Canada by Photograph: Instructed Looking and Tourism of the 19th-century Canadian Landscape

Frontispiece. C.R.Chisholm’s All-round route guide (Montreal, Que.: Montreal Printing and Publish. Co., 1869). From the collection of Library and Archives of Canada.

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By the end of the nineteenth century Canadians were beginning to discover and define themselves through their experiences with natural landscapes. Advancements in photographic technology combined with photography’s growing popularity in the second half of the nineteenth century further developed this type of relationship. Relatively inexpensive to make and easily reproduced, photographs, particularly those published in guide books, had the twofold ability to visually guide tourists through the natural and built environments in which they travelled, as well as to imaginatively bring those distant landscapes to those who were unable to afford the time or price of leisure travel. Its reproducibility combined with the perception that photography was the most truthful and accurate depiction of its subject made the photograph central to the development of a specific genre of image-based travel literature: the view book.

Photographs made up most – and sometimes all – of the content in view books, which were often produced in-house by photographic studios. They were consumed as a way to photographically and imaginatively visit the sites contained in the book, and also as practical guides to finding the most scenic or picturesque points for viewing those sites – points from which people could in turn make their own photographs. The development and gradual expansion of Canadian railways – beginning in 1836 with the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad, and culminating in the driving of the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885 – had a profound impact on the subjects that Canadian view books contained, and many of the view books that were produced in this period hinged on tourism along the railways. The railways democratised travel, which allowed not only explorers and adventurers, but also anyone who could afford a ticket, an escape into the landscape. Easy access to rural, urban, and ‘wilderness’ points of interest along these travel corridors encouraged Canadians to construct a sense of national identity around a relatively limited number of landmarks and landscapes.

There are many examples of Canadian view books, but none with the print run or reputation of C. R. Chisholm’s All-round route guide: the Hudson River, Trenton Falls, Niagara, Toronto, the Thousand Islands and the river St. Lawrence, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec, the lower St. Lawrence and the Saguenay Rivers, the White Mountains, Portland, Boston, New York.

First published in Canada in 1869 with several revisions throughout the 1870s and 80s, the All-round route guide instructed those who purchased it how to understand and experience Canadian landscapes in a particular way, with Chisholm pointing out all the most important vistas and providing examples of images made by photographers like Alexander Henderson.

Alexander Henderson, “Thousand Islands, St. Lawrence River” and  “Victoria Bridge, Montreal” in C.R.Chisholm’s All-round route guide (Montreal, Que.: Montreal Printing and Publish. Co., 1869), 42. From the collection of Library and Archives of Canada.
Alexander Henderson, “Thousand Islands, St. Lawrence River” and “Victoria Bridge, Montreal” in C.R.Chisholm’s All-round route guide (Montreal, Que.: Montreal Printing and Publish. Co., 1869), 42. From the collection of Library and Archives of Canada.

The role of photography in the All-round route guide is significant. The consumers of Canadian tourist guides and view books sought information on how best to approach, look at, and understand the landscape. This had traditionally begun with textual information: being told what train to take, what streets to walk, where to dine and to rest, and which buildings and landscapes to admire. But, with recent developments in photographic reproduction and the increasing popularity of the view book, these instructions took an increasingly visual turn. For example, for the All-round route guide to include a photograph of Montmorency Falls that had been taken from a particular angle was all that was needed to inform tourists of the best vantage for viewing and experiencing this natural wonder. If a tourist intended to make his or her own photograph of the falls, he or she would be receiving the most informed aesthetic advice on how to do so.

The popularity of view books helps to explain why so many nineteenth-century tourist photographs and postcards display similar vantages and subjects of interest. In this case, choosing a particular vantage from which to view and represent the landscape implies a constructed and instructed way of engaging with it. In addition to how and what to view, instructed viewing helped to define what it was about Canada that was most important to see, and certainly in the All-round route guide these sites were ones that encouraged railway travel. View books instructed tourists to see the sites that were deemed most “Canadian.” Viewing photographically, and learning how to look at both photographs and the actual landscape as instructed by photographs, became part of a new photographic literacy fostered by the idea of tourism and travel that worked to construct the identity of the new nation of Canada.

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Elizabeth Anne Cavaliere (settler-Canadian and granddaughter of Italian immigrants, residing in Toronto/Tkaronto the traditional territory of many nations including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat) is currently a SSHRC Post Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Art History and Art Conservation at Queen's University. You can find more of her writing in Canadian Studies; Histoire Sociale/Social History; Imaginations: Journal of Cross-Cultural Image Studies; RACAR: Revue d’art Canadienne/Canadian Art Review; and in the Journal of Canadian Art History. She has won awards for her research from the National Gallery of Canada and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.


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