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ARCHIVED - Framing Canada:
A Photographic Memory

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Commercial Photography

Photograph of three women in bathing dresses and caps standing in ankle-deep water, Grand Beach, Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba, circa 1914
On the shore of Lake Winnipeg from the collection of
Canadian National Railways Grand Beach, Manitoba ca. 1914
Photographer: unknown

Photography was a commercial proposition from the outset. As supplies were costly and photographic manipulation difficult, there were few if any amateur daguerreotypists. The domination of photography by professional, commercial photographers continued until the 1890s, when amateur photography started to gain ground.

Many of the early photographers were itinerant, and until the 1850s, when the new wet-plate method reduced costs and led to a blossoming of photography, only the largest cities had established studios. Portraiture quickly became the mainstay of any studio's work, but work outside the studio  --  landscapes, architectural work, stereographs (often sold to tourists), copy work and the like  --  was also undertaken. Studios also did framing work and sold albums and lithographs. As amateur snapshotting became prevalent, studios sold cameras, film and supplies. They also developed and printed amateurs' work.

The development of halftone printing methods in the period from 1870 to 1910 meant that photographers' work was increasingly used in books, magazines and newspapers, and publishers eventually created their own photographic studios. Large industrial firms also began hiring full-time photographers to document their activities, create catalogues of their products and show their progress and expansion. At first, government agencies and police hired commercial photographers for specific projects, but they, too, soon employed their own photographers to record activities such as building construction or to help with criminal identification.

During the 20th century, large firms such as Arnott and Rogers, or Rapid Grip and Batten, came to the fore with extensive modelling and lighting facilities, special cameras and lenses, and cadres of specialist photographers and graphic artists. Individual photographers, however, continued the tradition of being omnicompetent, shooting portraits, landscapes, architecture, special events and anything else that paid. In doing so, they unintentionally enriched our history by producing many of the documents now found in archives across the country.