Nova Scotia Archives

W.R. MacAskill

Background Essay

Wallace Robinson MacAskill (1887 - 1956) was born the third son of Presbyterian merchant Angus MacAskill of St. Peter's, Cape Breton and his second wife Mary Cunningham.1 Perched on a narrow strip of land separating the Atlantic Ocean from the Bras d'Or Lakes, this coastal community nurtured what was to become an obsession with the sea.

By the time he was eleven, Wallace MacAskill had already managed to purchase a small sailboat and taught himself to sail among the coves of the Bras d'Or.2 A year later, a visiting tourist, impressed with the boy's helpfulness, sent him a camera.3 By the age of thirteen, he was thoroughly involved in the pursuits that would form both his career and foremost hobby.

Wallace MacAskill left St. Peters around 1904 at the age of seventeen to attend the Wade School of Photography in New York in order to learn the skills necessary to earn a living as a professional photographer.4

At that time, the Pictorialist Movement, led by Alfred Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession Group, was at the height of its influence within New York's photographic community.5 Pictorialism is a term applied to artistic photography including soft focus impressionism, which stresses atmosphere over subject matter of the image,6 which was to become the MacAskill trademark. This movement, inspired by the impressionism of Turner, Degas and Monet, placed particular emphasis on tonal values and composition.7 Pictorialists were aided in the production of these effects by the gum bichromate process which permitted the manipulation of image characteristics with greater freedom than conventional photographic print processes.8 The final issue of Camera Work, the organ of Alfred Stieglitz and the Photo-Secessionists, was published in 1917, and by the mid 20s Pictorialism was considered an exhausted movement, though some pictorialists continued to produce and exhibit for many years.9

There is little doubt that by the time MacAskill graduated in 1907,10 he had been heavily influenced by the popular and powerful pictorialists. Many of his most famous images, such as "Starboard Look-out", "Grey Dawn", "Morning in the Cove" and "Morning Along the Waterfront" reflect this pictorialist influence.

Upon his subsequent return to St. Peters, he set up a studio there with his brothers,11 but soon after moved to Glace Bay to establish his own commercial studio.12

By 1915, MacAskill had moved to Halifax and was working for W.G. MacLaughlan, who was appointed official military photographer for Halifax.13 The following year, Gauvin and Gentzel hired him as a printer for their Elite Studios where he remained until 1919.14 While thus employed, MacAskill took a series of photographs of the Halifax Explosion and of general Halifax scenes which were later printed in a postcard series by Underwood & Underwood.

In 1920, he became a photographer for the Commercial Photo Service and by 1925 was the proprietor of this establishment. It was probably during this period that he met Elva Abriel, also a commercial photographer, who may have done some work for the Commercial Photo Service (C.P.S.). They were married in Enfield in 1926, and it was their partnership which won an international reputation for the C.P.S.

Two years before his marriage, at the age of 37, MacAskill received the first recognition which was to be given him as an individual photographer, and not as an employee of a studio. In 1924, "Grey Dawn" was shown at the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain, which was undoubtedly one of the last international salons to exhibit works influenced by the Pictorialist Movement.

MacAskill had joined the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron in 1921, and in the summer of 1925 returned to the Bras d'Or with a group of friends on the yacht Restless.15 MacAskill photographed constantly during the expedition and "The Old Coaster" was one of the famous results.16

The year 1929 was probably one of the most exciting and promising of MacAskill's life. He won a bronze medal for one of his seascapes at the seventh International Salon of Real Sociedad Fotografica in Madrid, the Bluenose stamp based on his photograph was issued, his yacht Highlander was built by Tom Collon from plans by W.J. Roue,17 and he opened a business under his own name at 72 Barrington Street in Halifax.18

MacAskill spent the first five years of the new decade pursuing his love of the sea. At the helm of Highlander, he won the Prince of Wales Cup from 1932-34 and again in 1938. He was Vice-Commodore of the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron in 1934-35 and Commodore in 1936.

