Reconsidering Amateur Photography

Mrs. Wagner's Aspirations

Martha Langford

The American storyteller Garrison Keillor, too prolific to cite here with any accuracy, sent me this apposite image through the radio. A male character, ranting about the pack-rat habits of his late father who never threw anything out, but just accumulated and accumulated stuff until the day he died, builds his monologue to a near hysterical pitch: I can prove it to you, he says, see it’s all here in boxes under my basement stairs. [1]

Cultural theorist Siegfried Kracauer’s warning about the flood of photographs that would wipe away memory was, as studies of memory should be, more attentive to the psycho-dynamics of the present than interpretations of the past. [2] Kracauer was describing modern life – and in the twentieth century, was life ever more modern than between the two world wars? – as continuously buffeted by waves of images, the constructions of memory weakening under the tidal wave of mechanical reproduction. French historiographer Pierre Nora, who was responsible for accelerating the production of national “realms of memory,” eventually recoiled before “a bedlam of commemorations, a mushrooming of museums, and a revitalizing of tradition in all its forms”. [3] For my part, I have conceptualized the photograph album as a scaffolding of memory whose awakening is a complex experience involving showing and telling, as well as looking, listening, and touching. As a communal practice, it is all of those things at once, and considering the duty to remember that comes with the intergenerational transmission of knowledge and feelings, it is also a keeping, which brings us back to the protagonist in Keillor’s radio play and those boxes that he cannot bring himself to throw away. Here is Nora’s “prisoner of memory” [4] personified.

And who was Mrs. Wagner? This is a surprisingly tricky question that I have attempted on three previous occasions to answer. [5] Easier to say who she is. Mrs. Wagner (Mrs. C.W. Wagner, Mrs. Charles W. Wagner) is a figure that I encountered during my research on the large collection of amateur albums (1860 –1960) held by the Notman Photographic Archives at the McCord Museum in Montreal. What can be said with absolute certainty is that Mrs. Wagner was a donor. In 1974, and again in 1980, Mrs. Wagner, then living in Lachine, Quebec, placed a number of albums and loose photographs into the hands of Stanley G. Triggs, curator of the Notman Photographic Archives. A legendary figure in his own right, Triggs held this post from 1965 to 1993, during which time he built energetically upon the museum’s two founding visions: that of David Ross McCord (1844 – 1930), lawyer and landowner, whose collection of artefacts and documents included his own family albums and others of his class; and that of William Notman (1826 – 91), photographer and businessman, whose family-operated studio (1856 – 1935) and branch studios put Montreal on the Empire’s photographic map. Triggs was very interested in both the professional and amateur practices of photography for their production of documentary photographs, which he valued for their informative content, their social contexts, and the technical histories, often adventurous, of their making. He was a preservationist, in other words, more in sympathy with the hoi polloi than the high and mighty, though his curatorial functions at the McCord Museum, sometimes referred to as the ‘attic of old Montreal’ put him in regular contact with both. Amateur photographs flowed into the Notman Archives, sometimes with a Notman composite, an Alexander Henderson view, or a Livernois studio portrait as the institutional hook or lure.

Mrs. Wagner’s 1974 donation of two loose-leaf or scrapbook-type albums and some unmounted photographs was true to type, in that it included a few ancestral portraits from the Livernois studio and from J.L. Jones, Army Photographer, both businesses in the provincial capital, Quebec, as well as the portrait of a young man in uniform identified as Forsyth Hall (Henry Forsyth Hall?) taken by Canadian-born photographer Amy Cassels at her Bond Street studio in London, in 1915. These photographs are inscribed on the back with information gleaned from the donor and supplemented from the cataloguer’s knowledge of her family. Someone has supplied the information that the man with the great white beard in the J.L. Jones portrait was the great-grandfather of the donor, J.B. Hall. The undated cabinet card by Livernois has been identified as the donor’s great-grandfather on the mother’s side, H.G. Forsyth. The back of the Cassels portrait, at some point claimed as ‘Daddy’, was also inscribed ‘Forsyth Hall’, with an estimate of his age at the time of the portrait as sixteen years old. This photographic genealogy skipped a generation, a hole that needed to be repaired.

