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Manitoba History: Artist with a Camera: The Photography of Peter McAdam, 1920-1940

by Ron Frohwerk
Still Images Section, Archives of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 19, Spring 1990

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

For this is the power of the camera: it can seize upon the familiar and endow it with new meanings, with special significance, with the imprint of a personality. [1]

Among the vast series of photographs in the Provincial Archives of Manitoba are some that transcend their primary archival value. Rather than being significant only for their informational or social-historical value, or for their relationship to a broader series of records, these photographs have many of the qualities we usually associate with art. A case in point is the group of four hundred and eighty-three photographs which make up the Peter McAdam Collection.

McAdam was born on 28 March, 1882, in Blackburn, England. The son of a cotton mill owner, he immigrated to Canada in 1908. Working for almost thirty years as a barber in downtown Winnipeg, he also achieved considerable success as an amateur photographer. He was an active member of the Manitoba Camera Club, an organization that was typical of the new clubs and societies that thrived with the popularity of amateur photography. In the 1920s and 1930s he exhibited his work nationally and internationally on the juried salon show circuit sponsored by the various camera clubs. Many of his display prints from this period received awards. Whether depicting local events, downtown buildings and street scenes, parks, or beaches, the photographs are remarkable in their power to evoke the aesthetic possibilities of photography.

McAdam was one of the many amateurs for whom photography was both a hobby and a serious artistic pursuit. Through his association with the Manitoba Camera Club he was probably aware of historical and contemporary photographic practices common in England, Europe, the United States and Canada. One of the approaches in photography’s then quite short history that is recalled in McAdam’s work is pictorialism. It was a style advocated first in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by some of the serious amateurs, both here and abroad, who sought to further photography as an art. [2]

Pictorialism is generally characterized by soft-focus, which was considered by its apologists to reflect a more natural way of seeing. In its extreme this “naturalistic photography,” or soft-focus impressionistic work, resembled reproductions of paintings. [3] Quickly taken up by many amateurs in Canada, “the various styles and printing processes of the pictorialists became the hallmarks of camera club work.” [4] Much of McAdam’s work of the 1920s typifies the popular style with its emphasis on soft-focus, moody light and various toning techniques used to convey an artistic effect. His synthesis of pictorialist concepts, however, seems to have resulted in what could best be termed a kind of derivative pictorialism since the principal defining qualities of the movement are adopted only to a limited degree or in slightly debased ways.

This modified use of the technique could perhaps be attributed to the fact that pictorialism, as the dominant style in Canada, experienced a decline after World War I and, subsequently, renewed interest by serious amateurs in the 1930s. [5] In the latter period, or “golden age in pictorial photography,” [6] as some have called it, those working in the mode were also informed somewhat by advertising and the photography featured in the now more widely distributed international camera magazines. [7] These influences fostered a looser, more diverse interpretation of the traditional pictorial style.

Conforming closest to conventional notions of pictorialism is the touching image of the young mother (presumably) and child at Winnipeg Beach (Figure 1). The overall delicacy of treatment, the selection, the balanced composition and low-toning technique point to standard pictorial devices. As well, the central figures are softly diffused and the remaining compositional elements are rendered with a subtle range of tones. The whole scene is bathed in a bronze, sepia-coloured light imbuing it with an intense warmth.

Figure 1: Unidentified woman and child at Winnipeg Beach, 1927.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Peter McAdam Collection

At the same time, the photograph departs from the rigid practices of the popular tradition. Instead of a misty, overly artificial appearance, there are the beginnings of a movement towards a more even balance of light and shadow and a new precision of technique. Present, too, is a heightened formal and compositional elegance suggested most clearly in the clever contrast created by the black vertical stripe down the woman’s bathing cap and the horizontal emphasis of the pier in the background. A timeless harmony of form, expression and content is reached lending an aura of authenticity and genuine poignancy to the image. There is as well an absence of the false romanticism common to weaker, more cloying examples of the mode. McAdam has gently probed a tender moment between a mother and child without idealization or sentimentality.

In its toning and slightly soft-focus effect, the photograph of the workmen having their lunch on Main Street (Figure 2) also employs aspects of pictorialism. But again, McAdam seems to be slowly breaking down the boundaries of the style. Serious thought in both the selection of subject and its treatment are evident, however; there is a shift away from the prettiness and painterliness of the pictorial manner to a greater attempt at social comment.

Figure 2: Unidentified workmen having lunch on Main Street, 1922.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Peter McAdam Collection

The juxtaposition of the group of crumpled-up labourers relaxing on the sidewalk with the literally upright, dandyesque men in stiff suits and straw boaters strolling by, is both satirical and provocative. On one level the photograph can be seen as a successful study in capturing the peculiarities and pathos of the street. On another it becomes a stinging analysis of social class.

