Historicist: The Two John Boyds

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Historicist: The Two John Boyds

A father-son photography duo captured 80 years of Toronto's history.

Children looking at toys in window, 23 December 1922, from City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 45.

Boyd passed on his affection for photography to John Harold Boyd, his second child with his wife, Alice. Born in Toronto in January 1898, John H. attended elementary school in Sarnia before attending Parkdale Collegiate Institute upon the family’s return to Toronto.

Boyd Jr. was trained in photography at his father’s side before apprenticing at a commercial firm. While the father, an amateur, had kept photography as a hobby, the son sought to make it his vocation.

After freelancing for a time, he was hired to be the Globe‘s first and only staff photographer in December 1922, making him one of the first professional photojournalists employed full-time in Canada. Writing in Graflex Historic Quarterly (Vol. 14; No. 2) [PDF], Robert Lansdale argues: “[John H.] Boyd, perhaps more than anyone, helped to define the profession in its early days and contributed much to its development throughout a distinguished career that spanned over 40 years.”

Boyd Jr. weathered the Globe‘s merger with the Mail and Empire in 1936 and remained with the newspaper until his retirement in 1964.

Steel Workers on building at Bay and Wellington streets, 27 January 1923, from City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 153.

Boyd Jr.’s first assignment for the Globe was to photograph workers laying streetcar tracks in front of Union Station. From such inauspicious beginnings, he rose to the apex of the field of photojournalism. For the next 40 years, he covered some of the biggest events in local, provincial, and national history.

Lansdale recounts a comical incident early in Boyd Jr.’s career—in the days of exploding flash powder. The city’s corps of news photographers had gathered on a west-end rooftop, the best vantage point from which to observe the last spike being driven to complete a junction of five streetcar lines. Because the event was scheduled to take place at night, Boyd Jr. convinced his colleagues to pool all of their flash power in order to sufficiently illuminate the scene for the whole group of photographers. But, as dignitaries posed and the photographers prepared for the shot, the powder’s explosion shook the building and sent photographers ducking for cover. “When the smoke and commotion had cleared, everyone realized they had missed the shot completely, as every camera was shaken by the explosion that provided the light,” Lansdale writes. “There wasn’t enough powder left, nor nerve, for a second try.”

Firemen outside Conboy Carriage fire, 10 July 1924, from City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 3148.

Lansdale characterizes Boyd Jr. as ingenious and willing to go to great lengths to capture newsworthy shots. On more than one occasion, he evaded security guards or risked arrest to sneak in and snap photos that no one else got. He was also the first Canadian photojournalist to wire a photo using a portable transmitter while on assignment. To ensure he would always make it to the scene on time despite the gasoline rationing of the Second World War, Boyd Jr. stretched his mileage to the limit by coasting in neutral down every single hill he encountered.

Boyd Jr. thrived on the thrill of tight-deadline assignments. “Often he amazed his editors by making fantastically rapid return journeys [by car], over great distances, when a big story broke much too close to deadline for comfort,” Bruce West recalled in the Globe and Mail (November 1, 1971). “And he always came back with lots of good news pictures on his film. I think he actually preferred to dash off on a distant assignment on some wild and stormy winter’s night. It was a challenge he enjoyed.”

Opening Day Action at Maple Leafs baseball game, 2 May 1923, from City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 583.

In addition to covering major news stories, like Victory in Europe Day, Boyd Jr. shot less historic events like the Miss Toronto pageant—for which he also served as a judge.

An innovator like his father, John H. Boyd kept abreast of changing technologies. He began, Landsdale notes, by using “bulky bellows cameras on a tripod or clumsy reflex graphics” in the 1920s but later started to use a three-and-a-quarter-inch by four-and-a-quarter-inch Graflex camera, which was smaller than the cameras most press photographers used. Boyd Jr.’s camera, Bruce West writes, was “a well-seasoned instrument, that looked as though it might have been used for driving nails or changing tires when it wasn’t taking pictures. [Boyd Jr.] took a great deal of pride in the battered appearance of his camera. Its scuffs and dents were battle honors, which marked its owner as a veteran and a professional.”

Motorcycle coming over top of hill, 10 April 1925, from City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 4945.

As Mike Filey and Victor Loring Russell note in From Horse Power to Horsepower (Dundurn Press, 1993), John H. Boyd was a founding member and early president of the Commercial and Press Photographers’ Association of Canada in 1947 (now known as the Professional Photographers of Canada).

John H. Boyd retired in 1964 and passed away on October 28, 1971, at the age of 73. Throughout his career, he had meticulously detailed his negatives and photographs in a series of log books—recording the subject and date—making his collection a valuable document of Toronto and Ontario’s 20th-century history. More than 100,000 of Boyd Jr.’s images, as well as the logbooks, live at the City of Toronto Archives.

Other sources consulted: the Globe and Mail of October 29, 1971; Andrea Kunard and Carol Payne, “Writing Photography in Canada: A Historiography,” in Payne and Kunard, eds., The Cultural Work of Photography in Canada (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011); and Randall White, Too Good To Be True: Toronto in the 1920s (Dundurn Press, 1993).

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

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