Recourse to First World War military records indicates that a certain Henry Forsyth Hall signed his Attestation Paper to join the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force on 26 September 1914. Born on 9 January 1896, the Forsyth Hall who swore the Oath of Attestation would have been 18 years old when he agreed to serve overseas. According to his papers, he was a bank clerk, who had, however, spent previous years in the militia, which might explain some of the confusion over dates. For all-too-obvious reasons, the Attestation Paper required the name of the soldier’s next-of-kin, closing the gap between J.B. Hall and H.F. Hall with one W.C.J. Hall. This was William Charles John Hall, born 1857, whose marriage to Amy Marie Adele Forsyth had produced four children, one given this double-barrelled name. By matching birthdates on provincial marriage records, we learn that Henry Forsyth Hall returned from the war to marry Jessie Montague Johnston in 1922. A Margaret Leslie Forsyth Hall was born in Quebec in 1923. Was this the daughter who would become Mrs. Charles W. Wagner? The penny drops because among the scraps of paper in a mixed box of studio portraits, views, and snapshots is a list headed ‘Leslie Wagner’. So we have arrived. [6]

The 1974 donation was unknown to me until I returned to the McCord in the fall of 2012, prompted by the invitation to write this essay and still curious about Mrs. Wagner and her photographic legacy. On previous visits, whether researching my dissertation, my book on albums, or the book chapter that I wrote on the Wagner Gaspé Album (1928 – 1933), the 1974 donation had never come up. For those reasons, I had simply accepted that this Mrs. Charles W. Wagner was both the compiler and the principal snapshot photographer – there were other commercial formats, postcards and views, which were not attributed to her. My book chapter on the Gaspé Album put Mrs. Wagner’s signature on the work, but lacking information on the maker and her family, turned away from biography to stare deeply into a history of place: the village of Madeleine River, Quebec; the Gaspé region’s exploitation by the pulp and paper industry, a story of American investment, its boom and bust; the repeated failure of the local cod fishery, which had exacerbated economic disparities; and the dashing of hopes for a local tourist industry by American and Central Canadian landowners who refused to cede rights to their precious salmon pools. Within this context grew the photographic figure of a modern woman, an upper middle-class wife and mother, as she adjusted to her circumstances and began to thrive in this rustic environment. As narrated by the album, ‘she’ at some point encountered the local fisher folk. The plight of these people, manifest in their physical appearance and inadequate shelter, attracted ‘her’ attention. ‘She’ and a female companion made a charity visit to the fishing village, an event that was very carefully recorded, and not just from a participant’s point of view, but through careful previsualization, so that the visitor could be photographed greeting the fisher folk from the passenger’s seat of the car, approaching the dwellings in a long landscape view, and being welcomed at an open door.

These pictures were staged with considerable thought and effort, and it was this factor – the labour of the photographer – that caught my attention. It was the punctum of an already enigmatic passage.

Believing this person to be a woman, I reviewed the status of charitable work at the time and the paternalistic opinion that overindulgence by wives and mothers might constitute a damaging disruption of family life and roles. Dickens’s ferocious parody of female philanthropy in Bleak House (1852-53) was never far from my mind, nor were Walker Evans’s portraits of Depression-era tenant farmers (1936) in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) The Wagner album’s anonymous snapshots performed the first and anticipated the second. Their arrangement as a discrete photo story within the overarching story of upper middle-class family life in the Gaspé functioned in antithetical ways: as an outbreak of social conscience taking the form of reformist social documentary photography; as a disruption of the Kodak continuum of familial milestones and monuments. The photographer – Mrs. Wagner, as I thought – aspired somehow to break out of that paradigm, at least temporarily, as carnivalesque role-playing allows.

Now with the 1974 donation before me, adding more albums, more prints, and sufficient personal information to construct a four-generation family tree, Mrs. Wagner’s role in this photographic drama becomes clear: Mrs. Charles W. Wagner, née Margaret Leslie Forsyth Hall, was the eldest child and keeper of her parents’ photo stories. The woman in the charity mission pictures seems to have been her mother, Mrs. Henry Forsyth Hall, and the photographer who dashed across the uneven terrain to catch that remarkable long view, most probably Mrs. Wagner’s father, for Hall was definitely an amateur photographer. A striking feature of the large scrapbook album donated by Mrs. Wagner in 1974 is a technically polished suite of panoramas – picturesque views of rural Quebec–with the initials H.F.H. faintly inscribed on the album pages. But are the amateur aspirations intuited from this family photographic trove directly transferable from the constructed character of a wife and mother to its recasting as husband and father? Some are, though not without comment, and that involves some reconstruction of the man and his times.

