Colonial Copyright & Photographic Image in Canada


A review of Colonial Copyright and the Photographic Image: Canada in the Frame, by Philip John Hatfield.

Philip Hatfield’s dissertation is an engaging study of a little explored section of the British Library’s Colonial Copyright Collection, namely the eclectic assortment of Canadian photographs originally deposited at the British Museum Library between 1895 and 1924. In seven well-documented chapters, Hatfield reconstructs the socio-historical and institutional contexts which underscored the creation of this visual archive, revealing its multiple geographies and discussing their implications for our understanding of Canada’s past and for museum practice in general.

Chapter 1 highlights the unusual character of the collection, in particular its haphazard content which resulted from the manner in which the archive was created. As Hatfield points out, the photographs were submitted voluntarily by Canadian amateur and professional photographers who wished to have their work registered for colonial copyright; as such, the content of the collection was shaped primarily by the individual aspirations of the photographers rather than a specific curatorial mandate. The Canadian collection was also created against the background of an evolving colonial copyright legislation which encouraged the transfer of significant intellectual property from various parts of the British Empire to institutions in Britain (p. 12). Hatfield emphasizes the hierarchical nature of the colonial copyright system – which ranked material from India, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa as particularly valuable, in contrast to that originating in Hong Kong, Singapore or Africa – and points out that this legislation reinforced the subordinate status of these territories as opposed to sovereign states like Germany and France which were governed by international copyright. This chapter also elaborates the theoretical underpinnings of the dissertation, in particular the concepts of “paper empire” and “visual economy.” Hatfield highlights the diversity of printed matter which constituted the “paper empire” and included maps, paintings, musical scores, photographs, stamps, etc., but argues that the concept of “visual economy” is more useful in understanding how the photographs acquired value and meaning through “commercial process[es], institutional politics and colonial agency” which complemented imperial agency (pp. 28-29).

This theoretical discussion continues in Chapter 2, where Hatfield considers possible approaches to the study of photographical collections. Based on the characteristics of the photographs, in particular their “heterogeneous materiality and dynamics,” and influenced by the work of Roland Barthes (Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage Classics, 2009), he ingeniously conceptualizes the Canadian Colonial Copyright Collection as a domestic photographic collection (p. 39) and highlights the duality of the photograph as a documenting tool and potential artistic product. Methodologically, Hatfield examined and recorded each item in the Colonial Copyright Collection, thus contributing to the codification of this material. This thorough work of quantification enables him  to identify important trends in the type and amount of photographs deposited (for example, commercially valuable photographs such as portraits of political elites, the inauguration of civic buildings, etc. were deposited particularly prior to the early 1900s) and the subjects represented in the collection (urban scenes dominated, followed closely by landscape views). Furthermore, Hatfield discusses the role of geography, urbanization and gender in shaping the content of the collection (most photographs originated in the highly urbanized states of Ontario and Quebec and were submitted by male photographers, although the average number of submissions by women was higher), as well as the influence of WWI on photographic production in Canada, in particular due to the shortage of chemicals and solvents produced in Germany and the fact that many Canadian photographers had perished on the European front.

The following four chapters discuss the various thematic foci of the collection. Chapter 3 focuses on urban photography as illustrated by J. W. Jones’ record of the opening of the British Columbia parliament buildings in 1898 and Timothy Eaton Co’s 1901 display book with views of Toronto. Like his naval images, Jones’ official photographs of the opening of Victoria’s parliament buildings were a testimony to Canada’s modernity and technological progress, but also an attempt to define a broader national identity by emphasizing British Columbia’s connections to Britain, against the encroaching influence of the United States. While Jones’ photographs present a view of the city which was essentially official, as reflected in the “privileged” position of the camera and the fact that the images were commissioned by the government, Eaton’s album, with its emphasis on buildings relevant to Timothy Eaton’s commercial empire, is a record of Toronto as seen through the eyes of an extremely successful businessman. As Hatfield points out, “here it was commerce, not politics, that was on view” (p. 83).

