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photographer Edith Watson

by Frances Rooney | December 31, 1997

In November, 1977, Frances Rooney was shown a published photograph of a woman seated at a floor loom in the House Harbour in the Magdalen Islands of Quebec. It was credited – unusual for an early photograph – to Edith Watson. With just a name, Frances Rooney set out to find more.

It would take 3 1/2 years of endless searching until a woman at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. found an entry for Edith Watson in a 1954 Who’s Who. This lead Frances to Lois Watson, the wife of a cousin of Edith Watson’s. Says Frances: “That there is anything to find, that there is any story to tell is the result of Lois Watson’s perseverance, her ability to recognize something special when she saw it, and her altogether too rare ability to respect the work of someone she didn’t like.” As a result of these connections and many more, Frances published a book of Edith Watson’s photographs so that we might connect with the people, places and history of Canada.

In 1880, at 19, Edith Watson set out from her Connecticut farm home for a two-week trip around western Massachusetts accompanied only by her donkey, Jaffa (her diary says: “Cost of my trip, $5.00”). She never stopped travelling. First, she and her sister, Amelia, who was Edith’s best friend throughout their lives, spent ten years wandering New England and New York, showing and selling their paintings at various galleries. Then, in the early 1890s, Edith switched from a paint brush to a camera and began 40 years of spending the summer months wandering Canada taking pictures of rural people, most often women, at work. She sold these photographs to newspapers and magazines all over North America; she made her living as a photojournalist before that word existed.

Born into an old New England family of merchants, printers and farmers, Edith’s life coincided with the advancement of education for women in the U.S. and, somewhat later in time, Canada. She attended one of the oldest female seminaries, which was founded in the late 1820s by education leader and pioneer Catherine Beecher. Edith successfully pursued a profession in which there were more women than we tend to think (1890s census figures in both Canada and the U.S. indicate that about 15% of professional photographers in both countries were women) and she had friends who pursued occupations we have been taught to believe women simply did not undertake. She was a member of a virtual army of intrepid women travellers.

Edith started her travels in Newfoundland and Labrador where she took many of her best photographs. Why Newfoundland? No one knows for sure, but Americans, particularly New Englanders, were familiar with Canada there being strong family ties between New England and the Maritimes, Newfoundland and Quebec; the cod fisheries went up and down the east coast; and many writers told of their Canadian travels. Whatever lured her there, Edith fell in love with the rugged coast and hardworking people of Newfoundland as so many people have before and since.

But Edith was not one to stay in one place. Gradually her travels expanded – from outport Newfoundland to the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia, she captured images of working people in the precarious, sometimes dangerous, often grueling act of building a country. She photographed women drying fish on fish flakes in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia; making soap, weaving and spinning in Quebec; harvesting beets, hay, flax, onions and apples on the Prairies and into British Columbia; mending nets outside Vancouver; caring for children across the country. Watson explored long-established fishing and farming communities and newly settled ones. She spent time with Hungarian immigrants in Saskatchewan; the Russian pacifist refugee farmers, the Doukhobours, in Alberta and British Columbia; and Japanese-Canadian people in British Columbia. She visited Native communities in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia; she recorded Innuit life in northern Labrador.

In 1911, Edith met Victoria Hayward, a 35-year-old Bermudian journalist. They lived and and worked together until Edith’s death, more than 30 years later. Queenie, as Victoria Hayward was called (after Queen Victoria), had left Bermuda at 16 to teach math in a boys’ private school in upper New York state. After ten years, she returned to her beloved island home and took up journalism. She would write articles to go with Edith’s photographs. Together the two produced Romantic Canada, which was published in 1921, and was the largest travel book produced in Canada to that time. It was in their book that Queenie coined the phrase the “Canadian Mosaic,” that has been used ever since to describe Canada’s multicultural nature.

Edith – at first alone and then with Queenie – travelled by foot, dog cart, donkey cart, horseback, bus, steamship, sailing vessels and railroad. She carried all her equipment with her, including dozens of 8”x10” glass negatives for the large box cameras (later, when smaller cameras were available, her equipment grew lighter and easier to transport). She developed her own photographs, in streams when she was camping out, at the pump in her own kitchen in Connecticut, and in other people’s kitchens and sheds in her travels. She and Queenie sometimes camped out, sometimes boarded with families, sometimes stayed in guest houses, and occasionally slept on an overnight train or ship. Money was frequently tight, but that did not stop this intrepid traveller.

