BC’s Pioneer Photographer Mary Spencer {book review}

Since moving to British Columbia four years ago, I’ve enjoyed exploring this province not only in a geographic sense but also in a literary sense. BC has a number of small presses that publish local authors or books about local topics. One of these is Caitlin Press, which I became aware of last semester when their publicist and former UVic student Andrea Routley visited my creative nonfiction class.

As I browsed the list of books on the Caitlin Press website, Sherrill Foster’s biography of photographer Mary Spencer caught my eye. I’ve always been interested in photography and I love browsing historical photos in museums and archives. Photos provide a fascinating glimpse of past times, yet hint at so much more; it is true that a picture if worth a thousand words, and I often wonder about the thousand words behind the picture.

A Steady Lens by Sherrill Foster

I received this book for review courtesy of Caitlin Press; all opinions expressed remain my own.

Who was Mary Spencer?

A Steady Lens: The True Story of Pioneer Photographer Mary Spencer traces Mary’s life from her parents’ roots in England to her death in Summerland, BC. Mary, her mother and her sister Isobel arrived in Kamloops in 1899. At that time, Mary was already forty and committed to the life of a businesswoman, supporting her family. For the next decade, she ran a successful photography studio, capturing remarkable images of the local people as well as the landscape, including her most famous photographs of the infamous robber Bill Miner.

As I read, I found myself more and more interested in Mary’s story. She was born in St. Catharines, Ontario, where my mother grew up and which is one of few places in Ontario that I’ve visited. She and Isobel came west not to establish a business, but as Baptist church planters. They were active in their church and in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Mary was also a successful businesswoman at a time when this was rare. Foster traces the rise of photography and its popularity at the end of the 1800s, but notes that “any woman working for money in photography was considered somewhat daring and even remarkable.” Other famous photographers of the era were married, but Mary was a “spinster.” Her interest in art extended beyond the camera to oil painting and painting on china.

Foster provides a well-researched, readable look at a woman who definitely made her mark on BC’s history. While tracing Mary’s story, Foster also provides snippets of information about other things that would have influenced Mary’s life (such as Bill Miner’s history) and admits when there are gaps in what is known about Mary’s life. A Steady Lens includes numerous black and white photographs by Mary, providing a glimpse into her remarkable artwork.

More about Sherill Foster

Sherrill Foster is a former schoolteacher from Ontario who moved to Summerland in 1984. She has written two historical plays, a history of Summerland, several murder mysteries and three history books for the local museum. Mary Spencer’s story has interested her for many years.

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