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The Mystery Photographer

Updated: Apr 8, 2018

Many pioneer photographers signed their work — a smart marketing move. Many others did not, leaving us guessing who might have been behind the lens. One such anonymous shutterbug worked throughout southern BC, northern Washington, and a few places in Alberta, primarily from 1908-13, producing amazing images of small towns, including some that were rarely depicted otherwise. The postcards he or she created are among my favourites, but it only dawned on me recently that they are probably the work of the same person.

Although the itinerant photographer’s name did not appear on any of the cards, each was titled in negative and nearly all have the same distinctive back. Many photographers titled their cards this way, but I’m pretty sure the combination of the writing plus the identical reverse (which simply said “Post Card” on Kruxo brand photo paper) is the signature of the same photographer, or at least the same publisher. The style of the reverse was used by other postcard makers, but is uncommon.

I have so far identified 95 examples of his/her/their work. In BC, the cards are of Cascade/Christina Lake (8), Castlegar (6), Clearwater (1), Creston (4), Eholt (1), Elko (1), Fruitvale (3), Golden (9), Grand Forks (8), Keremeos (2), Midway (1), Penticton (2), Princeton (7), Procter/Balfour (4), Rossland (7), Summerland (1), Trail (2), Westley (2), and Ymir (2). In Alberta, the cards show Bassano (8) and Bow Island (2). In Washington, they depict Danville (5), Curlew (4), Curlew Lake [Karamin] (3), Malo (1), and Northport (1).

(Arrowhead and Trout Lake are maybes. I have seen images of these places with similar writing on the front, but have not been able to view their backs.)

It’s also interesting to note the towns this photographer did not work in (or at least I haven’t found any examples, despite checking Simon Fraser University’s British Columbia Postcard Collection, which has over 6,000 cards, plus Peel’s Prairie Provinces, the Columbia Basin Image Bank, the Okanagan Archive Trust, and other sources).

No cards by this photographer exist of Ashcroft, Armstrong, Cranbrook, Enderby, Fernie, Greenwood, Kaslo, Kelowna, Kimberley, Moyie, Nakusp, Nelson, Phoenix, Revelstoke, Salmo, Salmon Arm, Sandon, or Vernon. Why would the photographer produce cards of Procter but not Nelson? Grand Forks and Midway but not Greenwood or Phoenix? I’m at a loss to explain it.

Another thing I don’t understand: some of these cards identify publishers in the same handwriting. The Bassano series was published by J.H. Stiles; the Curlew series by Ansorge Hotel proprietor George E. Thomas; the Elko card by Beattie & Murphy Drug Co. of Cranbrook; and the Clearwater card by A.C. Taylor of Kamloops. So what does “publisher” mean in this context? Did they commission the Mystery Photographer? Or did they take the photos themselves and send the negatives to the Mystery Photographer to be printed as postcards?

The Golden series is noteworthy for another reason: some cards, in addition to their caption, include the price in the same handwriting: “Real photo views 5¢.” Contrast that with two different views taken by the Mystery Photographer of the Castlegar train station: one sold on eBay in April 2016 for $190.50 US and another for $320.88 US in January 2017. A view of the SS Kuskanook at the Procter wharf also sold for $103.50 Cdn in June 2016.

The earliest card, postmarked 1905 and showing the sawmill at Westley (near Castlegar), is an outlier. It does not have the same back as the others, and the next earliest postmarked card is not until 1908. The bulk of the cards are from 1908-09, and the last is from 1913. What happened afterward? A few possibilities: the photographer changed the style of their work to something I don’t recognize. Or stopped producing postcards. Or moved. Or enlisted for the First World War.

A small number of the images were reproduced as lithographs by other publishers, although whether they actually had permission to do so is unknown.

Although I have had no luck identifying the Mystery Photographer, the style of the handwriting and the cards themselves most closely resemble those produced by the Hughes Brothers at Edgewood in the 1910s (a subject I will devote a subsequent post to). However, those cards had different backs, and the Hughes apparently didn’t come to Canada until 1910, which would appear to rule them out. Still, I haven’t totally eliminated them as suspects.

The reverse of all the postcards on this page look like this:

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