Forsyth Hall was born into a prominent Quebec City family of landowners and businessmen whose wealth came in large part from lumber. His father W.C.J. Hall had achieved national prominence for studying and importing the American system of fire towers to the Canadian forest; he was the Superintendent of Laurentide National Park when he died in 1920. Forsyth Hall, as he seems to have been known, was the second son. According to his obituary, he “was educated at the Quebec High School, and while a member of the cadet corps there he was chosen to attend the coronation of King George V, and also was a member of a team representing Canada in an Empire shooting competition”. [7] Having joined up in 1914, Forsyth Hall received his training at Valcartier Camp and somewhere in England. The Wagner albums that describe or fleetingly refer to Valcartier can now be understood as memories of this tumultuous period, though not strictly from this soldier’s perspective since social life in Canada during the war is also a recurrent theme. Decorated and mentioned in dispatches, Forsyth Hall “served continuously throughout the war”. [8] He was therefore absent from family life – the holidays, excursions, and weddings – though its representation in an impressionistic compilation of comings and goings paints an accurate picture of wartime courtship. Jessie Montague Johnston is pictured, she is named, and she sometimes names herself.

Meanwhile, Forsyth Hall “was appointed to the staff of General Watson in France”.[9] For informed Canadians, Major-General Watson’s ‘France’ evokes the terrible battles of Amiens, Arras, and Cambrai, which occurred between the second week of August and early October 1918. [10] Reconnaissance photographs from these operations and documents of its aftermath illustrate the Report of the Ministry, Overseas Military Forces of Canada, 1918, published in London the following year. Images include explicit views of the terrain, a killing field of “barbed wire entanglements … machine gun positions … and large tunnels”, as reported by the Commander of the Canadian Corps, Lieut.-Gen. Sir A.W. Currie. [11] Photographs in the wake of successful operations focused on the physical destruction of cities such as Cambrai, which the retreating German enemy had attempted to mine or burn to the ground. Mixed in with these documentary photographs are less objective images involving photographers and human subjects in various acts of illustration. The truth-value of these images is a function of their use. While some pictures were plainly faked or staged, others were simply posed, and their classification as propaganda involves factors that the photographers, subjects, and original commissioners might not have anticipated, such as hyperbolic captions or the repurposing of a training shot. The vast corpus of ‘Official Photographs’ of World War I has long been subject to this kind of analysis, which need not be rehearsed here. [12] What does seem relevant, however, is what I see in the Report as a mixture of informative and illustrative images, used interchangeably and without inhibition to supplement the mental images drawn by the text. The Wagner donation shows that these illustrative intentions spilled over into the peace as amateur aspirations.

Photographs of the shocking state of the people dominate the photo story of the Gaspé charity mission.

These are unsparingly factual, and only made sadder by the subjects’ attempts to smile for the camera.

I once read this series through the scrim of reformist social documentary photography, backforming the pictures in terms of moral witnessing and objective reportage, and this was the honing of my punctum, for the great effort to show the benefactress walking toward the deserving poor struck me in its omniscience as a display of class narcissism. But considering World War I photographic experience, its pragmatic alternations between documents and illustrations, the carefully premeditated image suddenly begins to make sense. It is nothing if not the peacetime recasting of an official photograph, such as “A little party of Canadians entering the Ruins of Cambrai”, published in the 1918 Report. [13] According to Commander Currie, this is what transpired:

"Cambrai was deliberately set on fire by the enemy. Huge fires were burning in the Square when our patrols went through, and many others broke out in all parts of the city. Piles of inflammable material were found ready for the torch, but the enemy was unable to carry out his intention owing to our unexpected attack and rapid progress. A party of one office and a few men, which had been left with instructions to set fire to Cambrai, was discovered and dealt with before it could do any further damage. "[14]

The photograph that corresponds to this military operation is a carefully composed view of mountainous rubble.

