell. And the last one is a portrait of Polly, which is arguably the most interesting portrait in the series.
GM: Can you tell us about it?
EHH: Absolutely. Polly has been reproduced countless times in publications. The portrait is very, very interesting in that we don’t have many, many portraits of female prisoners at that time. And this one is particularly affecting primarily because of the way that he does photograph her. Unlike the two women that he photographed standing in front of their jail cells; he’s removed Polly from this context entirely. In fact, you don’t even know that they’re in the jail anymore. He’s placed her in this unidentifiable room, there’s a few chairs scattered here and there but apart from that, it’s a bare room and she’s sitting there, she’s on her knees in this kind of, I guess, in a position of, quote on quote, fallen woman that you would see depicted in paintings from that time. And her right elbow is resting on a chair, her right hand is supporting the weight of her head, her other hand rests in her lap, her head is bent downward, her gaze is directed towards the ground and it seems as though she’s completely unaware of the photographer’s presence, which is interesting. And then, this window is beautifully illuminating the left side of her face while casting the other side in shadow. I mean, from an aesthetic point of view, it’s just a beautiful portrait. And the fact that he identifies her is very, very, very significant because he did not identify the other female prisoners that he photographed. But why did he choose to identify Polly? So, who is this woman? Why did she end up in the Carleton County Gaol? What crime did she commit? You know, we start to ask all these questions about this woman and we wonder about her. The way that she’s posed makes us want to care about her.
GM: And it’s interesting, what kind of rapport did he established with her to have her at ease, sufficiently at ease that she would pose for him, she would go to a different place in the jail, presumably and agree to sit on the floor and lean on the chair.
EHH: Well that’s the thing; we don’t really know the story behind the portrait. Of course, she could’ve been…
GM: He could’ve found…
GM: … her like that.
GM: Oh, forced.
EHH: But I’m thinking she might have been told she was going to pose for him but you know; I’d like to think that Topley was a sensitive man, to a certain degree. He was involved in numerous charitable organizations throughout the years. He served as president of the Young Men’s Christian Association, he was involved with his church, and he was a member of the Ottawa Bible Society. He was involved with all these different organizations. And we know that the YMCA, the Young Men’s Christian Association, and the WCTU, which was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, paid these regular visits to the jails on Sunday. I’ve been able to find this by looking through the prisoner records at the City of Ottawa Archives. And you notice a trend in that every Sunday morning these groups are visiting the jail to kind of speak with the prisoners, form these kind of… Oh, we don’t know what kind of relationship they were but essentially, they were trying to reform these people into like good Christian’s citizens; that was their goal when they were visiting the jail. It’s difficult to say what kind of [relationship they had] with no textual documentation that indicates what these rapports looked like or what kind of relationships they formed with these prisoners. But it’s interesting to think that because Topley and his wife, Helena De Courcy Topley were both involved in these organizations, you sort of begin to wonder, you know, did they know Polly? Did they know Polly’s story? Were they somehow familiar with her in that context? So, you know, all these questions start to come up once you uncover these things.
GM: Were is activities within these various groups also related to his work with the Home for Friendless Women in Ottawa, which coincidently used to sit where the Library and Archives [Canada] building currently sits on Wellington Street in Ottawa?
EHH: Yes, that’s a good question. So, they are interrelated. It’s interesting in that all these photographs to, I should mention, were taken in February of 1895. So his photographs of the Home for Friendless Women, his photographs at the Carleton County Gaol and he also took a few photographs of the YWCA building in Ottawa, so that’s the Young Women’s Christian Association building, and these were all taken around the same time or in the same month rather, and they’re all interrelated. So, I’ll talk a little bit about the Home for Friendless Women because you did ask about that. And again, because these are very, I should stress this, these photographs are extremely atypical for his work has a whole. If you look at his work as a whole, I mean, you’re getting mostly studio portraits, right, and then you’re flipping through the counter books and all of a sudden you come across these small set of images that are completely different from the rest. And that’s what kind of sparked my interest in them in the first place because they were so different from all of his other work.
