In one of Hannah Maynard’s photographs the viewer sees a Victorian room complete with heavy curtains, an elaborate chair and an ornate, full-length mirror. There are three portraits shown, with one hung on the wall and two set on a freestanding easel. Four figures populate the image. Hannah, herself, peers over to the group on the right, which includes another Hannah looking straight into the camera. Her grandson, Maynard MacDonald, is looking quizically to the centre of the portrait at a pallid bust of himself, armless, handless and cut straight across the torso.
While striking and odd, the photo is not unlike many of Hannah Maynard’s other works. The British Columbian photographer was a master of experimentation, exploring and pioneering elaborate techniques that gave her pieces an eerie, other-worldly quality. She was a woman ahead of her time, living on a west coast island far from the impressive studios of the world’s major cities. But still, she managed to create images that have not only endured, but are a very important piece of provincial history.
Born Hannah Hatherly in Bude, England in 1834, she would marry one Richard Maynard at the age of 18. The couple would emigrate to Ontario where Hannah would give birth to four of their five children. Eventually, Richard would head west to try his hand at gold prospecting, while Hannah stayed behind and taught herself the basics of photography. By 1862, the entire family was living on Vancouver Island and some time after, Hannah would open her own shop, a Mrs. R. Maynard’s Photographic Gallery.
As evidenced in the naming of her studio, the era was not one which favoured women’s independence or freedoms. Canadian women did not receive the right to vote until well into the twentieth century, with First Nations women’s (and men’s) suffrage that allowed them to keep their status coming even later. The fact that Hannah Maynard was a female entrepreneur, let alone one of the first professional photographers in the province, was something that stopped certain shortsighted residents from employing her services. Still, that didn’t impede her creativity and popularity.
Hannah’s husband, Richard--the shoemaker turned prospector turned photographer-- is actually said to have been the more well-known cameraperson in their day. The two would travel around the Pacific Northwest, capturing images of the landscape. But while his work was important, it was Hannah’s emphasis on artistry over documentation that has made her photos so unforgettable.
The Royal BC Museum and Archives contains a number of Hannah’s images, ranging from the traditional to the outright surreal. There is a portrait of a rather severe Hannah, standing beside a velvet, rollback chair, looking over her shoulder towards the camera. Then, you have photographs such as that depicting three Hannahs; two sitting at a pedestaled table taking tea, while another joins them from a picture frame hanging on the wall above. Additionally, there are images of Hannah as a marble-esque statue and further photos featuring her and her grandson interacting with their multiples.
Her exploration of such interesting and curious methods was certainly quite novel; experimenting with varying exposures, juxtaposition and cutting and pasting. While the artistic and cultural movement of Surrealism wouldn’t receive a public definition until after Hannah Maynard’s passing, it would seem that her photography reflected some of its practices. Editors at History.com state that “Surrealists [were] inspired by Sigmund Freud’s theories of dreams and the unconscious [and] believed insanity was the breaking of the chains of logic, and they represented this idea in their art by creating imagery that was impossible in reality.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art credits it with “evok[ing] the union of dream and reality.”
While there doesn’t seem to be any mention of Freud influencing Maynard’s photography, it has been said that her work often explored themes of life, death and infinity. She even dabbled in spiritualism--a movement associated with communicating with the dead through seance or medium. The practice saw some popularity during--and before and after--Hannah’s era. Canada’s tenth Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King was even revealed to partake in such spiritualistic activities, himself.
There is an undeniable element of eeriness or uncanniness in some of Maynard’s more daring work. Whether she meant it or not, the use of doubles or multiples is somewhat unsettling--even if her execution is quite beautiful--and dopplegängers themselves have their own folkloric ties to death. Two of Hannah’s children, Lillian and Emma, would die in her lifetime and it’s said that she was deeply affected by their passings. Still, it is difficult to know if her work was directly or indirectly tied to such macabre themes. One can just as easily see her pieces as "simple" exercises in true creativity and imagination.
On a lighter note, Maynard was known to adore children and aside from her more progressive photographs, she was also a seasoned portraitist. Some of her most favored work of the day included the Gems of British Columbia. Released semi-annually for some time, the pieces would depict many faces--sometimes hundreds--of the children who she had photographed in her studio. They were assembled together to create a wondrous display in what must have been painstakingly precise work.
Hannah Maynard would retire in 1912 and pass away only six years later. Buried at Victoria’s Ross Bay Cemetery, she leaves behind a legacy of work that dared to test the limits of reality, perception and artistry.