Through the lens
A Groundbreaking Nature Photographer Rediscovered
A new look through the lens of Alexander Henderson.
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In 1855 a young man of the Scottish gentry named Alexander Henderson (1831–1913) emigrated to Montréal. There, he pursued a life of adventure: hunting, the outdoors, and, most of all, photography.
Henderson took up the camera shortly after arriving in Canada in 1855. His first teacher was likely a fellow Scottish expatriate named William Notman, the first Canadian photographer to gain international recognition. Henderson soon developed his own unique artistic vision and, by the late 1860s, was winning acclaim at home and abroad.
Notman was a consummate businessman who ran a thriving portrait studio and whose photographs of street scenes, rail and steam travel, and wilderness landscapes glorify the commercial expansion of colonial settlement. Henderson’s work, by contrast, had a more lyrical touch, revealing a Romantic sensitivity to the picturesque and sublime qualities of the Canadian landscape.
Henderson’s images brim with emotion. They are moody and atmospheric, conveying both serenity and power.
In retrospect, his photos deserve to be considered among the most significant achievements of early nature photography, but for much of the past century, his work has been utterly neglected and forgotten. Now, a major exhibition at the McCord Stewart Museum in Montréal, “Alexander Henderson — Art and Nature,” is shining a new light on this pioneering artist.
A feeling for nature
Though Henderson did document scenes of city life and commercial activity, his passion was reserved for the natural world and traditional practices such as ice cutting, winter sports, maple-sugar production, forestry, hunting, and fishing. In his work, we see breathtaking views of the Saguenay Fjord, canoe trips on Laurentian rivers, Indigenous fishing camps, and a particular affinity for the wild splendour of Canadian winters.
His careful compositions, which often feature imposing natural vistas with solitary figures or small groups of people, are suffused with awe at the majesty of nature — an approach that paralleled the landscape painting of the era.
Henderson’s attentive, almost sensual photographs of snow and ice formations at Niagara Falls — images that border on abstraction — reflect his intimate, personal response to the environment.
His images of ice shoves on the St. Lawrence and tobogganers enjoying mountainous snowdrifts at Montmorency Falls also demonstrate his resourcefulness outdoors. Henderson readily embraced the challenges of working in the wild and maintaining photographic equipment in remote locations and frigid temperatures.
A legacy lost
Henderson’s body of work is a landmark in nature photography. His early adoption of the medium and his technical innovations, including unique methods of compositing multiple negatives into one print, confirm his legacy as a pioneer of the art form.
And yet, until very recently, his work was almost entirely unknown. Despite his prolific and successful career, his awards at international exhibitions, and his position in the Montréal arts community, Henderson abandoned photography in his later years.
His obituary in 1913 failed to even mention his work as a photographer. After his death, his surviving family neglected his artistic legacy, and virtually all of his glass negatives were thrown away.
Colonial history, seen anew
Montréal’s McCord Stewart Museum has set out to correct this oversight with a major retrospective exhibition of Henderson’s work, curated by Hélène Samson. “Alexander Henderson — Art and Nature” opened to the public this June and runs until April 2023. Thanks to former curator Stanley Triggs, the McCord Stewart has held much of Henderson’s extant work since the late 1960s.
The exhibition features over 250 period prints and reproductions of photographs, in addition to documents and photo albums from the photographer’s family archives — the majority of which have never previously been shown.
The exhibition offers a unique opportunity to write the history of a foundational figure in the present tense, since Henderson has arrived on the scene without the baggage of prior attention. This is particularly interesting given the lens of coloniality through which Henderson unavoidably pictured the world.
When we call him a “pioneer,” the settler-colonial associations are entirely apt. We can be awestruck by his images and, at the same time, critical of the backdrop.
Henderson’s work was clearly shaped by the prevailing spirit of empire, which was in full swing when he arrived in Canada. Especially back in the United Kingdom, Canada’s landscape and wildlife were extensively promoted as a paradise for hunters and fishermen.
And yet, Henderson was no tourist. He was clearly interested in making Québec his home. And though he shied away from urban scenes and sought out the wilderness, Henderson’s work feels less steeped in the mythology of landscape as terra nullius (empty, uninhabited, there for settlers to exploit) than the landscape paintings of many of his contemporaries.
In fact, Henderson’s interest in traditional lifeways and his frequent inclusion of human figures in his work envision Canada as a place with a long history of habitation.
Nevertheless, nothing indicates that Henderson’s views on British imperialism diverged from the conservative attitudes shared among his social class. He was curious about Indigenous culture while being mostly indifferent to the fate of French Canadians, and his depictions of both were oriented toward their appropriation and assimilation within a Canadian identity dominated by British rulers.
All the same, Henderson’s artistic achievements offer us a compelling view of the Canadian past: of its physical environment and its inhabitants, and of the visual mythologies through which that past was constructed, what curator Hélène Samson calls “the residue of an imperialist dream.”
Presented at the McCord Stewart Museum, the exhibition Alexander Henderson — Art and Nature invites you to contemplate the natural landscapes and urban scenes of the 19th century.
Dazzled by the majesty of nature in its purest form, Henderson became one of the country’s first landscape photographers. Discover his astonishing career, from his excursions around Montréal and the regions of Québec, including Outaouais, Gaspésie, the North Shore, and the majestic Saguenay Fjord, to the Canadian West.
The McCord Stewart Museum celebrates life in Montréal, past and present: its history, its people, its communities.
Saelan Twerdy is a writer, editor, and cultural worker based in Tiohtià:ke/Montréal. He is the Managing Editor of RACAR, the official journal of the Universities Art Association of Canada (UAAC). His writing has appeared in CBC Arts, Momus, C magazine, Esse, Canadian Art, Border Crossings, BlackFlash, and elsewhere.
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