Picture This: 19th-Century Studio Photographers in St. Catharines

St. Catharines was on board with the photography boom of the late 19th century.

Advertisement for James Inglis’ Photography Studio from the
1865 General Directory of St. Catharines

The St. Catharines Museum collection contains works of at least fourteen professional studio photographers working in this city from the mid-1860s to late-1880s. This is a surprising number considering the town’s population was only around 8500, the camera was still a recent and somewhat unwieldy invention, and many of these photographers were in business at the same time within the same city block. St. Catharines has, however, always been a progressive community, being the site of great innovations in canal engineering, electricity, automobiles, zippers, and more. Furthermore, in the 19th century, it was something of a tourist destination, being known for its mineral spring spas, hotel resorts, and proximity to Niagara Falls – the subject of the earliest known photograph of Canada. Finally, St. Catharines was geographically situated in a hotbed area for photography innovation, with the Kodak company founded in the 1880s in Rochester, New York, and beginning Toronto production in 1899. 

A Bit of Historical Context: 

The first experiments with cameras able to produce a permanent image happened in France in the 1820s and 1830s, but the medium took off in earnest in the second half of the 19th century. Throughout this period, a camera was not a household item. Finnicky parts and long exposure times necessitated professional operators and specialized studios. Cameras that were capable of capturing candid moments and were simple enough for general use were not introduced until the end of the 19th century. The 1860s to the 1880s, therefore, was something of a golden age of portrait photography studios. 

Earliest known permanent photograph, “View from the Window at Le Gras” by Nicéphore Niépce circa 1827.
Image source: University of Minnesota

The first widespread photography technology was the daguerreotype, popular in the 1840s and ‘50s. The process involved long, direct exposures on silver-plated copper sheets that had to be chemically treated at three separate points during the process. The easily marred final result was a positive image that was then permanently sealed behind glass. The image could not be reproduced or printed on paper or other mediums.   

The second major photographic technology was the collodion process, including ambrotypes and tintypes. This much simpler and less expensive technique was popular from the 1860s to 1880s and further enabled the widespread accessibility of photography services. The collodion process used specially coated glass as a medium rather than the much more expensive silver. The image produced was a negative that could then be reprinted on photo paper as many times as desired. It did not require the use of highly toxic fumes like earlier technologies and only required a few seconds of exposure time. A major disadvantage, however, was that the whole process, from coating, to exposure, to development had to be completed in about 10-15 minutes. It was, therefore, impractical for field or personal use but a boon to the success of professional studios. It is this technique that was likely used by most of the 19th-century St. Catharines portrait photographers represented in the museum collection.  

A cabinet card depicting a young man. Photographer is Thomas Charles

Who Were these Local Photographers? 

The 19th-century St. Catharines portrait photographers represented in our collection are noted below, including any known information on years and locations of their operations: 

  • George Disher (1861-70 on Ontario Street, near St. Paul)
  • James Inglis (1863-65 at Haynes Block, St. Paul Street) 
  • George F. Maitland (1865-73 at 5 St. Paul Street) 
  • FA Baker (1873-1876 at 79 St. Paul Street) 
  • Joseph T. See (1874-77 at 5 St. Paul Street) 
  • Edwin Poole (1876-1921 at 79 St. Paul Street) 
  • JJ Matthews (1878-79 at 61 St. Paul Street) 
  • Thomas Charles (1878-83 at 32 Ontario Street) 
  • Charles Hugh Arthur (1881-98 at 79 St. Paul Street) 
  • RF (Richard Frank) Uren (1886-1895 at 79 St. Paul Street)
  • James Fairbairn (1888-1893 at 32 Ontario Street) 
  • TS Hill (late 1800s at 25 Queen Street) 
  • George R. Bird (Late 1800s at 79 St. Paul Street) 
  • G. Ellis (Late 1800s)
Reverse of a Cabinet Card from Edwin Poole’s Studio

Tidbits of biographical information are known about some of these individuals, while virtually nothing is known about others. George Disher, the earliest photographer listed here, may eventually have changed professions. A George Disher is listed in the 1875 city directory as a “saloon-keeper”, also on Ontario Street. Next on the list is James Inglis, who became a significant figure in photography history. After starting out in St. Catharines, he moved to Montreal and became the main competitor to superstar William Notman (see below). Inglis later died from an explosion while experimenting with flash powder. Further down is Joseph T. See, who was also a noted painter. He got into the photography trade after being hired by George Maitland (listed) to colour photographs. Finally, Edwin Poole’s work was awarded an “honourable mention” at the 1878 World’s Fair in Paris. This is the same fair that showcased Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, Thomas Edison’s phonograph, and the Statue of Liberty. 