The following year, his first book Out of Halifax was published. MacAskill had sold his work to publishers during the 20s and early 30s to enhance magazines, newspapers and tabloids such as the Sunday Leader, but his photographs often went uncredited. Out of Halifax was a limited edition consisting of his most popular images and is now a collector's item. The Canadian ten cent piece featuring schooner Bluenose was also printed that year.19

During WW II, MacAskill's images became coveted by homesick Nova Scotians abroad and were very popular wedding presents.20 This popularity probably grew out of a world in flux - people began to thirst for the homey and familiar security of the past as captured on MacAskill's film. The age of sail, Cape Breton hills and dales, picturesque fishing villages, boating on the North West Arm - all were cherished by displaced Nova Scotians in Canada and abroad.

In 1948, some of his photographs of the North Atlantic International Fishing Schooner Competitions (which took place from 1920-1938) were published in Schooner Bluenose.21 MacAskill's photographic documentation of these elegant fishing schooners serves to fulfill John Masefield's22 wish that images of these graceful vessels be preserved for future generations.23

In 1951, his second book, Lure of the Sea, was published. It included some images from Out of Halifax as well as additional works. The following year, the Victoria International Salon Photography (British Columbia) presented MacAskill with the Thunderbird Crest Award (given for outstanding merit in marine photography) for "Starboard Lookout". The latter was taken on the deck of the schooner Bluenose as she left Lunenburg Harbor bound for the Chicago World's Fair in 1933.24 The winning of this award served to billow the embers of patriotism in the hearts of Nova Scotians in western Canada, resulting in a renewed interest in collecting MacAskill prints.25

As an example of MacAskill's status in the North American photographic community, the Photographic Association of America, in 1953, made 50 slides of a selection of MacAskill photographs and accompanied them with tape recordings, explaining their creation, to be used as an educational tool for future photographers.26 The following year he was elected a Fellow of the Photographers Society of America.27 Also around this time-period, perhaps the latter part of the decade, the Eastman House Art Gallery in Rochester, NY, was exhibiting some of his work.28

On 25 January 1956, at the age of 69, Wallace MacAskill died of a cerebral hemorrhage at his home Brigadoon in Ferguson Cove, Halifax County. His funeral was held at St. Mary's Basilica and he was buried at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Sackville. Eight years later, in August 1964, Mrs. Elva MacAskill "sold her husband's negatives and the good will of the business to Maurice Crosby", a Halifax photographer.29

The collection contains negatives taken as well as a few collected by W.R. MacAskill. Four formats are represented: collodion plates, gelatin dry plates, cellulose nitrate and cellulose acetate (i.e. early safety negatives). While the variation in form causes storage problems, it nevertheless presents an interesting survey of negative techniques from c.1855 to the present. Unfortunately, the format is rarely useful for dating purposes, as there is much overlapping in usage. For example, both cellulose nitrate and cellulose acetate were in use between the years 1923-51; while gelatin dry plate and cellulose nitrate were both used between 1889 - c.1920.30

The MacAskill Collection contains 4330 cellulose negatives and 630 gelatin dry plate negatives spanning the years c.1916 - c.1949, as well as two collodion plate negatives c.1875 and 481 original prints. It has been commonly held as fact that MacAskill destroyed 99 out of 100 negatives.31 If this were true, based on the 5000 negatives remaining, MacAskill would have had an output of 500,000 scenic and artistic photographs, in addition to his work as a studio photographer. However, E.A. Bell, who had joint ownership of the yacht Restless on which MacAskill cruised the Bras d'Or in 1925, relates that the photographer printed only one out of every hundred negatives;32 and this would seem a more reasonable representation.

The approximately 5000 negatives which comprise the collection are by no means a complete inventory of MacAskill's career. Very few of his studio portraits survive, nor do any examples remain of his St. Peters and Glace Bay studios. Although MacAskill is considered exclusively a marine photographer,33 this is not strictly true. His most famous images are of ships and the sea, but he did not make a living as a commercial photographer by limiting himself to these subjects. The bulk of the existing collection represents his work between c.1920-1938 when he was firmly ensconced as a Halifax photographer. This includes the International Fisherman's Races, vessels of all types plying the waters off Nova Scotia, Cape Breton landscapes and most of his studies of Nova Scotia's coastal villages (i.e., Peggy's Cove, Indian Harbor, etc...).

