Real-photo postcards were an art form of the early part of the 20th century. In the following excerpt, Victoria author Peter Grant profiles the backgrounds of three Vancouver Island photographers whose superb images offer lovely insights into the social history of the Island during a fascinating, long-vanished era.
The best-known Vancouver Island photographer to make postcards was Leonard Frank; Vancouver Island was not, however, kind to Leonard Frank. He was born into a Jewish family in Berne, Germany, in 1870. His father was a professional photographer, but Leonard appears not to have taken up photography until he won a camera in a raffle at his mining camp.
Emigrating from Germany to California, then to British Columbia, Leonard settled in 1896 in Alberni, where his younger brother, Bernard, joined him. In the two decades the brothers lived there, they pursued diverse occupations. Leonard and Bernard staked several mineral claims and worked them until 1902 and again beginning in 1916. Leonard ran a general store and, starting about 1907, a photographic studio adjacent to the Alberni Pioneer News building, where he worked as a volunteer reporter.
A tiny man, standing barely five feet, Leonard Frank was a bundle of energy. He tirelessly promoted the exploitation of the economic potential of the Alberni Valley. He was a founding member of the Board of Trade and had much to do with bringing electricity to the valley and with the expansion of road and railway access. He joined the Nanaimo Masonic lodge and was well-connected politically, obtaining work as an electoral returning officer while the provincial Conservative party was in power.
As a photographer, Leonard Frank excelled in outdoor work, lugging a large-format camera and tripod with him on many forays into the wilderness, and then publishing the resulting images in Vancouver newspapers and such periodicals as Collier’s. He began to get commissions from the B.C. government and logging companies and to specialize in industrial photography — the field for which he is best known.
Within a year of the outbreak of the First World War, the wheels came off Leonard Frank’s career in Alberni. As a German, his position as “official” government photographer attracted paranoia: He was rumoured to be in cahoots with the German industrialist Alvo von Alvensleben, whose bid to buy the Red Cliff mill was seen to be an overture to the establishment of a secret German naval base.
Worse, Leonard was reported to have advised a friend who wanted to enlist with the British army: “We have beaten Russia, and we are going to lick England. You are foolish to enlist.” When the comment led to his being forcibly barred from entering the Somass Hotel, he brought assault charges against his former friend and won a conviction.
At what point the Frank brothers read the writing on the wall and moved to Vancouver is not clear. Leonard’s last advertisement for photographic services appeared in May 1916.
Later that year, a local family accused Leonard of an indecent assault on their seven-year-old daughter. The charges were brought against him in January 1917, and the trial, in February, which lasted three hours, resulted in his acquittal. The charges may have been trumped up — did he perhaps take the girl’s picture without obtaining her parents’ permission?
Never married — like his brother, with whom he lived — Leonard Frank died in 1944 after a long and productive career in Vancouver. He is the subject of both a book, An Enterprising Life, and a film, Copyright: Leonard Frank, in the series A Scattering of Seeds, about the roots of Canada’s multicultural society. He left a huge body of work, much of it now lodged in the Alberni Valley Museum, the Vancouver Public Library and the Jewish Historical Society of British Columbia. Frank marketed both real-photo and lithographed postcards, and published his own postcard albums of logging scenes, wilderness travel and the like.
Alma Porter is the only photographer in this book who was native to the Island, and his descendants still live in the Victoria area. Alma’s mother, Mary, came around Cape Horn from Scotland with her family when she was nine, in 1864. His father, John, emigrated from England to Victoria in 1872 at the age of 21 and took up the express delivery trade, securing the contract to deliver mail between Esquimalt and Victoria. At the naval base he became connected with the Salvation Army, and his family followed him into the church.
Alma was born in Victoria in 1892. He joined the Victoria Citadel Band and met Pearl Stevens on a musical excursion to Seattle. Like him, she played in a band. They were married in 1915 and in 1918 moved to the home on Holland Avenue that is still in the family. They had two children. Porter made his living as a printer: He operated Quality Press until 1924 when the business failed, whereupon the family moved to California for eight years. On their return to Victoria, Alma went to work for Diggon printers and ended his career with Victoria Press, printer of the Daily Colonist.
Alma Porter was making his own postcards in the darkroom by the age of 16. Ever the amateur photographer, he typically inscribed “Porter cards” in a corner of the picture. The numerous cards that survive in his family’s possession provide many glimpses of the man: Well-turned out, whimsical, devoted. His pictures of horse-drawn delivery wagons suggest a nostalgia for the vanishing scenes of his father’s era. Porter died in 1971.
Jocelyn Ashley Knight
Jocelyn Ashley Knight immigrated to Mayne Island from London, England, at age 10, in about 1892, with his father, who had owned a tailor shop. They moved to Victoria, where his father opened a stationery store and then sent for his wife and their other children.
Ashley met his future wife, May Renfree, at school. In 1904, he moved to Ladysmith, opened his own stationery store and married May. His was a diverse business — at various times he also dealt in musical instruments, made and sold radios and ran a lending library.
Photography was a sideline that Knight pursued diligently. His son Ray remembers that he made 10 postcards a week and displayed them flat on the counter. He stamped the backs of his cards with his trade name, J.A. Knight. He was Ashley to his family and friends; to associates in the Fraternal Order of Eagles and the local football association, of which he was secretary for many years, he was Jack.
A fastidious man, Knight usually wore a three-piece suit. Ray Knight inherited his father’s cameras, photographic plates, negatives and postcards.