But moving back to the Home for Friendless Women. The Home for Friendless Women was established by the Young Women’s Christian Temperance Union or the YWCTU, which was a daughter organization of the larger WCTU, which was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. So this was the Ottawa chapter, specifically it was founded by a member, Bertha Wright, who was a descendant of Philemon Wright, who established what is now Hull, Quebec. It opened its doors for the first time in January of 1888, as you mentioned at 412 Wellington Street. And the home was opened to any, I quote, sinful friendless women without regard to creed, nationality, age or condition, at any time, night or day, the only requisite being a desire to lead a better life. So we know based on some of the records from the home what kind of women would’ve been admitted to this home. Primarily, these were women who were either released prisoners from the jail, they came from the streets so they were homeless. So the register from the home does tell us that they did divide inmates loosely in to three different categories, so the first one was unfortunate, second being intemperate and the third was abandoned. They don’t really expand on what they mean by those categories, however a researcher had suggested that unfortunate would refer to a woman living by prostitution, intemperate could denote alcohol usage or someone who was dependant on alcohol and abandoned were mothers who had been either left by their husbands or were single destitute women.;
So, he did take two photographs while he was at the Home for Friendless Women. The first one is interesting, it shows an image in the ironing room of about a dozen women, there’s lot of flurried activity going on, so there’s women working and then there are several babies and infants that are kind of sitting in laundry baskets and they don’t look very secure where they’re sitting essentially. And we know that they did admit mothers with children to the home as well. And this was to kind of press upon the fact that they did sin so it was a reminder. They had to keep their children close as a reminder that they had sin and that they had to care for these children as well. There’s also, in this photograph, an older woman sitting in a rocking chair. And we know that the home also admitted elderly women particularly those who were suffering from homelessness at that time.
GM: It’s painting quite a tableau of, kind of reminds me of the washerwomen that you see in some impressionist paintings again where certain artists and photographers will want to capture that side of society. Do you know why Topley chose to photograph these women?
EHH: We know that his wife, Helena De Courcy Topley, was heavily involved with the home. We know this from the annual reports. She was one of the founding members of the home actually, sitting on the board of management. You see her name come up in various committees throughout the years as well. You always see her donating quite generously to the home as well. So we know that Topley had that connection and I suspect, it could’ve been his wife who asked him to photograph the home that year. We know that Topley returned to the home in 1916 when it had moved to a location on what is now Cambridge Street in Ottawa, and Topley went and photographed these women again. They seemed to be, the images seem much more, almost staged then the initial ones he took in 1895. They seem less cluttered; he really seems to want to depict them as efficient assembly line workers almost, like very productive women, industrious women. And we know that these photographs were used in the annual report for the home that year. So it’s quite possible he was commissioned to photograph those images for the annual report that year.
GM: But we don’t know what they used the first lot for.
EHH: That’s correct, we do not. So that remains a mystery.
GM: Mm. And you were mentioning how you’re going through the books and you’re seeing studio portraits, studio portraits and then these very small little nuggets of something completely different but what’s curious is that this seems to have happened in a very short span of time. Did Topley escape from the studio again later on in his career? Was this something that would happen on a regular basis? Or was this just sort of a one off?
EHH: He would leave the studio. He did travel quite a bit across Canada taking photographs. He photographed Ottawa quite extensively, the streets of Ottawa, homes, residence quite frequently. So he did leave the studio to photograph buildings and landscape photography as well a bit. So it’s difficult to say if it was a one off. I mean, we know that they are sort of all interrelated, as I have discussed. They are interrelated; they all kind of address this context of women’s evolving identities, I suppose, at that time and these various charitable organizations. For example, we also know that Topley was commissioned to photograph the last of those bunch so the ones that he took at the YWCA building in Ottawa, we know that he was commissioned in fact to do those images. So it’s quite likely that he was commissioned to do all of those images, so the images of the home and the images at the jail, in addition to the YWCA images. We have no proof that he was commissioned to do them but it’s quite likely that he wasn’t just doing this for the sake of doing it. It’s quite possible that there was some money involved.
GM: Mm. Well it was his profession after all so it would make sense.
GM: Did he pursue other types of activities outside of the studio?
