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A Steady Lens: The True Story of Pioneer Photographer Mary Spencer

By Sherril Foster

Review By Carolyn MacHardy

March 6, 2014

BC Studies no. 184 Winter 2014-2015  | p. 149-50

Sherril Foster’s A Steady Lens: The True Story of Pioneer Photographer Mary Spencer is a welcome contribution to and a reminder of how much work remains to be done on the history of art in British Columbia’s Interior. Mary Spencer, born in Ontario in 1857, died in Summerland in 1938 at the age of eighty-one. She moved west with her mother and her sister Isobel in 1899 and spent twelve years in Kamloops where she worked as a photographer; she then moved to the Okanagan in 1911 where she became, along with her sister, an orchardist. Spencer’s fame rests on the photos she took of Bill Miner, the train robber, when he was captured near Kamloops, and on her posthumous cameo appearance in the character of photographer Kate Flynn in Philip Borsos’s film The Grey Fox (1982).

Foster deploys the word genealogy in the first sentence of her introduction and the ensuing text is largely shaped by her interest in Mary Spencer’s life and details about her ancestors and members of her family. Foster is warmly enthusiastic about her subject, but even allowing for what I suspect was a radical pruning of the original manuscript to fit into 191 pages, Spencer seems like a difficult biographical capture. There appear to be no diaries and few letters by Spencer to work with, and Foster has had to rely on observations by those who knew her. She devotes considerable attention to Spencer’s time in Summerland, as might be expected given Spencer’s nearly three decades there as a fruit grower; indeed, a more accurate title might have been “. . . photographer and fruit grower.” Both professions were unusual for women at the time, and while there has been excellent recent critical writing on settler women photographers by scholars such as Carol Williams and Susan Close, there remains a dearth of scholarship on women fruit growers in the Okanagan Valley.

One hundred high quality images are sprinkled throughout the book including, besides Spencer’s work as a commercial photographer in the Kamloops area, an 1891 pen and ink sketch of a nephew and photographs of her later paintings on china done in Summerland. It seems that Spencer’s interest in art, like her devotion to the Baptist Church, sustained her. Unfortunately, Foster offers little analysis of Spencer’s photography and I was left wondering about the relationship between it and her paintings: particularly interesting is her use of a picturesque painted landscape as background to several photographic portraits. Did she paint this? Foster suggests that she may have learned china painting at the Central Ontario School of Art and Design during her teacher training in Toronto (163) but, strangely, earlier asserts that “where Mary Spencer learned her skills as a photographer is somewhat of a mystery” (53). It seems very possible that, if Spencer was in Toronto taking classes in art in the late 1880s and was interested in photography, she would have known of the work of Notman and Fraser; but this is the type of contextual detail that is lost in the broad sweep of Foster’s biographical treatment of this very interesting woman.

Foster has done the historical record a service by bringing together these images and making them accessible to the public, and although the use of the word “pioneer” in the title points to a lack of engagement with current scholarship in this area, Foster has tidily contextualized Mary Spencer’s life. Spencer’s frontier photography ties her to wider historical narratives in this province and also to the larger narrative of early modern women artists in Canada.

A Steady Lens: The True Story of Pioneer Photographer Mary Spencer
Sherril Foster
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2013. 192 pp. $22.95 paper