The nominal subject, an advancing party of soldiers, is Lilliputian, barely discernable in the distance. The soldiers are seen to be entering what will be discovered to be an almost deserted city, but the charge of the photograph resides in the possibility that there may yet be resistance. And yet, illogically, the photographer seems to have anticipated their arrival. His vantage point is from the heart of the city, a position that is literally untenable. How did he get there and who is watching his back? None of this can be explained, except as an example of staging a photographic illustration for the purposes of explication and memorialization, an image that became propaganda. [15]

Another view of Canadians at Cambrai wants to illustrate the human encounter with senseless (inhuman) waste.

It shows soldiers milling in a square, looking on with stupefaction; they are less exhausted fighting men than disaster tourists. [16] Forsyth Hall finished his war as a battlefield guide inFrance. Such illustrations would have been his helpers as he maximized valour and minimized waste for the bereaved and the curious. And they would also have been his models, for one can be sure that he handled many Brownies over the course of this service, his ‘anonymous’ pictures of visitors wending their way into countless family albums.

My contextual reading of the Wagner Gaspé album made the connection between the family presence in the area and its colonization by American interests, strictly on the basis of the images, a scant few captions, and a scattering of dates. This information was supplemented by the published memoirs and social histories of the subalterns of the region, the indignant hoi polloi talking back. As I have now discovered, my speculation was essentially right. Henry Forsyth Hall’s obituary confirms that “At the time of his death he was manager at Madeleine River for the Brown Corporation, pulp and paper manufacturers of Maine”. [17] This account also explains one of the album’s dangling mysteries, which is what happened to the family after Brown’s investment failed to pay off and the teams of surveyors, engineers, electricians, and foresters who had transformed Rivière-Madeleine into a company town stopped coming. Hall, nominally still manager of this failed venture, remained in the area. A devout Anglican, he was “working on a fund for the construction of a mission chapel on the Madeleine River”. [18] In the Roman Catholic province of Quebec, this was another quixotic project to be sure, but as a Canadian veteran of World War I, Hall had experienced impossible odds. His mission unbuilt, he died after a short illness at the age of 43.

So what were this amateur’s aspirations? Perhaps the pictures of the poor that ended up in a family album were taken with more public purposes in mind, to promote the needs of his mission, to pluck at the heartstrings and dig into the pocketbooks of his wealthy connections in Quebec. A by-product of Christian missionizing is a genre of photography that looks for all the world like ethnographic documentation and activist photojournalism, balancing exoticism and universalism in its targeted appeal. In Hall, we may have the makings of an aspirational amateur who uses photography to intercede on behalf of the other, to make a case for care by illustrating both the need and the act of intervention. In the insertion of these images into the family album, we may also be seeing signs of the Halls’ aspirations to make this charitable episode into the next chapter of their lives, something that was not to be.          

And this leads us to another amateur who asks to be considered here: the amateur curator of this collection; the true amateur, in the sense of one who loves. Mrs. Charles W. Wagner, born Leslie Hall, lost her father at very young age, just thirteen days after her fourteenth birthday. All of her family albums exhibit much wear and tear; they have fulfilled their makers’ aspirations as the instruments of singular identity, community connection, reminiscence, and storytelling. Her donation aspired to preserve for future generations the appearance of things to people in her circle, and this was enough to make a place for her collection at the McCord. What could not be predicted, however – the project unprepared – was the collective life-writing and meaning-making that students of photographic experience now aspire to write. Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hall have meticulously shown how a “mixed box” of photographs, under the stewardship of a museum, should be understood as a palimpsest of meaning, what we see “embedded within shifting patterns of ownership, organisation and use”. [19] Having passed through several stages of encounter with Mrs. Wagner’s copious and undocumented photographic legacy, I have sometimes learned more from the images than she might have been able to tell me, and sometimes less. This is the nature of photographic experience, whose quickening interpretation is my own amateur aspiration.


