Photography

The Most Surreal Pictures in the Victorian World

Hannah Maynard wasn't just one of the only female photographers in the British Empire. She did things with film that European masters could only dream of.

By Tristin Hopper
November 15, 2019
Photography

The Most Surreal Pictures in the Victorian World

Hannah Maynard wasn't just one of the only female photographers in the British Empire. She did things with film that European masters could only dream of.

By Tristin Hopper
Nov 15, 2019
Photography

The Most Surreal Pictures in the Victorian World

Hannah Maynard wasn't just one of the only female photographers in the British Empire. She did things with film that European masters could only dream of.

By Tristin Hopper
November 15, 2019
The Most Surreal Pictures in the Victorian World
B.C. Archives

You’ve almost certainly seen a photo taken by Hannah Maynard. As one of the most prolific commercial photographers in colonial Victoria, she shot everything from baby portraits to mugshots. Less well known is that Maynard was also a genius of photographic experimentation. From her rugged West Coast home thousands of kilometres from the great photographic studios of Paris or New York, Maynard singlehandedly pioneered revolutionary advances in trick photography, resulting in one of the most stunning and bizarre portfolios from the era. From deep in the B.C. Archives, here are some of the most incredible creations by one of Canada’s most gifted photographers.

B.C. Archives Reference Code F-02852

Hannah Maynard first stepped foot in Victoria in 1862 to join her husband, who had come to B.C. as a gold prospector. She described colonial Victoria as a place of “tents, gullies and swamps.” And it was in this rough, gin-soaked frontier city that the 28-year-old Maynard decided to open up a Johnson Street business specializing in the then-cutting edge art of photography. Over her decades long career, roughly everyone in Victoria’s early history spent time in front of Maynard’s black box camera and flash powder. Many in the images in this collection, however, come from a brief period in the 1890s when the veteran photographer began pushing the boundaries of how far reality could be altered with only a black box camera and a darkroom. This image from 1893, which casts Maynard as both wall art and two tea drinkers, is one of the most well-known.

B.C. Archives Reference Code G-05022

This kind of a montage would be hard enough to create using Photoshop,but given the technology of the late 19th century it becomes an artifact of near-obsessive patience. Each face depicts a child that had passed through Maynard’s photography studio in the prior year. At the close of each year, Maynard would then manually crop out each individual child; sometimes rephotographing the image multiple times to adjust sizing and composition. Dubbed by Maynard as her “British Columbia Gems,” the images became an annual tradition that would eventually receive acclaim in photography circles all along the Pacific Coast. As Maynard mastered the techniques of miniaturization, the gems would become ever-more intricate and surreal, with children’s faces made to appear inside abalone shells and on the petals of blooming flowers. She eventually began hiding previous gem portraits among newer ones, so that the end result was a dizzying menagerie of thousands of individual photographs.

B.C. Archives Reference Code F-05096

The early days of photography would yield other examples of double exposure photography, but they were often campy novelty photos intended for the postcard market. To the modern viewer who is accustomed to viewing hundreds of doctored images every day, Maynard’s photos still stand out for their eerie surreality. This is all the more remarkable that Maynard inhabited an era in which art was pretty buttoned-down; wry social commentary and experimentation wouldn’t become mainstream for another generation. In the words of one art writer, “Maynard’s approach and technique qualify her as a transitional figure who asked modernist questions in a Victorian environment.”

B.C. Archives Reference Code F-05095

It’s no accident that there seems to be a tinge of the macabre to Maynard’s photos. The photographer never fully recovered from losing her 16-year-old daughter Lillian to typhoid fever, followed by the death of another daughter Emma. We also know that, like many grieving parents from the time, Maynard turned to spiritualism in the apparent belief that she could communicate with her dead children in the afterlife. This photo shows two Hannah Maynards standing amongst portraits of her lost children, as her grandchild stares in wonder at himself as decapitated statuary.

 

B.C. Archives Reference Code F-02851

One of the most remarkable things about these photos is Maynard’s stern bearing. There was nothing stopping the photographer from smiling or winking at the viewer; more conventional photos in her collection do show her with a slight grin at times. But as she cast herself in ever-more outlandish scenes, her face never loses its no-nonsense deadpan.

B.C. Archives Reference Code F-05052

As the face-swapping Instagram filter-obsessed 21st century knows all too well, people love whimsically altered photos of themselves. Ever the entrepreneur, Maynard pioneered a method of offering “statuary”photos to Victorians in which they could be depicted as marble sculptures. This image, potentially an early test, depicts Maynard herself as a Greek bust.

B.C. Archives Reference Code F-05043

The technical mastery of this image may not be immediately noticeable at first glance, but Hannah Maynard managed to orchestrate a photo where five versions of herself were holding up a single flower garland. It’snot known precisely how Maynard engineered these images, but any method she would have employed would have had to be obscenely complicated. Keep in mind that Maynard wasn’t able to jet off to Boston or San Francisco for photography lessons;these were all techniques that she was pioneering on her own.

B.C. Archives Reference Code F-05031

While Maynard’s photos reveal the workings of one of the most unique creative minds of the age, little is actually known of her inner thoughts. Unlike another prominent Victoria woman of the time, Emily Carr, Maynard was extremely reserved in any writings she left behind. "Fair wind, all sails, set, very fine. In the evening a large bird came on board, a man shot it, the wind changed," reads a typical diary entry from an 1875 ocean voyage. Were it not for the dozen or so experimental photos that she left in the hands of the B.C.Archives, it would have been easy to cast Hannah Maynard as just another 19th century photographer for hire. Photos like these may well be heavy with symbolism or artistic angst, or they could all just be an elaborate inside joke. “It is hard to say what truths she was after, if she was after any at all,” wrote a biographer in 1980. All that we know for sure is that Maynard abruptly stopped her experimental photography in 1897, and would stick to conventional photos until her death in 1918.

B.C. Archives Reference Code F-06721

There is no trickery in this last Maynard photograph. Taken in 1898, it was snapped just after Maynard appears to have permanently suspended her photo experimentation. But it earns a mention because this glamourous photo of a young woman is actually one of Canada's first mugshots. Belle Adams was a prostitute in Victoria's then-sprawling red light district. In June, 1898, she slashed the throat of boyfriend Charles Kincaid in a hotel near what is now Market Square. Reportedly, as Kincaid staggered into Johnson Street and collapsed, an immediately mournful Adams chased after him and embraced his dying form. She was hauled in by police, Maynard (the department's official photographer) was summoned and this portrait was taken.

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