A father-son photography duo captured 80 years of Toronto's history.
The municipal, provincial, and national archives are stocked with tens of thousands of photographs of Toronto and environs by one father-and-son team. Collectively, the works of John Boyd and John H. Boyd (or Boyd Jr.) span from the mid-1880s to the mid-1960s. While the elder Boyd was a prolific amateur photographer, the son turned his father’s hobby into a career as a long-time news photographer for the Globe. Like the photos of the William James family, Lou and Nat Turofsky, and Arthur Beales, the Boyds’ work communicates an extensive social history of Toronto and Ontario.
Born in Emyvale, Ireland, in December 1865, John Boyd was the eldest of six sisters and seven brothers. He came to Canada with his family as a child, settling in Parkdale. At the age of 15, Boyd left school to find work as a messenger at the Grand Trunk Railway’s Freight Office. He was steadily promoted to become chief clerk in 1894, then jumped to the Canadian National Railway’s Weighing Department in 1918, where he worked as superintendent until his retirement in 1931. He was based in Toronto save for a few years beginning in 1899 when he and his family were transferred to Sarnia.
Among his hobbies, Boyd enjoyed boating and collecting taxidermy animals and birds. He took up photography, the hobby that would define him, in 1888. Having constructed his first camera out of an oblong box covered in black oil cloth, Boyd was always keen to learn and adopt new technologies, such as new types of film. Boyd corresponded regularly with Kodak’s George Eastman, who he’d met on a trip to upstate New York, exchanging ideas of technology and techniques.
“In later years,” Lilly Koltun writes in Private Realms of Light: Amateur Photography in Canada: 1839-1940 (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1984), “he designed and built such items of equipment as an exposure timing chart, a lens shade, and a fixing tank.” Throughout his photography career, Boyd’s articles on topics like “Photographing Children,” or “Using a Ray Filter for Enlarging” were published in American Amateur Photographer and American Annual of Photography and Photographic Times Almanac.
Boyd carried his camera with him everywhere, particularly on hunting or work-related trips to the far corners of the province and beyond. As subject matter he photographed family life, nature scenes, and urban scenes in Toronto and elsewhere.
Boyd was like other early photographers, Koltun notes, and “simply attempted to record faithfully what they saw, rather than to express what they felt.” But he was also a close friend of the artist Frederick S. Challener. Under Challener’s influence, Boyd developed a strong sense of composition in his artwork.
In the decades after his death at age 76 in April 1941, institutions like the Library and Archives Canada rediscovered Boyd and his oeuvre as they broadened their acquisitions policies to concentrate on recovering lost or forgotten amateur photography rather than just seeking the work of established artists.
There are almost 29,000 of Boyd’s negatives and prints at the Library and Archives Canada and a further 4,380 at the Archives of Ontario. These provide a rich trove of information on the social history of Toronto and elsewhere in Ontario.