  1. Garrison Keillor is the creator and host of the long-running American Public Radio programme, A Prairie Home Companion. back
  2. Siegfried Kracauer, ‘Photography’ (1927), trans. Thomas Y. Levin, Critical Inquiry 19: 3, Autumn 1993, 421-436; citation, 432. back
  3. Pierre Nora, ‘Introduction to Realms of Memory, Volume III’, in Nora, ed. Realms of Memory: The Construction of the French Past. III. Symbols ix-xii; citation, xii. back
  4. Nora, ‘Introduction to Realms of Memory’, Volume III,” xii. back
  5. Martha Langford, Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums Montreal, 2001, 118-21, 129, 209-10; Langford, ‘An Excursion into the Amateur Grotesque’, in Ian Angus, ed., Anarcho-Modernism: Toward a New Critical Theory. In Honour of Jerry Zaslove.Vancouver, 2001, 99-113. back
  6. I wish to acknowledge the help of Nora Hague, Senior Cataloguer, Notman Photographic Archives, for her great help with the Hall and Forsyth family histories. back
  7. ‘Forsyth Hall Dies in Local Hospital – Manager for Brown Corporation at Madeleine River had Fine War Record’, Montreal Gazette, 19 July 1939, 9. back
  8. ‘Forsyth Hall Dies inLocalHospital’. back
  9. ‘Forsyth Hall Dies inLocalHospital’. back
  10. Jean-Pierre Gagnon, ‘Sir David Watson’, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. Accessed 4 December 2012. back
  11. Sir A.W. Currie, ‘Interim Report on the Operations of the Canadian Corps during the Year 1918’, Report of the Ministry. Overseas Military Forces of Canada, 1918. London, 1919, 144-5. Accessed 3 December 2012. back
  12. For a recent exposé of these issues, see Laura Brandon, ‘Words and Pictures: Writing Atrocity into Canada’s First World War Official Photographs’, Journal of Canadian Art History 31: 2, 2010. 111-124. back
  13. ‘A little party of Canadians entering the Ruins of Cambrai. A picture typical of the havoc wrought by German mines’. Report of the Ministry, facing page 169. Accessed 3 December 2012. back
  14. Currie, ‘Interim Report on the Operations of the Canadian Corps during the Year 1918’, 166. back
  15. Jonathan F. Vance, Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War. Vancouver, 1997, 23-4. back
  16. ‘Canadian entering the burning City of Cambrai. It was fired in scores of places by mines left by the retreating Germans’. Report of the Ministry, facing page 166. Accessed 3 December 2012. back
  17. ‘Forsyth Hall Dies inLocalHospital’. back
  18. ‘Forsyth Hall Dies inLocalHospital’. back
  19. Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart, ‘Mixed Box: The Cultural Biography of a Box of “Ethnographic” Photographs’, in Edwards and Hart, eds., Photographs, Objects, Histories: On the Materiality of Images.London andNewYork, 2004, 47-61; citation, 60.  back

Image references

  1. Wagner Gaspé Album 1928-1933, 215. Rural group and automobile, St.-Antoine, Gaspé Peninsula, Quebec, about 1930. Notman Photographic Archives. Accession number MP-1980.32.1.215 © McCord Museum back
  2. Wagner Gaspé Album 1928-1933, 222. House, St.-Antoine, Gaspé Peninsula, Quebec, about 1930. Notman Photographic Archives. Accession number MP-1980.32.1.222 © McCord Museum back
  3. Wagner Gaspé Album 1928-1933, 243. Rural children and visitor, St.-Antoine, Gaspé Peninsula, Quebec, about 1930. Notman Photographic Archives. Accession number MP-1980.32.1.243 © McCord Museum back
  4. Wagner Gaspé Album 1928-1933, 232. Rural children (including boy on crutches), St.- Antoine, Gaspé Peninsula, Quebec, about 1930. Notman Photographic Archives. Accession number MP-1980.32.1.232 © McCord Museum back
  5. Wagner Gaspé Album 1928-1933, 234. Woman in apron and rural children, St.- Antoine, Gaspé Peninsula, Quebec, about 1930. Notman Photographic Archives. Accession number MP-1980.32.1.234 © McCord Museum back
  6. Canadians entering Cambrai, October 1918. Accession number CWM 19930012-830. George Metcalf Archival Collection. © Canadian War Museum back
  7. Canadians entering Cambrai, October 1918. Accession number CWM 19930012-827. George Metcalf Archival Collection. © Canadian War Museum back
Reconsidering Amateur Photography