Edith worked to live and lived to work. No woman of leisure, Edith earned her living as a freelancer and supported herself and, at times, also her aged parents and her sister. Edith was a very self-conscious artist who had not “proper” Victorian qualms about seeing her name in print. At a time when publishers for the most part considered photographers unimportant fillers of empty space, she insisted on – and got – not only top prices, but credits printed on her work. Without the prices, she would have had to do some other kind of work.

Somehow, in all of this, Edith found the time, when at home, to have shows of Amelia’s and her friends’ art and to sell their paintings. Her cousins, Mary and Edith Beech, had a small publishing company in their basement and used some of Edith’s photographs in the books they published; her friend Margaret Morley was agricultural consultant for the British government in the West Indies and wrote sex education books for children and travel books, one of which Edith illustrated with her photographs.

Edith died at 83 on a trip to Florida. She left thousands of photographs that document almost half a century of Canadian rural life. Queenie lived another 13 years, until 1956; her diaries attest to her and Edith’s devotion to each other and their life of adventure.

more to consider

Edith Watson had self-confidence and valued her own work and worth. What contributed to that ... the support of her family, her teachers, her mentors, her peers, her relationships? Societies have never valued women’s work in the same way as men’s. Does that mean that women need to do the same? If, like Edith Watson, each of us values our own work and insists upon proper recognition of that work, we will make change happen. We still have to stand up for ourselves and help others to do the same.

resources for this story

  • CONTACT Photography Festival. One of the photography exhibits is the photo essay “Letter to My Mother” by Virginia Mak. She tells the story of a Chinese Canadian daughter who, in dealing with a long-distance relationship with her mother, confronts her own desires and disappointments. | 2003
  • For more information concerning Edith Watson or Frances Rooney’s show of her photographs or illustrated lecture, contact Frances Rooney through section15.ca.
  • Working Light: The Wandering Life of Photographer Edith S. Watson, by FRANCES ROONEY, Carleton University Press, Ottawa. This book is available from Green Dragon Press. | 1996.
  • Frances Rooney, “Edith S. Watson, Photographer,” photography exhibit.
  • Frances Rooney, “Edith S. Watson: A Photoessay,” Canadian Woman Studies, 7 (3), 1986;48-9.
  • Laura Jones, ed. Canadian Woman Studies, 2 (3 and 4), 1980. Two special editions on photography. Although these are now several years old, they remain the best overview of Canadian women photographers, compiled by Canada’s foremost historian of women and photography.
  • Romantic Canada, by VICTORIA HAYWARD and EDITH S. WATSON, Toronto: Macmillan | 1921.
  • The Spark of Life, by MARGARET WARNER MORLEY, photographs by Edith S. Watson, Revell, New York. The story of how living things come into the world as told for girls and boys. | 1913
  • Down North and Up Along, by MARGARET WARNER MORLEY, Ginn, New York | 1897.
  • Cape Cod, by HENRY DAVID THOREAU, illustrations by Amelia Watson, 2 vols., Houghton Mifflin, Boston and New York | 1896

Canada has a long history of women photographers, several of whom were professionals. Other than Edith Watson, the early photographers include:

  • Hannah Maynard in Victoria, British Columbia;
  • Gladys Reeves in Edmonton, Alberta;
  • Mrs. Fletcher in Quebec;
  • Elsie Holloway in Newfoundland;
  • Mattie Gunterman, perhaps the most familiar early photographer, recorded her family’s 650-mile trek from Seattle, Washington, to the British Columbia interior and life in a mining camp there. See Henri Robideau’s book about Mattie Gunterman, published in Vancouver by Polestar Press, 1996.
  • More recently, women like Laura Jones of Toronto, Theresa Totalik of Spence Bay, NWT, Nomi Caplan of Vancouver, BC, and the Quebec photographer, Kero, have documented women’s lives.

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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