Private Realms of Light: Amateur Photography in Canada/1839-1940


335 pages
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-88902-744-7




Edited by Lilly Koltun
Reviewed by John Stanley

John Stanley is a policy advisor at the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and


This elegant publication might easily be taken for yet another coffeetable book. Certainly its abundance of illustrations and its general format lead the casual browser to that conclusion. However, with even a surface perusal the reader will recognise that Private Realms of Light is a significant contribution to the history of photography in Canada.

Photography has had some difficulty occupying its rightful secure position among the fine arts. Dealing with the period from 1839, the days of the earliest Canadian photographs, to 1940, when the number of snapshooters proliferated, and based on a 1983 Ottawa exhibition, this volume attempts to demonstrate that amateurs were the innovators in Canadian photography.

While this thesis is certainly demonstrated for the earlier period and in the technology of the new medium, it is less successful with respect to the changing artistic styles, where the amateurs seem to have imitated the professionals. Indeed, such imitation was required for acceptance and recognition. Even professional photographers were held captive by the pictorialism copied from painting. While this style became démodé on canvas by the 1920s, it continued to dominate photography, particularly amateur photography, for another 20 years.

Naturally, the authors are limited by their archival sources. Consequently, the impact and importance of southern Ontario, and specifically, Toronto are overestimated. Francophone Quebec and the Maritimes suffer particularly; though these societies are not ignored, the historical remnants from the regions are so few that no real evidence for the volume can be summoned.

Following the text and numerous plates are a vast number of biographies of photographers active during the period. A useful bibliography is also appended.

Photography has taken its proper place in the arts only during the past decade. Such works as this exhibition catalogue do much to contribute to that acceptance in a historical context.


“Private Realms of Light: Amateur Photography in Canada/1839-1940,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 12, 2024,