EHH: Well we know that Topley was not only involved in religious and other philanthropic activities. He was also a founding member of the Ottawa Camera Club. He also served in the Fine Arts Association of Ottawa. So he was also the Sunday school superintendent at the Dominion Methodist Church in Ottawa. He was involved in the Metropolitan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
GM: Oh wow!
EHH: Which is quite interesting. So I think his involvement in all of these different groups certainly shaped the way that he did see these women and the way that he chose to capture, at least Polly for example.
GM: We asked Emma if Topley ever retired.
EHH: So he worked in the studio until about 1907, which was when his son, William De Courcy Topley, took over. We know he did stay involved with the studio afterwards though to some extent. The studio officially closed its doors in 1923. So at that time he left for Edmonton actually and was living with his daughter Helena Sarah and her husband, Robert C.W. Lett. He died in Vancouver in 1930. And actually, there’s a town in B.C. that is named Topley and it apparently is named after him. Apparently, when the school opened in the small town, shortly after it was established, Topley would write to each child for their birthday. He would write them a letter on their birthday and so he developed these rapports with the children, which I think just further speaks to who he was as a person and kind of how he did care about people genuinely.
GM: I can see how your idea of Topley would get molded as you’re sort of learning all of these things about him, that he was possibly just a kind man. So, how big is the Topley collection at Library and Archives Canada? We know they have those really big composite pieces but what type of other material can we find? What’s it made up of?
EHH: It’s a quite large collection. We acquired it in 1936, so roughly, a little over ten years after the studio actually closed. So the collection itself contains over 150,000 glass plate and nitrate negatives. It also contains 68 counter books; these were books that contained a print of each negative in chronological order with the name of the sitter and the negative number so it was a way for clients to look through these albums quickly to place orders for additional copies. So, these are very helpful for us in terms of finding specific images or negatives within the collection. There are also albums, we have daily assignment logs and then we have a small amount of textual material as well but it’s a very small amount of textual material.
GM: Glass plates and nitrate negatives that must be quite the delicate collection to navigate.
EHH: It is. In fact, if you do want to consult one of these glass plate negatives you would have to come to the Gatineau Preservation Centre to view it because they cannot be transported out of the Preservation Centre.
GM: But thankfully, I think a lot of them have been digitized so people can just sit in their pyjamas at home and have a look at them.
EHH: [Laugh] That’s right. So quite a few have been digitized, that’s right and they can be accessed online. There’s still a majority of the collection that has not been digitized. So, if you do want to view them, you do have to come to the Preservation Centre to do that.
GM: And if someone wants to research the collection, where would they have to start first?
EHH: So you can search for the Topley records in our catalogue online. There’s a great tab in our online exhibition on Topley, which is
William James Topley: Reflections on a Capital Photographer, you can click on
search Topley records and it will tell you exactly how you can locate specific records in the collection.
GM: And hopefully you’ll find a digitized image.
GM: You were mentioning that the Topley fonds, here at LAC, doesn’t just have photographs by Topley. Topley was also a collector himself.
EHH: That’s right. So, also in the fonds are photographs by other photographers as well, including his own brothers. Both of whom worked for the studio at one point, so both John [George Topley] and Horatio [Needham Topley] were employed by the Topley studio. So we have photographs by them, in addition to his son, of course, William De Courcy Topley who took over the studio in 1907. We also have negatives by Charles Horetzky, also a very renowned Canadian photographer at that time. We also have negatives by the Stiff Brothers Studio, John Woodroffe and Henri Ami. What’s interesting about some of these negatives is that Topley ended up with these negatives because these studios became bankrupt and at that point, he decided to purchase the negatives from them. So that’s how they ended up in the collection, which is kind of interesting.
GM: Is this a way for him to inherit their clientele, where if they wanted reproductions of their shots, they would now have to come to Topley?
EHH: That’s it. So he would be able to create prints based on those negatives, if there was interest in them.
GM: Finally, we’ve talked about Polly; we’ve talked about young Chadwick but what as been your favourite find in the Topley collection?