What Techniques are on Display? 

The main output from photography studios in 19th-century St. Catharines was cabinet cards. Cabinet cards and their smaller predecessors, cartes de visite, were compact, paper photos that were mounted to a carboard backing, usually featuring the photographer’s insignia. They could be produced in some quantity relatively cheaply and so became popular gifts, collectables, and tradeables – as well as free advertisements for the studio. Cabinet cards remained the predominant form of portraiture until personal-use cameras emerged in the 1900s. 

Another notable photography technique that can be spotted in the St. Catharines collection is composite photography. This creative approach was first perfected by William Notman of Montreal. Technological limitations made it impossible to capture clear images of large groups of people engaging in candid activities. Notman’s solution was to commemorate events by taking carefully staged individual portraits, cutting them out, and combining them over a desired background. Notman used his composite technique to recreate parties, political events, and sporting matches. This made-in-Canada technique was highly influential and hints of it can be found in the work of some of Notman’s St. Catharines peers, including this T.S. Hill photo card.   

Composite style cabinet card from T.S. Hill

Who are in the Photographs? 

Most of the 19th-century portrait photos in the museum’s collection do not contain any information on who is depicted. There are, however, a few exceptions: 

Ella May Rees photographed by Edwin Poole

The woman in the above photo is Ella May Rees (nee Slough),wife to Thomas William Rees. Thomas’ father William Rees was proprietor of the Belmont House Hotel at Geneva and Centre Streets. This building still stands, now housing a Korean restaurant.  

Douglas Christie, photographed by Joseph T. See

This gentleman’s name is written as Douglas Christie. He may be the “J.D. Christie” who city directories list as a “Modern Languages Master” at the Collegiate Institute. Mr. Christie lived in a rented room at the Welland House. 

R.H. Dyer, photographer unknown

Richard Dyer is listed as a jeweller and silversmith in several city directories, but no other information is known about him. 

What are they Wearing? 

All of the photographs from local 19th-century studios in our collection feature well-dressed, well-groomed subjects, and there is a logical reason for this. Getting one’s photo taken at this time was a rare occasion, and the cabinet card style showcased here was meant to be printed in some quantity and sent off to family and friends as gifts. If you were only going to get your photo taken a handful of times in your life, and those images were the way everyone would see and remember you, of course you would want to look your best.

Portrait of a young woman taken by T.S. Hill

It is tempting, from the photographic record, to imagine that all Victorian-Era people went about their daily lives in frock coats, cravats, top hats, corsets, and gowns. It is, however, far more likely that they tore off these items as soon as they got home from the photo studio in favour of something more appropriate to cleaning the chicken coop. 

Furniture and props shown in these 19th-century portraits usually belonged to the photo studio. Photographers kept a selection of these items on hand so that customers could appear in a variety of settings, depending on their preference.   

An Honourable Mention for Frederick Douglass: 

While none of the portrait photographers in the museum collection are confirmed to have captured a photo of Frederick Douglass, his impressive story is worth noting. Douglass was an American born into slavery in Maryland around 1817. After escaping in 1838, he became a major figure in the Abolitionist Movement and Underground Railroad, playing a key role in getting Freedom Seekers from Rochester, New York to their final destination in St. Catharines. Douglass is significant here because he is also considered the most photographed man of the 19th century. He felt that photographs could not lie, and so were imperative to recording the harsh truths of slavery and racism. He had his picture taken at least 160 times. 

Frederick Douglass circa 1879
National Archives and Records Catalogue 558770

Sean Dineley is a Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre


The St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre, located next to Lock 3 of the historic Welland Canal, is a leading local history museum and community gathering place, engaging visitors and building relationships with partners, while demonstrating curatorial leadership and innovative programming and exhibits. The St. Catharines Museum is dedicated to engaging visitors in the celebration of our local stories and the cultural identity and history of the City. We are a community resource that interprets, exhibits, researches, acquires, and preserves material culture and stories of St. Catharines.


  1. Interesting story, brings back memories of my high school camera club, much later in the 1950’s but still a long way from to-day’s “selfie” era.

  2. Very informative article on the nineteenth century photographers. Too bad the author(s) were not identified.

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