Chapter 4 turns to another symbol of modernity par excellence, the railroad. Hatfield’s analysis revolves around two main themes: the role of the railways in the commercial promotion and “taming” of the harsh Canadian landscape and the tragedy of railway accidents, as depicted in early twentieth-century photographs of the Azilda and Enterprise wrecks, both of which took place in the vicinity of Ontario. These photographs, intended for wide circulation, bear testimony to the ambivalent reactions of Canadians to this new technology of communication. Hatfield’s account is a brilliant analysis of the potentialities – for nation-building, for tourism and agriculture – as well as the dangers inherent in this technology, especially as it intersected with the natural environment and the lives of urban dwellers, causing destruction and havoc. On a more general level, this is a reminder, drawing on Paul Virilio’s work (The Original Accident, trans. J. Rose. London: Polity, 2007) that such accidents are not exceptional occurrences but “eventualities” which cannot be separated from the use of technology.

The early twentieth century is often regarded as the “golden period” of postcards and many of the Canadian photographs submitted for colonial copyright were reproduced as postcards, as Chapter 5 shows. Examining aerial photography of urban areas in Ontario, Hatfield emphasizes the role of former WWI military pilots such as Billy Bishop and William Barker in photographic production during the post-war years. According to Hatfield, aerial photography was one of the main avenues of income available to these pilots after the closure of the war and the images were produced for aesthetic enjoyment rather than cartographic purposes, as it was the case during the war (p. 149). Such images also played an important role in the Canadian National Exhibition where, along with displays of formation flying, they helped promote the image of a modern and technologically-advanced Canada.

Chapter 6 focuses on the last case-study of this dissertation, discussing how Native Canadians were represented in photographs submitted to the Colonial Copyright Collection between 1900 and 1910. The analysis focuses on Alfred Rafton-Canning’s images of Blackfoot and Blood Indian tribes, Charles Aylett’s photographs of the famous Onondaga runner Tom Longboat and Geraldine Moodie’s images of Fullerton Bay Inuit. Although these photographs reinforced an image of Canada as a country of white settlers where members of indigenous groups inhabited prescribed spaces and performed prescribed social roles (Tom Longboat being a case in point), Hatfield rightly reminds us that “the visual culture of colonialism did not function as a unified whole and … different colonial projects varied across time-spaces” (p. 170). This is especially visible in the photographs of the Inuit produced by Geraldine Moodie, which stand in sharp contrast with those of fellow expedition member Albert Low, the former belonging more to the genre of intimate portraiture rather than official photography (p. 199).

Having thus mapped and examined the contents of the Colonial Copyright Collection, in the final chapter Hatfield moves on to suggest further directions for research – for example, by extending the framework of analysis to a pan-empire perspective, by examining in more detail the work of individual photographers, as well as the reception of the photographs – and to consider the future of these holdings in a digital age. One of the very practical implications of Hatfield’s work is that it has the potential to facilitate the access of the public to these collections. The data he compiled can be used as the basis for item-level searching of the collection, thus rendering unnecessary the assistance of a curator.

Hatfield’s dissertation is a convincing and multi-faceted account of the life of Canadian photography held at the British Library’s Colonial Copyright Collection. He is particularly successful in demonstrating that imperial agency alone cannot account for the vast diversity of “views” and “imaginations” of Canada during this period and reconstructing the ways in which photography circulated, acquired value and was harnessed for various political and economic projects. The wide use of photographs to illustrate the discussion makes this work useful to scholars, museum curators and, more generally, to everyone with an interest in the history of Canada, photography and copyright.

Amelia Bonea
Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine
University of Oxford

Primary Sources

Colonial Copyright Collection, British Library
Geraldine Moodie holdings, British Museum
Copyright deposit photographs, 1895-1924, Library and Archives Canada (Ottawa and Gatineau)
Arthur Rafton-Canning holdings, Galt Museum and Archives, Lethbridge (Alberta)
J. W. Jones holdings, Royal British Columbia Archives, Victoria (British Columbia)

Dissertation Information

Royal Holloway, University of London. 2011. 246pp. Primary Advisors: Felix Driver and Carole Holden.


Image: “Opening of new Parliament buildings at Victoria, British Columbia. February 10, 1898,” J.W. Jones / Library and Archives Canada / PA-028863.

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