Historicist: The Brothers Turofsky
Torontoist has been acquired by Daily Hive Toronto - Your City. Now. Click here to learn more.




Historicist: The Brothers Turofsky

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Sleeping Newsboy, before 1980. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1057, Item 1950.

Lou Turofsky’s favourite photograph was a sedate shot of an exhausted newsboy curled up on a building’s front steps. It’s a compelling choice, yet surprising given the countless sports stars, celebrities, and royalty that Lou and his brother Nat photographed in Toronto over the years. Today many of their photos of sporting events and city life remain recognizable—frequently republished on this site and elsewhere—but the Turofsky name and their story are largely unknown.

Lou and Nat Turofsky and others outside of Alexandra Studio, 92 King Street West, between ca. 1944 and ca. 1954. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1057, Item 9425.

Born to Russian immigrant parents in Chicago in 1892, Lou Turofsky was the eldest of six siblings. In 1900 the family moved to the Beaches, then a half-suburb/half-summer resort on the outskirts of Toronto. As a twelve-year-old, Lou took an interest in photography and bought himself a pinhole camera to toy with for $1.35 while saving for a better model. In 1907 he began working for Frank Spillar, owner of the Alexandra Photo Company, a Queen Street outfit established in the 1870s. Within a few years, he’d saved enough money to buy the company and—after simplifying its name to Alexandra Studios—hired his younger brother Nat at $5 per week.
The pair worked tirelessly in the early years to build their business. From the early morning until well past midnight each Saturday, they plied their trade at the Scarborough Beach amusements. They’d take snapshot portraits of visitors, then quickly develop them in a nearby tent so patrons could take their souvenirs home that day. Similar services on the other side of town made them a staple at the CNE for nearly the next half century.
With their salesmanship and work ethic, the business steadily expanded to include commercial work for Eaton’s and other companies, wedding photography, and commissioned freelance work for the Mail & Empire and other newspapers. In 1919, the brothers drove six days in a jalopy to cover the World Series in Chicago. Lou somehow bamboozled his way into watching the games from the White Sox dugout, casually chatting with and snapping pics of Swede Risberg, Hap Felsch, and other players who would shortly afterward be implicated in the Black Sox Scandal. With the photographs dispatched to Toronto before the series was even over, it was the first of many exclusives the Turofskys snapped for local newspapers.

The Prince of Wales paying $1.00 to caddy, Rosedale, 1919. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1057, Item 4929

That same year, Nat hid in the bushes at the Rosedale Golf Club in order to capture the Prince of Wales in a candid moment: paying his caddy the one-dollar fee. On the only occasion a reigning monarch attended the Queen’s Plate, Nat snuck onto the platform—with the assistance of an RCMP officer friend—so he could get an exclusive of King George VI presenting the fifty-guinea prize to the winner. Not all occasions required such sly bravado, such as when the brothers were invited to photograph the Allied leaders at the Quebec Conference in 1943.
Their skills were always in demand in Toronto and beyond. The Alexandra Studio did a brisk $100,000-a-year business, with the Turofskys and their assistants accompanying writers to cover royal tours, disasters, society stories, and everything in between. They photographed so many visiting celebrities and beauty pageant contestants—often clowning around and appearing in the photos themselves—that Lou once quipped: “If we haven’t photographed them, they haven’t arrived.” An innovator with a love of horse racing, Lou pioneered a Canadian version of the photo-finish camera—which was immediately called upon to clarify two close finishes upon its debut at Thorncliffe in 1937. The brothers were so busy with work that the Alexandra Studio was a-clutter with photographs piled here and there—many of them unlabelled. Thurza Hesk, their secretary, tried to find order among the chaos as she operated the retail store.

Lou Turofsky at the 1950 “Mud Bowl” Grey Cup game, Varsity Stadium, 1950. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1057, Item 9451.

The Turofskys are best remembered as sports photographers. Whether it was speed-boat racing, minor-league baseball, ice shows, or muddy football games, Nat and Lou were always in the thick of the action trying to find the perfect shot. Having played baseball and rugby themselves, the Turofskys demonstrated an almost preternatural ability to anticipate split-second action. Sports historian Andrew Podnieks describes how they reached beyond the technological limitations of their era:

In the days before fast film and super flashes and high shutter speeds, they’d have one chance at a play. It had to be a perfect composition, perfectly exposed, and in sharpest focus, no mean feat with those huge, awkward Speed Graphic press cameras they clung to devotedly, almost superstitiously.

Nat Turofsky photographing Toronto Maple Leaf Hockey Club members in dressing room at Maple Leaf Gardens, 1940s. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1057, Item 9516.

With a simple request that the owner of the St. Pats hockey team remove his hat for a photo, Nat struck a friendship with Conn Smythe that would last thirty years. The Turofskys became official photographers for the (now renamed) Maple Leafs, and the Gardens became Nat’s home away from home. They took all publicity photos, team pictures, and Stanley Cup victory photos. Nat never missed a game—save for his occasional trips to Florida for baseball’s spring training. He’d position himself at the bench, along the boards in the corner, or over-looking the net. For his favourite picture—which captured the jubilation on the Leafs bench as the final buzzer confirmed the team’s 1947 Stanley Cup victory—Nat jumped onto the ice before the game was even over to score a unique vantage point. Whether it was the exhilaration of victory, or a bloodied face in the wake of a brutal fight, Nat had an uncanny ability to capture, as Podnieks put it, “the moment that defined that game, explained the result, or captured the most noteworthy event of the evening.”
There’s no better example of the Turofsky touch than the photo that remains one of hockey’s most iconic: Bill Barilko’s 1951 Stanley Cup winning goal. From the perfect angle, Nat caught the exact moment when a diving Barilko scored the overtime goal. The goal light hasn’t been lit; the crowd and players alike remain solemn. No one, save perhaps the photographer, yet realizes that the puck is in the net. Their luck and skill at immortalizing such moments was equalled by the speed at which they developed photos to ensure their timely appearance in the newspapers. Comparing what they did for sports photojournalism with what Karsh did for portraiture, Podnieks asserts that the brothers were instrumental in popularizing hockey.

Nat Turofsky at Alexandra Studio, 1950s. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1057, Item 9581.

The Turofskys were, in some ways, a study in contrasts. Lou was the family man—with wife Ruth Seigel and daughters Riki and Carol; Nat enjoyed the lifestyle of a lifelong bachelor. Lou was always chewing on or smoking a cigar; Nat smoked cigarettes. They often found things to argue over endlessly. But they’d always been the closest among their siblings and loved each other—and their work—greatly. The pair were also beloved in the community in large part because they treated everyone, from the newspaper boy to the latest Leafs superstar, with equal respect. It was said that Lou was never the same after Nat died in December 1956. After a 51-year career in photography, he died himself in October 1959. A commemorative volume of their work, Sports Seen: Fifty Years of Camera Work (The Ryerson Press, 1960), was published shortly after his death.
Two of their employees, Roy Mitchell and Hal Crellin, continued the business into the 1970s. In the 1980s, Mitchell divested himself of the Alexandra Studio’s photographs. The hockey collection—containing 900 glass-plate negatives and 21,000 cellulose negatives, which made it the largest hockey collection in the world—ended up in the Hockey Hall of Fame. More than 10,000 Alexandra Studio photos including many snapshots of city life and of the photographers themselves were acquired by the City of Toronto Archives. Many other Turofsky works also reside at the National Archives and the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. Though now scattered, the photography of Nat and Lou Turofsky remains an incredibly rich cultural resource of early twentieth century Toronto history.