The photograph of Sir John A. Macdonald that Canadians are probably most familiar with has, at one time or another, been in their pocket. Taken by Ottawa's renowned portrait photographer William J. Topley in 1890, the image has been reproduced on the Bank of Canada $10 bill since 2001. A variety of images of Macdonald have been used on Canadian currency over the course of this century, the first series to bear his likeness being the $500 bill issued in 1935.
Although the photographic holdings of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) exceed 26 million pieces, fewer than 100 capture the image of Canada's first prime minister. Macdonald was 24 years old in 1839, when the first easily marketed photographic method, called the daguerreotype, was developed. The earliest photographic image of Macdonald in the LAC holdings is a daguerreotype taken some 15 years after this process was invented. While photography was soon to prove its great artistic and documentary potential, most Canadians during Macdonald's lifetime were more familiar with the Prime Minister's likeness from cartoons and caricatures.
Photography gained popularity just as Canada was taking shape in the years after Confederation. For this reason, we have an excellent visual record of Macdonald's political career and the growth of Canada during his time as prime minister. These historic photographs allow us to study the character, posture and intriguing expressions of this Father of Confederation over the decades, especially in LAC's many outtakes from his portrait sessions with Topley. Images such as the haunting portrait of Lady Macdonald after her husband's death, with their disabled daughter, Mary, invite us to ponder the mysteries of Macdonald's private life and how these influenced him as a public figure.
Preservationists at LAC do not need to be concerned about colour changes or deterioration in the antique prints of Macdonald because he lived and worked in the era before colour photography. However, there are other challenges associated with 19th-century photographs. When LAC acquires photographs for the collection, one of the first things conservationists do is remove acidic mountings that will cause damage, such as the glue and tape used to attach prints to boards. This precaution slows down or stops any further deterioration. Photographs are then stored in acid-free envelopes; when shown publicly, they are displayed behind ultraviolet protective glass and away from direct sunlight to prevent further fading. Because heat and temperature changes can cause stress to paper and art materials, photographs and negatives are stored in special vaults that control temperature and humidity.
This expert care ensures that Macdonald's memorable and mesmerizing character, whether as the serious statesman or witty man of the people, will continue to be as familiar to Canadians as the currency in their pockets.
Visit the Gallery of Photographs to see more from the LAC collection.