From the 40s are scenes taken in and around Halifax such as boating on the North West Arm, views of Herring Cove and steamers (Aquitania, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Mary, Empress of Britain, etc...) entering and leaving Halifax Harbor as seen from the balcony of MacAskill's home in Ferguson Cove.

Other images, for which MacAskill was famous in the eyes of the general public, are emotive rather than descriptive. "Kingdom by the Sea", "Saga of the Sea", "Wanderlust" and "Son of the Sea" fall into this category. The sentimentality of soft focus pictorialism evidenced in these and other images, such as "Nocturn", was enhanced by the brush of Elva MacAskill to create the pastel haze for which their studio was known. However, there are plenty of legitimate documentary images of pristine line and crystal form which will delight historian and artist alike.

The copy prints made from this collection of original MacAskill negatives present the images in their naked form without the gloss of hand-tinting to obscure their delicate intricacies. Even without MacAskill's darkroom magic, they serve to underline the reputation of Nova Scotia's foremost photographer, nearly four decades after his death.




Endnotes

1. Presbyterian of Scottish origin; merchant employing an average of 3 men per year.

1871 Census:  MacAskill, Angus  23 Married
1881 Census:  MacAskill, Angus  33 Widowed
1891 Census:  MacAskill, Angus  43 Married
 MacAskill, Fred  7
 MacAskill, Frank  5
 MacAskill, Wallace  4

2. Phyllis R. Blakeley, "Wallace MacAskill Marine Photographer and Yachtsman," Atlantic Advocate, June 1960, p.85.

3.. Ibid., p.85.

4. Ibid.

5. International Center of Photography Encyclopedia of Photography, Pound Press/Crown Publishers Inc., New York 1984, p.396-397.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., p.236.

9. Ibid., p.396-397.

10. Phyllis R. Blakeley, op. cit., p.85.

11. Ibid.

12. McAlpines NS Directory,1907-1908 (Glace Bay).

13. McAlpines Halifax Directory,1915.

14. McAlpines Halifax Directory,1919, 1920.

15. Dr. Phyllis R. Blakeley Papers, notes taken during interview with E.A. Bell, Feb.16, 1960, MG1 Vol. 3076 #10.

16. Ibid.

17. Phyllis R. Blakeley, "Wallace MacAskill," op. cit., p.89.

18. McAlpines NS Directory, 1929.

19. Phyllis R. Blakeley, op. cit., p.89.

20. Dr. Phyllis R. Blakeley Papers, notes on reminiscences, MG1 Vol. 3076 #10.

21. Andrew Merkel, Schooner Bluenose, Ryerson Press, Toronto, 1948.

22. England's poet laureate.

23. Phyllis R. Blakeley, "Wallace MacAskill," op. cit., p.89.

24. Dr. Phyllis R. Blakeley Papers, notes, MG1 Vol. 10.

25. Ibid., interview with Molly Cameron.

26. Patricia McCurdy, Mail Star, Sept. 8/53, p.3.

27. Dr. Phyllis R. Blakeley Papers, "Wallace MacAskill," op. cit., first draft, MGI Vol. 3076 #10.

28. Ibid., interview with E.A. Bell, Feb.16, 1960.

29. Ibid., card from PANS manuscripts catalogue.

30. Siegfried Rempel, The Care of Black and White Photographic Collections Identification of Processes, CCI Technical Bulletin No. 6, Canadian Conservation Institute, National Museums of Canada, November 1979.

31. Phyllis R. Blakeley,"Wallace MacAskill," op. cit. p.86.

32. Dr. Phyllis R. Blakeley Papers, interview with E.A. Bell, Feb. 16, 1960.

33. Lyn Harrington,"Down to the Sea - By Lens," Saturday Night, Vol. 66 #50, Sept. 18, 1951, p.10.