EHH: Well, I like many others; I think I’m particularly drawn to Polly. It’s one of the first photographs that really made me want to delve further into the collection. When I saw it, it immediately struck me as something that was really, really special. I just wanted to know more about her and through my research, I really hoped to uncover who this woman was. Unfortunately, I never got that far. What’s also interesting about Polly, if you look at the counter book, you see two other empty squares next to her with the names of, the first names of two other women but they’re blank. And we have no negatives, either before or after in that order so were these also photographs of female prisoners at the jail? We don’t know. They could’ve been. But it’s really interesting to think, you know, what happened to those negatives. We know they existed but what did happen to those negatives and who were those women? But I think it’s interesting to think about why he singled her out as an individual out of all these other female prisoners. What was so special about her? So I think we’ll always gonna be asking those questions. I don’t think we’ll ever get the answers to those questions. But I think it’s interesting to keep on posing them.
The other series of images that I came across when I was doing research for my thesis was a series of images that make you do a double take and these are images of babies and infants. And at first, it looks like a photograph of a baby until you realize that there are a pair of hands around the baby’s middle, which makes you do a double take and say, “whoa, what’s going on here”. And this was a very common practice in 19th century photography because the exposure time were so long. In order to get the children, or the babies or infants to stay still for a long enough period of time, they would have the mother kind of either cloaked in drapery or standing, somehow disguised behind the baby to hold them in place. So sometimes, you’d still see the hands that are gripping the child in place.
EHH: And it’s very, very eerie. I’ve come across it a few times in the collection and it’s really made me, it makes you do a double take when you come across them.
GM: Especially with people who have small children and know how hard it is to keep a fidgety baby quiet enough to snap that picture.
EHH: That’s right.
GM: Let alone a long wait time from, you know, the 19th century. I have seen a few of those photographs as well and it is kind of interesting that the fabric extends outwards and around the baby. So it is quite surprising.
EHH: Right. They’re quite macabre as well. They’re very dark when you kind of look at it in a modern context. Of course, like a contemporary viewer would see this and think nothing of it, maybe even they wouldn’t realize what was happening. But we can look at it from a contemporary lens and think about them in a different way.
GM: Why do you think the child would have to be photographed without the mother or without the person holding them? Was there sort of a trend or a tradition in doing so?
EHH: Because the child mortality rate was so high at that time, they really did value the life of a baby or a young child, right, so it’s putting the emphasis on the child. The woman is kind of, well actually, there were men as well who were hidden. It’s taking the emphasis away from the parents and putting it back on to the baby.
GM: Topley photographs are having a bit of a revival these days with the fact that he photographed all of these areas in Ottawa and people are sort of taking pictures of Ottawa now compared to Ottawa back then.
EHH: Yes. It’s really interesting, now, with social media, these photographs are being circulated on Facebook and Twitter and other social media platforms. I’ve seen a lot of them appear in the Facebook group Lost Ottawa, which is a platform for people to post historical photographs of Ottawa and then, people will comment on them. You know, these photographs often are very nostalgic, depending on when they were taken. It’s interesting in that yes they’re creating this all-new conversation about the images. People love comparing the before and after, seeing what has remained the same and also what has changed since he photographed that same space.
GM: I think Library and Archives [Canada] has participated in that a bit, where we’ve actually featured a few shots of our own, that we took of spots that were also photographed by Topley.
EHH: That’s right. So if you go onto our
online exhibition on William James Topley, you do see a
few images, two images juxtaposed of Topley’s photograph and the current contemporary view of that same building.
GM: That is really fun. Emma, it was fascinating talking to you about this today. The Topley collection sounds fascinating and I can’t wait to check out some more of it because I think, no matter how far you dig, you’ll always find something to peak your interest.
EHH: Absolutely. It’s a large collection; there are a lot of gems in there.;
GM: Thanks for being with us.
EHH: Thank you for having me.
GM: To learn more about the Topley fonds at Library and Archives, please visit us online at
bac-lac.gc.ca. To view images associated with this podcast, you can access a direct link to our
Flickr album on the episode page for this podcast. And if you liked this episode, we invite you to subscribe to the podcast. You can do it through
Google Play or the
RSS feed located on our website.
A special thank you to our guest today, Emma Hamilton-Hobbs.