The diversity of subjects and approaches in the collection suggests that McAdam continually strived to develop his art. An increased experimental ethos and creative permissiveness is strikingly evident in many of the prints. In this more adventurous work he is no longer playing only with the language of the pictorialists. Rather, McAdam seems, wittingly or unwittingly, to show tendencies common to work under the rubric of the so-called modernist photography as defined by the important American photographer Alfred Steiglitz and his legions of disciples.

“Modern” photography, in its broadest sense, can be characterized by a greater emphasis on design, compositional concerns and a trend toward abstraction, all facilitated by increasingly sophisticated camera technology and improved materials. [8] In McAdam’s work this new spirit in photography is evident in the sometimes tilted frames, unusual angles or views, attention to obscure detail, and experiments with the evocative power of light and shadow. There is, in general, an overarching desire to capture the dramatic or aesthetic moment with a particular emotional sensitivity and deliberate artistic intent.

A powerful illustration of some of these new concerns is the disquieting image of the war memorial at Portage Avenue and Main Street (Figure 3). Beyond merely documenting a subject or scene, and rather than trying to mimic painting as in pictorialism, the photographer is commenting on the futility of war with an intense clarity and precision of technique. Although still depicted as an heroic figure, the statue of the soldier is shrouded in darkness, back to the viewer. His looming presence is made more monumental by the cut-off view and odd angle of the photograph. People pass through the scene but seem still as the statue, lending a surreal element to an already funereal image. Adding to the overall solemn tone of the picture is the fact that it was taken on a gloomy, wet day.

Figure 3: War memorial at Portage Avenue and Main Street, circa 1935.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Peter McAdam Collection

The photograph is a masterpiece of composition and mood. All aspects of the image function to produce emotional tensions in the viewer which in turn undermine any nostalgic or sentimental remembrance of war. Fusing content with an amazing grasp of structure and design, McAdam reminds us of the senselessness of war and perhaps in a small way expresses a hope that in future wars can be prevented.

Possessing less of an overtly emotive force but still visually quite strong is the bird’s eye view of Old Knox Church and surrounding buildings (Figure 4). Again McAdam has employed a fragmented, somewhat eccentric perspective, but this time to produce a kind of still life of geometric forms. Focusing on architectural elements such as church towers, spires, elongated windows and arches, and in the distance chimneys and smokestacks, he has constructed a deliberately vertical composition. This verticality is then subtly counterbalanced by the horizontal emphasis created by the repetition of roof tops below. By stressing form and design a semi-abstract composition is achieved. The act of picture taking has become a vehicle chiefly for creative exploration. And, as a by-product of this endeavour, we are left with a highly unusual glimpse of the city.

Figure 4: View of Donald Street and Ellice Avenue looking northwest, 1923.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Peter McAdam Collection

Also providing novel views of Winnipeg, and further expanding the vocabulary of amateur photography, are the number of night shots in the collection. A good example of this group is the photograph depicting the northside of Portage Avenue between Donald and Smith Streets decorated for Christmas (Figure 5). What is interesting here is McAdam’s innovative and expressive use of light as a subject in and of itself. The flickering signs and billboards, bright storefronts and shimmering street lamps, evoke excitement and energy. The cascading streams or festoons of lights against the shifting facades of the buildings and above the block-long row of automobiles enhance the rhythm of the scene. In recognizing first the richness of individual pictorial elements and then their collective potential in a composition, McAdam has managed to capture in a striking way the very pulse and spirit of the city.

Figure 5: Portage Avenue between Donald and Smith Streets, circa 1935.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Peter McAdam Collection

Canadian salon amateurs like Peter McAdam did not develop a specific or indigenous school or style of photography. [9] They did, though, through pictorialism and its subsequent manifestations, succeed in proving that photography could indeed be a fruitful means of artistic expression and personal statement. As well, they helped to evolve a new awareness of photography and a re-definition of photographic aesthetics. McAdam in particular, it would seem, was at the forefront of amateur photography on the prairies. [10] That his pictures also tell us much about the social and cultural history of our province is equally notable and perhaps more important to the Archives. It is their artistic and technical merit, however, which gives them an added richness and resonance.

Notes

1. Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1982), p. 172.

2. For a good summary of pictorialism in Canada see Ralph Greenhill and Andrew Birrell, Canadian Photography, 1839-1920 (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1979), pp. 126-141.

3. Greenhill and Birrell, p. 127.

4. Ibid., p. 129.

5. Andrew C. Rodger, “So Few Earnest Workers; 1914-1930” in Lily Koltun ed., Private Realms of Light: Amateur Photography in Canada, 1839-1940 (Markham, Ontario: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1984), p. 87.

6. Joan M. Schwartz, “Salon Crescendo; 1930-1940” in Koltun, Private Realms of Light, p. 93.

7. Ibid., p. 103.

8. For a comprehensive discussion of modern art photography see Newhall, The History of Photography.

9. Rodger, p. 87.

10. Since the majority of the records of the Manitoba Camera Club were destroyed by fire in 1987, it is difficult to assess McAdam’s direct artistic influence or prominence in the photography community.

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