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The twilight years of pictorialism in Vancouver : the art photography of Percy Bentley during the Second World War Monks, Christian Patrick

Abstract

A period of photographic history that has remained relatively unexplored in Vancouver is art photography during the Second World War. This thesis partly redresses this historical gap by examining the pictorial photography of Percy Bentley, a well known commercial photographer who operated a studio, the Dominion Photo Company, in Vancouver for almost half a century. Among the photographs that the thesis concentrates on is Bentley's most successfully exhibited image, An Eastern Gateway, which made its debut in 1941. Why did an image of India, originally taken in 1924 when Bentley worked as the official photographer aboard a cruise ship on its maiden world tour voyage, make its appearance as a pictorial photograph 21 years later during the Second World War? During the Second World War, the government of the Dominion of Canada recognised the role that photography could play in the war; it created the National Film Board of Canada to use the power of film and photography to nurture support for the war. The wartime government also required art and professional photographers to avoid photographing or printing images of prohibited areas that might locate military and industrial sites. The response of pictorialists was to recognise the requests of the government and to adjust their photographic output accordingly. Thus, pictorialists, like Bentley, tended to produce edifying portraits of soldiers. Pictorialists aligned their views with those held by the state. While the documentary photography of the National Film Board of Canada was conscious of its ideological stance and its effort to encode public opinion, Bentley's pictorial photography was just as self-reflexive about reproducing a position which paralleled views held by Britain and its Dominions on the importance of keeping India within the Empire. During the war, India was being swept by a tide of nationalism that sought independence from the British Empire at the same time that its eastern boarder was being encroached upon by a rapidly advancing Japanese army. I argue that Bentley's image, An Eastern Gateway, was imperialistically biased. At a time of national turmoil, the photograph showed a moment from the past in which India is represented as protected by the British Raj and passive.

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