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Photo collection brings Canadian history into focus

Collection of 542 historical Canadian photographs donated to the Ryerson Image Centre
By: Deborah Smyth
June 21, 2019
A photograph taken in 1905 depicts lifeguard Joe Fortes diving into the water at English Bay in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, surrounded by people in bathing suits on the dock and on the beach in the background

This “real photo postcard” is one of 542 Canadian works, spanning more than a century, donated by Christopher Varley to the Ryerson Image Centre. (Photo: Philip Timms, "Joe" Diving, English Bay, Vancouver, B.C., 1905, gelatin silver print. Ryerson Image Centre, Gift of Christopher Varley, 2018).

Legendary lifeguard Joe Fortes (external link)  saved dozens of lives in English Bay in Vancouver’s West End in late-1800s/early-1900s British Columbia. He was such a beloved figure that he’s featured on a Canadian postage stamp (external link) .

 A “real photo postcard” of Fortes diving into the water, taken by renowned Canadian photographer Philip Timms (external link) , is just one of the 542 works recently donated by former art museum curator Christopher Varley to the Ryerson Image Centre (external link)  (RIC).

“I’ve had the honour, the privilege, of providing the RIC with a building block for a historical Canadian collection,” said Varley, former curator of the Vancouver, Stratford and Edmonton art galleries. “I like what the image centre is doing, they do great programming focused on photography, so it makes sense for these photographs to go to Ryerson.”

The collection includes photographs, postcards, a mirror with a photograph inlaid in the frame – even mug shots – from the late 19th to the 21st century.

Black and white image of two men in early 1900s suits, standing on a tree-lined path, facing the camera, each carrying a small child

This image of two men carrying small children on a tree-lined path was taken by Philip Timms, described by collector Christopher Varley as “a wonderful B.C. street photographer” (Photo: Philip Timms, [Two men holding babies], ca. 1900 (printed later), gelatin silver print. Ryerson Image Centre, gift of Christopher Varley, 2018).

Colour photograph of a corner on Vancouver’s Granville Street in 1959, with pedestrians crossing the road in front of stopped traffic. Parked cars and buses also line the road, and neon restaurant, theatre and store signs that read “Studio,” “Dodek Furs,” “Best’s Ladies Apparel,” “Bowling,” and “DINE” shine on both sides of the street

One of Fred Herzog’s iconic photographs of Vancouver’s downtown core (Photo: Fred Herzog, Granville/Smythe, 1959, inkjet print on watercolour paper. Ryerson Image Centre, gift of Christopher Varley, 2018).

A lady wearing an ankle-length, plaid, 1890s coat, hat and gloves sits on a wooden park bench with two bags at the base of a giant cedar tree

This site in Vancouver’s Stanley Park was a popular subject of photographers at the turn of the 19th century. (Photo: Neelands Brothers, Cedar Tree, Stanley Park, Vancouver, B.C., 1891-1897, albumen print. Ryerson Image Centre, gift of Christopher Varley, 2018).

A black and white photo taken at streetcar-track level, looking up College street in 1915

As Toronto’s first official photographer (external link) , Arthur Goss (external link)  documented the city’s growing infrastructure, including the installation of streetcar tracks (Photo: Arthur S. Goss, Track, College & Manning, 1915, gelatin silver print. Ryerson Image Centre, gift of Christopher Varley).

More than 60 workers sit or stand on, or under, a wooden structure about 1883 to pose for a group photo at the Eureka Woolen Mill

Workers gather for a group photo at the Eureka Woolen Mill (Photo: Photographer unknown, [Eureka Woolen Mill Co.], 1883-1904, albumen print mounted on card. Ryerson Image Centre, gift of Christopher Varley, 2018).

“One of the most exciting aspects of this acquisition is that it significantly strengthens the representation of historical Canadian photography in our collection,” said RIC collections curator Denise Birkhofer. “The collection will be accessible to students and researchers, both local and international, who wish to study the history of Canadian photography.”

The photographs in Varley’s collection depict diverse landscapes and changing cityscapes across the country, documented by the likes of Timms, Geoffrey James, Douglas Curran, Charles Gagnon, Fred Herzog, Fred Douglas and William Notman.

“Notman’s son made several trips out to Western Canada in the 1880s and ’90s and did a lot of photography along the CPR railway route,” said Varley. “I’m really interested in the relationship of photography to the settlement of the West.”

Varley’s grandfather, Group of Seven artist Frederick Varley, and his father, professional photographer Peter Varley, helped inspire his love of art and photography.

“Some of my early memories are of North Vancouver in the mid-1950s and my father’s dark room and cameras,” he said.

“Through the history of photography, you see history unfold before your eyes through these images. They are windows on the past.”

To learn more about the collection, and its upcoming exhibits and events – including a Noontime Collection talk with Christopher Varley scheduled for April 2020 – check the Ryerson Image Centre website (external link) .

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